Exxon Didn’t Know Its Pipeline Ruptured Until Called by Arkansas Authorities. Or Did It?

Police transcripts show Exxon employees arrived on the scene an hour after the emergency was first reported by a resident dialing 911.

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As residents and local officials of Mayflower, Ark. were scrambling to evacuate homes and protect their treasured fishing lake from a river of heavy oil pouring through their town on Good Friday afternoon, ExxonMobil, the company responsible for the accident, didn’t know what was happening.

A 22-foot gash had opened up in its oil pipeline that cut through the Arkansas town, 450 miles from its headquarters in Houston, and the people were in a sudden uproar. In the emergency response, dispatchers called Exxon and informed them of the unfolding disaster, and company employees arrived on the scene an hour after the emergency was first reported to local authorities.

That is the picture that emerges from transcripts of 911 police reports obtained by InsideClimate News from the Faulkner County Sheriff’s Office.

Police transcripts show that Jennifer Dement of 50 Starlite Road North was the first to report the oil spill at 2:44 p.m. on March 29.

“Caller adv that a pipe busted and oil is spilling throughout the neighborhood!!” the first entry says. From there, the transcripts show in terse entries how the emergency unfolded.

At the time of the initial calls, no one yet knew that it was Exxon’s 65-year-old Pegasus pipeline running from Illinois to Texas that had burst or that it was Canadian heavy oil that was flowing down the streets. Nor did they know that to make the heavy oil flow through the pipeline, producers dilute it with toxic chemicals that evaporate when released into the environment, endangering the health and lives of people who inhale the fumes.

Within three minutes, three responders were dispatched to the scene, including the Mayflower Volunteer Fire Department. By 2:59 p.m., 15 minutes after the rupture was discovered, homes were being evacuated, and the transcripts note “the oil is spreading fast … storm drain is backed up.”

Ten minutes later, the hazardous materials team from the nearby town of Conway was contacted to help with containment of the spill, which was heading toward Lake Conway, a 6,700 acre man-made reservoir nine-tenths of a mile away from the accident. Heavy oil— ultimately at least 200,000 gallons and as many as 420,000 gallons—was still pouring through the tear in the pipeline and through the town.

It wasn’t until 3:19 p.m. that the transcripts record first contact with Exxon.

“Exxon Mobil contacted and enroute/30 minute eta,” the transcript notes.

Exxon company responders arrived within 24 minutes, and at 3:46 p.m. Exxon told local officials that they had shut off the pipe.

Responders kept arriving, railroads were backed up, and at 5:00 p.m. it began to drizzle, complicating the response.   

The transcripts provide the first glimpse of how the pipeline rupture was discovered and how quickly it upended the lives of residents of the small Arkansas town of 2,200 people.

“That afternoon, we heard lots of sirens—and of course, you know being a small town, everybody wants to know what all the sirens are about—and then we started getting phone calls,” Becky Naylor, a seventh generation resident of Mayflower told Living on Earth in a radio interview. “Everybody around, all the neighbors started calling one another and letting ’em know they’ve had a break in the pipeline that runs through the back.

“It look likes black mud. It’s horrible. The smell is horrendous. … On the days that it’s not raining, and it gets a little warm, it’ll almost take your breath away.”

Exxon has maintained a studied silence on the events of the day, noting in press releases and communications with federal investigators that the company shut off the pipeline within 16 minutes of learning of the spill.

And while police reports indicate that Exxon found out about the spill when the company was notified by local officials, other documents suggest that the company may have known something was wrong hours earlier.

Exxon told the federal National Response Center that it saw a problem on the line at 1:15 p.m. when it spotted a drop in pressure, an hour and a half before the first 911 call reached the Faulkner County sheriff. The National Response Center is a division of the U.S. Coast Guard. Pipeline operators must notify the NRC of oil or chemical spills. Exxon placed that first call to the NRC at 4:06 p.m. local time, about 20 minutes after its responders arrived on the scene in Mayflower.

