Exxon Oil Spill Cleanup in Path of Severe Weather, Maybe a Tornado

As the weather turns nasty, Exxon spent part of Tuesday deploying additional boom to prevent oil from moving further towards the main body of Lake Conway.

National Weather Service Exxon Spill
A line of intense wind or thunderstorms will push its way east across Arkansas on Wednesday, followed by heavy rain, according to the National Weather Service. Tornadoes are also possible. The bad weather could further complicate cleanup of Exxon's oil spill in the town of Mayflower. Credit: National Weather Service

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As severe storms and possibly tornadoes prepare to tear through central Arkansas, workers who are cleaning up an ExxonMobil pipeline break that spilled oil through the town of Mayflower are rushing to lay more boom and safeguard equipment.

Starting early Wednesday, Mayflower and the surrounding region will likely experience damaging winds of up to 40 miles an hour and receive as much as 3 to 4 inches of rain, according to the National Weather Service. There is a high probability of flash floods since vegetation is just beginning to bloom and groundwater levels are high.

Federal meteorologists say the storm front could also spawn a few tornados.

“As of right now, work is on schedule for tomorrow,” Exxon spokeswoman Kim Jordan told InsideClimate News.

In an attempt to prevent the strong winds and flash floods from dispersing the spilled crude further into surrounding ecosystems, Exxon spent part of Tuesday deploying additional boom, with much of it laid in a cove that flows into Lake Conway, a fishing area that spans 6,700 acres. The boom, together with earthen dams, have been serving as a line of defense for the popular lake.

Jordan said cleanup crews have also tied down equipment and have arranged for emergency shelter to which cleanup workers can escape from the dangerous weather.

The oil spill cleanup is in its 12th day. The March 29 rupture on the Pegasus pipeline, which runs from Illinois to Texas, sent more than 200,000 gallons of Canadian heavy crude through the North Woods neighborhood of Mayflower.

The spill has fouled properties and forced the evacuation of 22 homes. Oil has pooled in nearby woodlands and in the cove that flows into Lake Conway and has harmed wildlife. According to Exxon, 23 ducks, a nutria and five turtles have died so far as a result of the damage. Several dozen other animals have been rescued and released or are still being cleaned.

The U.S. Environmental Protection has identified the spill as a “major” incident.

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The agency has said as many as 7,000 barrels, or 294,000 gallons, have leaked out of the pipeline. Exxon estimates that 5,000 barrels, or 210,000 have spilled.

In the initial days after the spill, torrential rains also complicated cleanup operations. First responders set up earthen dams to contain the flow of oil, and crews were forced to shore up the protections out of concern that the rains would carry some of the oil towards Lake Conway.

Jordan of Exxon said the company is eager for the bad weather to end, so they can clean up the spill more quickly.

“Good weather is always better,” she said.