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This Is What Happens When a Pipeline Bursts in Your Town

Conflicted about Keystone? Consider the horrific impact of an oil spill in Arkansas.

AP Photo/Jeannie Nuss

Jason Thompson used to love fishing in the lake he can see from his window in Mayflower, Arkansas, but these days, when he throws a line out into the water, the lure he reels back is covered in a sour, stinking black tar, the skirt of the jig stuck uselessly together. When he brings the fingers that touched the line up to his nose, he gets a whiff of the same putrid stench that filled the air for weeks after the oil pipeline burst—the smell that still rises out of the ground every time it rains.

Thompson hasn’t been fishing much. Ever since Exxon Mobil’s Pegasus pipeline burst in March and spilled an estimated 210,000 gallons of Canadian heavy crude oil two miles from his house, he’s had headaches of preternatural intensity, so bad they wake him up in the middle of the night. He has nosebleeds, and hemorrhoids even though he’s only 36; there’s a rash on his neck that has only gotten worse in the eight months since the spill; and some days he feels so weak that he can hardly get out of bed. He estimates that he has lost almost 35 pounds since the rupture, falling from a fit 220 down to 185. When he went to see a doctor in April, he was told he has a mysterious spot on one lung—but he hasn’t been able to afford to go back.

Hundreds of people in this working-class town of 2,200 have complained of symptoms like Thompson’s. And their maladies—respiratory disorders, nausea, fatigue, nosebleeds, bowel issues, throbbing headaches—echo the ones that appeared in Marshall, Michigan, where an Enbridge Energy pipeline burst in 2010. The two pipelines were carrying the same kind of oil: a heavy crude, or bitumen, mined in the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, which is thicker and rawer than the oil extracted in the United States. This is also the oil that would flow in record quantities through the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, if President Barack Obama decides to approve it.

AP Photo/Jeannie Nuss
Crews work to clean up oil in Mayflower, days after a pipeline ruptured and spewed oil over lawns and roadways.

The Mayflower spill should alarm communities along Keystone’s proposed route. Experts believe it happened in part because the leaden crude from the Alberta tar sands erodes pipelines faster than the oil the U.S. is used to shipping: Bitumen is so thick, it has to be transported at higher pressures and temperatures, and it must be diluted with gas before it can flow, which can lead to violent pressure swings inside the pipeline. This new danger isn’t inspiring much caution in the energy industry, judging by the Associated Press's recent revelation that 300 spills have occurred in North Dakota alone in less than two years, and all were kept secret. On average, U.S. pipelines spilled over 3.1 million gallons a year between 2008 and 2012, according to the Pipeline & Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA). As for the Keystone project, Public Citizen released a report this month documenting over 125 patches, dents, and other worrisome anomalies in its southern half.

Likewise, in a report released November 6, PHMSA found that Exxon knew it was gambling when it repurposed the 65-year-old pipeline, which stretches 858 miles from Illinois to the Gulf Coast in Texas, in 2006. (Built to carry lighter oil from south to north, it was converted to carry tar sands crude from north to south.) Tests the company performed before reversing the line “provided more than adequate information for the pipe to be considered susceptible to seam failure,” PHMSA chided, and yet, “The operator failed to establish a five-year reassessment interval” for the section that ultimately burst on March 29, 2013. PHMSA’s assessment may have been scathing, but the fine it proposed is barely a slap on the wrist: just $2.6 million, or .0003 percent of the company’s $7.8 billion profit in just the third quarter of 2013. In other words, Exxon took a calculated risk, and the residents of Mayflower are paying the price. 

The day of the spill, Ann Jarrell’s daughter Jennifer called her, sobbing, from Jarrell’s house in Mayflower, where Jennifer was staying with her four-month-old son, Logan. “She said, 'We have to pack our bags, we have to go,'” remembers Jarrell. The caustic smell of bitumen was overwhelming. Jarrell called the Mayflower police department and asked if she needed to evacuate, but the officer said if she couldn’t see oil on her property, she would be fine. Over the weeks that followed, the family found themselves coughing and nauseous. Just like Thompson, Jarrell reports headaches that would wake her up at night, tears streaming down her face from the pain. But when she cornered an Exxon representative she spotted on the street, she says the woman told her the symptoms would pass in a few days.