Two hours after filing that first report with the NRC, however, Exxon filed a second report reporting the time of the incident as 3:20 p.m. In a third report to the NRC the next day, Exxon again reported “the incident was discovered” at 1:15 p.m.

In an interview on Wednesday, Larry Hawthorne, the Exxon field regulatory specialist who made the first call to the National Response Center, said NRC made a “mistake” when it listed 1:15 p.m. He said the report should have said 3:15 p.m., because that’s when an Exxon employee confirmed the spill on the ground. The police transcripts say Exxon did not arrive on the scene until 3:43 p.m.

Chris Mattice, an NRC senior watch officer, checked audio recordings of the calls on Wednesday night and told InsideClimate News the “reports as they are written are consistent with the audio recordings on file.”

InsideClimate News has asked Exxon to clarify when it first learned of the pipeline rupture, and how: whether by noticing a drop in pressure in the line from its own monitoring systems at 1:15 p.m., as the NRC incident report documents, or from the call that came from Mayflower at 3:19 p.m.

Exxon’s second incident report to the National Response Center also says the release of oil lasted for three hours, and Exxon has been asked when that three-hour period began and ended.

“I will get this into the proper person for public information,” Hawthorne said.

Five hours later, Exxon added a post to its blog website that tells a new story. The company says it first detected a pressure drop in the line at 2:37 p.m. and initiated a full shutdown of the pipeline that was completed within 16 minutes. The company also writes that “emergency response personnel were on the ground in Mayflower within 30 minutes after the leak was detected,” which would put company employees at the scene at 3:07 p.m.

Police transcripts say they arrived at 3:43 p.m. after being called at 3:19 p.m.

Exxon did not respond directly to InsideClimate News before publication.

The sequence of events in Mayflower is similar to the 2010 Enbridge pipeline rupture in Michigan that sent more than a million gallons of Canadian dilbit into the Kalamazoo River.

This accident in Mayflower also involved heavy Canadian oil from Alberta’s tar sands region. As in Kalamazoo, too, the company responsible, in this case Exxon, confirmed the rupture of their pipeline not from its own safety and monitoring systems, but from a phone call that came in from authorities on the ground in Mayflower, the police transcripts indicate.

The Exxon oil spill in Arkansas once again brings to the forefront issues of pipeline safety as President Obama weighs a decision on permitting the controversial Keystone XL pipeline that would bisect the nation from Canada to Texas. If built, TransCanada’s Keystone would carry almost ten times more Canadian heavy oils and dilbit than the Exxon pipeline that burst in Mayflower. It would also be buried in the Ogallala aquifer, one of the largest and most important sources of fresh water for drinking and agriculture in the nation.

It is not an easy task for pipeline operators in control rooms hundreds of miles away to identify leaks and ruptures from digital data flowing in from many kinds of sensors on the line. Even if an alarm is triggered, analysts examine the data to determine the cause. Frequently, for example, it can be merely an air bubble in the line—what is called “column separation.”

In 2010, Enbridge control room operators ignored 16 alarms in their control room as Line 6B was leaking heavy oil in Michigan. They restarted the pipeline twice, not realizing their line had a rupture, and it took 17 hours before the company learned of the spill from a local utility worker calling into the emergency line. It was the worst oil disaster of its kind in U.S. history.

The National Transportation Safety Board criticized Enbridge Energy Partners, the pipeline’s operator, for “a complete breakdown of safety” in a report that took two years to complete.

An InsideClimate News examination of 10 years of federal data shows that leak detection systems do not provide as much protection as the public has been led to believe.

Between 2002 and July 2012, remote sensors detected only 5 percent of the nation’s pipeline spills, according to data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA). The general public reported 22 percent of the spills during that period. Pipeline company employees at the scenes of accidents reported 62 percent. A federal report completed two months later reached similar conclusions.

The people of Mayflower provide a living example of the report’s findings. Now, there is even lore emerging around a local hero named Jimmy Joe Johnson, an employee of the city Street Department. His quick thinking in particular, it seems, saved the town’s much-beloved Lake Conway from receiving a sudden flood of Canadian heavy oil.

