The utility that supplies water to most of central Arkansas has been concerned for years about an oil pipeline that runs through the Lake Maumelle watershed. Now, spurred by a March 29 rupture on the line, it wants ExxonMobil to move the line out of its management area.
"It's not a new issue to us," said John Tynan, watershed protection manager for Central Arkansas Water. "We've been working to mitigate the [pipeline's] risks, recognizing that the only way to eliminate the risks is to move the pipeline out of the watershed ... It's one of those things that's been ever-present in terms of options."
As the cleanup in Arkansas continues, residents of Nebraska are watching from afar and worrying about the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry Canadian crude across the Ogallala aquifer that supplies most of their irrigation and drinking water.
On Sunday, the anti-Keystone group Bold Nebraska launched an online petition asking federal officials to deny the Keystone permit. The Obama administration is expected to approve or reject the pipeline this summer.
"As Arkansas officials plan to ask ExxonMobil to move the Pegasus Pipeline away from the Lake Maumelle Watershed in the wake off a tar sands spill, Nebraskans are circulating a similar petition...to stop the proposed Keystone XL pipeline that still crosses the Ogallala Aquifer—one of the country's largest sources of freshwater," they wrote.
Bold Nebraska director Jane Kleeb said her group started the petition to express solidarity with the residents of Arkansas. The spill in Mayflower sent more than 200,000 gallons of oil through the small town and surrounding streams, forcing the evacuation of 22 homes.
"Our water is sacred and the backbone of our local economies," Kleeb said in an email. "No tar sands pipelines should risk this lifeblood...Our water sources should all be classified as 'avoidance areas.'"
Central Arkansas Water is focused on the safety of the Lake Maumelle watershed, which serves 400,000 people, including the city of Little Rock. The watershed's primary source of water is man-made Lake Maumelle, a 8,900-acre reservoir.
No part of the watershed was affected by the Exxon oil spill, which occurred about eight miles away.
Still, Central Arkansas Water wants the line moved.
About 13 miles of the pipeline pass through the lake's watershed, so Tynan said the utility has a "heightened awareness" of the spill's effects.
Utility employees are drafting letters asking Exxon to dig up and move the 13.5-mile segment of pipeline out of the watershed, Tynan said. The utility's board of commissioners has already discussed how best to approach the issue with Exxon, and the board will meet again on Thursday to discuss its request.
"It's raising these issues and concerns we've had for some time," Tynan said in an interview last week in the utility's boardroom. Stretched across one wall was a huge map of the watershed that depicts the pipeline as a red line skirting the northern edge of Lake Maumelle.
An ExxonMobil spokesman said he could not immediately respond to questions about the utility's request, because the company is focused on the Mayflower cleanup and response.
This isn't the first time Central Arkansas Water has asked that the pipeline be moved.
Lake Maumelle was built in 1957 on top of the pipeline, which was constructed about a decade earlier. In 1958, the utility reached an agreement with Magnolia Pipeline Company, which owned the line at the time, to move it out of the lake.
But over the years, the utility continued to worry about the line's proximity to its water source. In some areas, the Pegasus runs just 600 feet from the edge of the lake. It also crosses the lake's tributaries at least four times.
The utility partnered with Exxon to install a storage facility with booms on the lake's north shore, and it's setting up a mobile response unit—a trailer that holds oil spill response equipment—which can be quickly deployed to the site of a spill. The utility staff also patrols the pipeline's right of way on foot or in a vehicle once a year.
Tynan said ExxonMobil runs its own pipeline patrols through the watershed at least once a week. There is one shut-off valve along the pipeline in the watershed, he said, and the company has told the utility it plans to add a second valve as an extra precaution.
But none of these steps can eliminate the pipeline's risk to the watershed, Tynan said.
The Pegasus line carries diluted bitumen, or dilbit, from Canada's tar sands region, and that, too, has added to the utility's concerns. In 2010, a million-gallon dilbit spill in Michigan's Kalamazoo River proved difficult to clean up when the heavy oil in the dilbit sank into the riverbed. Nearly three years later, that cleanup still isn't over.
Tynan said the utility is aware of the complications that could result if dilbit reached one of the lakes or streams in the watershed.
"Certainly in light of recent events...that is something that is on our radar," he said. "There's been some discussion about the type of oil that's being transported and whether it will float or sink. Obviously that's something we need to adapt to be able to respond to."
While the utility prepares to formally request that ExxonMobil move the pipeline, it has asked the company to keep it updated on the cleanup in Mayflower. It has also requested that any pipeline maintenance and integrity tests being done on the Mayflower portion of the pipeline be done on the section that passes through the Lake Maumelle watershed.
Arkansas Now Part of Keystone Debate
The Arkansas spill has fueled arguments on both side of the Keystone XL debate. Pipeline opponents say the Arkansas spill demonstrates the risks of approving Keystone, which would transport up to 830,000 barrels of oil a day—nearly 10 times the capacity of the 65-year old Pegasus line.
But Keystone's supporters say the Keystone will reduce the risk posed by the nation's aging pipeline infrastructure, because it would be a brand new pipeline equipped with state-of-the-art technology.
The age of the pipeline provides an easy target, said Richard Kuprewicz, president of the pipeline-consulting firm Accufacts Inc. But that focus is "factually wrong" because the quality of a pipeline's maintenance—not just a pipeline's age—determines whether it's safe or not, he said.
"I can give you examples of new pipelines—multi-billion dollar projects—with no quality control, and they're junk. And there are pipes that are 40 to 50 years old, and the operators are doing all the right things, and they're better than new," Kuprewicz said.
"Steel pipe technically doesn't wear out. If you maintain the integrity and reassess [the risks], it will take a lot of abuse and pressure. But if you don't identify or deal with a certain threat, then the pipe can fail."
Little information is available about the Pegasus line's maintenance history. The results of its last in-line inspection, conducted in February, are still being analyzed. A spokesman for the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, the federal regulator, said the inspection data will help inform the agency's investigation of the spill.
Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel has launched a separate investigation of the incident. Last Thursday, McDaniel issued a subpoena ordering ExxonMobil to provide his office with inspection reports and other documents connected with the pipeline's maintenance and history.