It wasn’t until almost a month after the rupture that Jarrell heard about a community meeting, where environmentalists explained that she had been exposed to chemicals like benzene, a known carcinogen, and hydrogen sulfide, which causes respiratory illness. “I got hysterical,” she told me, her voice trembling at the memory even eight months later. “I called my daughter and said, you were right. We should have left.”

On the day of the spill, local emergency responders evacuated the neighborhood where the leak had occurred—where they could see oil running over people’s lawns and into their houses—and within 24 hours, had declared a danger zone of just 22 homes, which were evacuated. No one alerted the rest of Mayflower’s residents that they were breathing toxins, too. When community health activist April Lane, who lives 12 miles north of Mayflower, arrived in the town, she found residents out in the street watching the cleanup, just feet from the crude with no masks to protect them. “Not only were people not being evacuated, they were not even being told not to leave their homes,” she told me. “And I knew from my symptoms—immediate nausea, headaches—that it was going to be severe.” She spent the next several weeks going door to door, warning residents, and found time and again that no one from Exxon or the state had visited before her.

AP Photo/Log Cabin Democrat, Courtney Spradlin
This “oiled” duck was recovered near the Bell Slough State Wildlife Management Area in Mayflower and later taken to HAWK Center, a wildlife rehabilitation group assisting ExxonMobil after the spill.

“A mistake that was made—there’s blame to spread, including the state—is that we didn't evacuate that whole neighborhood, making mandatory some parts of it and optional other parts of it,” Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel has since told the Arkansas Times. (McDaniel, a Democrat, filed suit against Exxon in June.) “When you see people now who say, ‘I wasn't forced to leave so therefore I didn't leave and I wish that I had, because I didn't know how bad it was going to be,’ and now they're claiming that they have still headaches and respiratory distress, children with respiratory distress ... one lesson to take from this is you err on the side of caution and you expand the evacuation area. You can always send people back sooner.”

The Arkansas Department of Health defends its response to the spill. “We believe the response from ADH was handled adequately and appropriately,” spokesman Ed Barham told me in an email. He added that the agency published information about the health risks in the local media and on government websites, held meetings, and mailed a newsletter “to every address in Mayflower.” But residents describe calling the numbers on these PSAs only to be shuffled from one agency to another until they gave up. Officials point out that only about 35 people have called a poison control hotline ADH established after the spill; residents contest this is proof of the poor job the agency did publicizing the resource. Likewise, free health assessments ADH started offering in September have attracted less than two dozen people—in part, perhaps, because residents would have to appeal to Exxon for help affording any treatment the state examiners prescribe.

“No one was contacting us,” Jarrell said in summary. “No one was telling us anything.”

AP Photo/Jeannie Nuss
Oil covers the ground around a children's slide in Mayflower.

Unfortunately, the imbroglio in Mayflower isn’t out of the ordinary. “It seems to be common that local emergency responders don’t have adequate information,” said Wilma Subra, a MacArthur-winning environmentalist who has been working on the response to BP's Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and whom Lane brought to Mayflower. Since local police forces and officials are the only ones who can reach people in the first hours of a spill, when the chemical exposure is most intense, Subra has been traveling to towns along Keystone’s route, pushing for oil companies to educate the first responders who could be faced with one of their messes. In Mayflower, Subra said, some of the local authorities “didn’t know that the Pegasus pipeline was there, or what it was carrying.”

