Arkansas spill is like Deepwater Horizon on land


Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A large global oil company ignores basic safety protocols, and a major accident ensues. From practically the first news report, this icon of Big Oil works to downplay the extent of the spill and to minimize the risk to citizens — often despite clear visual evidence to the contrary. And government regulators bend over backwards to represent the interests of the oil giant over the interests of the people, overlooking evidence of widespread pollution.

Yes, this is the story that we’ve been following for more than three years on ths blog, the story of BP’s Deepwater Horizon catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico. But sadly, when it comes to Big Oil, history too often repeats. This is also the saga of the ExxonMobil Pegasus pipeline accident near Mayflower, Ark., a mishap that occurred two months ago and significantly polluted a residential neighborhood as well as an environmentally sensitive lake, even as both ExxonMobil and Arkansas regulators continue  to deny the full impact.

Unfortunately, too much of the media has moved on to other stories. However, the Huffington Post went back to Mayflower this week and filed an excellent report on an environmental tragedy:

More than two months after ExxonMobil’s 65-year-old Pegasus pipeline burst and spewed a gusher of thick Canadian tar sands oil through Mayflower, AR, and into a marsh on Lake Conway–the state’s most popular fishing spot–residents are still complaining of health problems and are worried about poisonous impacts on wildlife and the environment. Many locals and some scientists have little faith in the continuous rosy assurances from Exxon and the Unified Command that testing results show the environment is safe and that tar sands oil has not contaminated the lake.  

These include Mayflower residents Christina and Michael Seville, who were looking forward to visits this summer from grandkids at their modest home on Lake Conway. Their lives were suddenly turned upside down by the release of an estimated 200,000 gallons of noxious Canadian tar sands crude, much of which ended up in the marshy cove portion of Lake Conway near their home. They complain of constant headaches and coughs that have persisted since the spill occurred just before Easter, ailments they blame on the jet black tar sands crude that snaked through culverts past a shopping center and under the Interstate into the marsh on Lake Conway. 

“We can’t have our grandkids over to visit anymore,” Christina says. “They’re covering up what’s really going on. There are fewer squirrels, birds, and ducks than we normally see around here. Fish are not jumping in the water and they’re not catching anything around here. It’s not like it used to be.”

State officials insist air and water testing shows toxic contamination levels near the lake are safe and that most of the oil has been cleaned up. But that’s cold comfort to many who live near there. Marianne Wyckoff, who lives on the lake near the crude-contaminated marsh, says many near her don’t buy into official statements that everything is just fine. She doubts they can remove the tarry oil that is buried in the wetlands and has washed into the lake waters with every major rain. “It seems like a big cover-up and everyone is paid off,” she says. “It’s getting hot and the oil is bubbling up out of the cove after torrential rains. The smell seems to be getting worse at times when it gets hot. My headaches have been coming back.”

The reality is that independent air and water tests — i.e., not by the state — have shown that the water column of the lake is contaminated by pollutants bearing the markings of the Canadian tar sands oil. Wilam Subra, the chemist from here in Louisiana, is now working closely with the local residents, and she told the Huffington Post that she’s very worried about long-term health effects for those where were exposed to the oil as it coursed through the community. She said: “We’ve seen this story before.”

Yes, we have. Hopefully, we as a society will learn from some of our past mistakes. The negative impacts of the Arkansas spill will be writ large if the Obama administration OKs the pending Keystone XL pipelike and if a comparable mishap occurs. From the waters of the Gulf to the bluffs of Arkanas, we’ve learned that neither corporate responsibility nor government vigilance is protecting us right now.

To read the complete Huffington Post article about the aftermath of the Arkansas spill, please go to:

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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