Victims of last pipeline disaster forgotten as North America races to build new ones


What does it take to get people’s attention these days? How about blowing up a cornfield in rural Illinois and sending bright orange flames shooting 300 feet into the prairie sky? Folks who live for miles around the small town of Erie, Ill., were treated to that unexpected nighttime fireworks show this past Monday night, courtesy of a Texas company with the bland name of Enterprise Products Partners. Their “enterprise,” it turns out, is shipping fossil fuels such as ethane and propane across America. They have no idea why their underground pipeline suddenly blew up.

The story wasn’t even big news — just a couple of paragraphs that maybe ran in a handful of newspapers and then disappeared, like flames across the evening sky. It’s been that kind of summer. The sharp rise in North American production of oil and gas, a massive binge that comes a few years after even the consummate oilman politician George W. Bush conceded that America is addicted to fossil fuels, has meant that a record amount of energy is criss-crossing the continent. And accidents are rising sharply. Maybe one reason this little pipeline mishap in Illinois didn’t get much attention is that it was just a few weeks ago that a runaway train of oil tanker cars exploded and killed 50 people in a small Quebec town.

The big picture is that these pipeline and other fuel transportation disasters are creating a string of mini — or arguably in some cases not so mini — Deepwater Horizon disasters across the United States and Canada. As is so often the case with environmental catastrophes, our ADD-addled news media usually has moved onto the next headline, leaving local residents behind to cope with a situation that gets worse before it gets better. That’s certainly been the case in the small community of Mayflower, Arkansas, where ExxonMobil’s Pegasus pipeline ruptured in late March, sending thousands of barrels of crude oil from the Canadian tar sands cascading into a residential neighborhood and a nearby lake.

The cause of the pipeline has never been fully explained. In recent weeks, the Arkansas Times and Inside Climate News, the small non-profit that recently was awarded a Pulitzer Prize, have been investigating what really happened in Mayflower, and they are finding troubling health consequences

The people who live on the wrong side of the fence that separates homes in Northwoods from the rest of the neighborhood were left to fend for themselves. The Exxon employee who talked to Jarrell might not have been so wrong: Low-level exposure likely would have been a mere nuisance. But that sharp early exposure to the airborne chemicals might’ve triggered nasty respiratory and digestive symptoms — especially in people who have weaker immune systems. By the time Jarrell and other neighbors got a full account of what they’d been exposed to, the damage was largely done. Now they’re stuck with the bills, the uncertainty, and because their exposure has been underplayed, a persistent stigma that they’re opportunists looking to exploit Exxon in court. Because who needs to strike oil when you can just strike benzene?

Except that road is an unpleasant one. Jarrell had been suffering headaches for about a month before the oil erupted — a sign, she said, that the 67-year-old pipeline could have been leaking aromatics before it burst wide open — and those only intensified after the spill. It was a month before the community meeting where she first learned the pipe contained more than oil. She and her daughter fled with the baby. Jarrell has remained persistently sick with headaches and nausea; in June her doctor ordered an MRI because her aberrant thyroid levels were consistent with a brain tumor. (It came back negative.) The baby, now almost 8 months old, was diagnosed with a respiratory infection and now uses a steroid inhaler twice daily. His immune response is out of whack. He developed a 102-degree fever after a mosquito bit him. His family is scared witless.

“The oil went to the lake,” Jarrell said. “But the toxic fumes came to us.”

I strongly urge you to read the entire article. It’s richly reported and densely written, but the broad picture it paints is a community under assault from airborne toxins and carcinogens, with little understanding from state and local health officials and a typical lack of concern from ExxonMobil and the higher governmental authorities. What has happened this year in Arkansas is a public health tragedy, and indications are that these kind of tragedies are going to become more frequent.

The Obama administration continues to send mixed signals about whether it will sign off on the Keystone XL pipeline that will sharply increase the flow of Canadian tar sands oil across the United States en route to foreign markets — and that is just one manifestation of the recent rise of fossil fuel transportation…and fossil fuel transportation accidents. We are just now learning the extent to which pipelines, including older, aging ones like Pegasus, are poorly regulated — with disastrous consequences. Instead of approving Keystone XL, the government should be drafting better pipeline and rail-safety regs, and looking for ways to cure the world’s incurable addiction to oil and natural gas.

To learn more about the pipeline accident in Illinois, please read:

Please read the Arkansas Times/Inside Climate News expose at:

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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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