“Thank god for the people that are on our city council, our mayor and our county judge. They’re all from this area. They know where the creeks went, and where they come out at, and where they were heading toward the lake,” Becky Naylor said in her radio interview. 

“And Jimmy Joe Johnson automatically told ’em, ‘hey this is gonna hit the out right over here by the side of the lake if we don’t get to it.’ So in 10 minutes, they were dumping sand and gravel to block it to keep from going into Lake Conway.”

Below is a detailed timeline of the events surrounding the Arkansas spill, based on the transcripts of 911 police reports, federal documents available so far and Exxon statements. All times have been converted to local time, CDT.

Friday, March 29, 2013

1:15 p.m.—ExxonMobil discovers a drop in pressure in its Pegasus pipeline, according to its first report to the National Response Center, which it filed at 4:06 p.m. that afternoon. The “reporting party” was Larry Hawthorne, an Exxon field regulatory specialist in Houston, Texas.

2:44 p.m.—The first 911 call comes in from Jennifer Dement of 50 Starlite Road North in the North Woods neighborhood of Mayflower, Ark. According to sheriff’s records, “a pipe busted and oil is spilling throughout the neighborhood!!” A 911 dispatcher notifies local emergency agencies.

2:59 p.m.—Local emergency personnel begin evacuating homes. Transcripts note that “the oil is spreading fast … storm drain is backed up.”

Approx. 2:54 p.m.—Exxon completely shuts down all of the pumps on the pipeline system, according to an Apr. 10 blog by the company.

3:07 p.m.—Exxon arrives at the scene of the spill, according to the blog post.

3:09 p.m.—Police report that the “oil is leaking towards Conway Lake.” A fire hazmat team from nearby Conway, Ark. is called in to help contain the oil.

3:12—Mayflower Volunteer Fire Department arrives at the scene.

3:16 p.m.—A 911 dispatcher calls Exxon and alerts the company to the situation. Records say the estimated time of arrival would be 30 minutes. Faulkner County Judge Allen Dodson is also en route to the scene.

3:26 p.m.—Police notifies the Mayflower school district about the spill. Dispatcher says, “children coming into North Woods subdivision will not be allowed.”

3:43 p.m.—Exxon arrives at the scene, according to sheriff’s office records.

3:46 p.m.—Exxon tells police they have shut off the pipeline, according to the sheriff’s office.

4:06 p.m.—ExxonMobil Pipeline representative Larry Hawthorne reports the incident to the National Response Center, a branch of the U.S. Coast Guard that pipeline companies must notify after oil spills. Hawthorne tells the NRC that Exxon had a pressure drop on the pipeline and that an unknown amount of crude had spilled.

4:11 p.m.—The National Response Center notifies 16 local, state and federal emergency and environmental agencies of the spill, including Environmental Protection Agency Region VI.

4:30 p.m.—Members of the media start showing up at the spill site.

5:33 p.m.—Representatives from the EPA’s Region VI head to the spill.

6:04 p.m.—Exxon Mobil Pipeline representative Thad Massengale, also in Houston, updates the National Response Center about the spill, according to a second report the company files with the NRC. Massengale lists the start time of the leak as 3:20 p.m., which is 36 minutes after the first 911 calls were made and more than two hours after the company originally said it detected a pressure drop on the pipeline.

Approx. 6:20 p.m.—Leakage stopped, according to Massengale’s report to the NRC. The report states that the “release duration” was three hours.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

3:00 a.m.—A report from the EPA’s Region VI office contradicts Massengale’s report. It says the pipeline didn’t stop until “approximately 0300 hours (3:00 a.m.) on 30 March 201,” a detail Exxon confirms in its Apr. 10 blog post.

3:25 a.m.—An unnamed Exxon representative files a third report with the National Response Center. It reverts back to the original time, noting that the “incident was discovered” at 1:15 p.m.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

3:05 p.m.—A police officer lends ExxonMobil a set of jumper cables out of his car so the company could keep the equipment running, according to the sheriff’s office records.