The bungle will hurt residents, not just by increasing their exposure to the oil, but also by obscuring information about its effects that could have been collected with more assiduous, early monitoring. Though much is known about most of the individual chemicals in tar sands crude, less is understood about how the over 1,000 components of the substance that spilled in Mayflower could be working in concert; and because the state has collected next to no data about the illnesses people are experiencing, said Subra, it will be that much harder to disentangle the effects of their short-term high-dose exposure versus long-term low-dose exposure versus other factors that influence people's health over the course of their lives. "The key question that people have—'Will I be affected 20 years later given my two-week exposure?'—is something no one can answer," Judi Krzyzanowski, an environmental consultant in Ontario, Canada, told InsideClimate News. "If people in Mayflower develop cancer five years from now, it will be nearly impossible to point a finger at the oil spill." 

On rainy days, Mayflower fills with the acrid stench of the tar sands, and residents can see oil slick filling their boot prints when they walk across their lawns. “There’s 'for sale' signs all over Mayflower,” Jarrell says. “It’s like a ghost town,” and the houses aren’t selling. Exxon has offered to buy out the 62 homes in the Northwoods subdivision, the neighborhood where the spill took place—but anyone downwind of Northwoods who would also like to move has to submit a claim that the company can choose to grant, or not, and Exxon spokesman Aaron Stryk told me the company has not bought any homes outside the subdivision. (Some of the buy-outs in Northwoods have occurred not because the owners wanted to move, but because Exxon needed to tear down a house to clean up the oil trapped in the foundation.) Residents have to use the same claims process for medical expenses, and they say Exxon is tightening the purse strings.

“I’m working to pay doctors right now,” says Jarrell, who is a computer software instructor. “I have not received one dime from Exxon.” She is insured through her employer (unlike the 18 percent of Arkansans who don’t have coverage), but she hit her $2,000 annual cap about a month after the spill and has been paying out of pocket ever since. She was logging her expenses with Exxon’s claims department, but she said they gave her “the run around”: She would call and give her information, then call back and find that no one had written it down. So, she hired an attorney. She hopes to figure out what to do about her house, which isn’t in the Northwoods subdivision, and which she can neither live in nor sell. For now, she moved in with a friend (Jennifer stayed with Jarrell’s son, then got her own apartment), but with the holidays approaching, she is mourning the lack of a place where her family could gather to celebrate Thanksgiving. 

AP Photo/Log Cabin Democrat, Courtney Spradlin
A member of ExxonMobil's cleanup crew is reflected in water and oil in a drainage ditch along State Highway 365.

Meanwhile, Jarrell’s doctor can’t figure out her intestinal issues, or why some of her hair fell out. Finding doctors who know how to treat chemical exposure is virtually impossible outside major metropolitan areas, a fact Subra said has exacerbated the impact of spills before Mayflower, including the BP disaster. When Jarrell’s daughter had “two seizure-like events”—she fell down and spasmed but never lost consciousness—the ER gave her muscle relaxants, and when her grandson developed a respiratory infection, Jarrell gave the doctor a list of the chemicals the baby had been exposed to, but the doctor said he didn't need it and diagnosed Logan with a cold. At one point, Logan was coughing up so much phlegm that Jennifer feared he would choke to death. After many more hospital visits and months of experimentation with his regimen, Logan, who is still shy of one year old, is finally down to a single inhaler.

Other Mayflower residents have also struggled to get the care they need—and to get Exxon to pay for it. Genieve Long told InsideClimate News that her four children—and especially her asthmatic five-year-old son—started having symptoms after the spill, but when she asked the company to pay for a hotel room, they refused, claiming air monitoring showed her home was safe. (I tried to interview Long for this article, but she felt too sick to talk the day I called. “All the medications I am on are causing me to not be as coherent,” she apologized in an email.) Exxon made that call according to levels of chemical saturation set by the ADH, which InsideClimate has reported are far too high. ADH set a threshold of 50 parts per billion for benzene, for example, even though the EPA has suggested that levels of 9 ppb or even lower may cause long-term harm. 

“We have continued to honor all valid claims,” Stryk wrote in an email when I related the struggles Mayflower residents described. “We have not denied continued medical treatment. Our claims personnel do ask for medical documentation and will make a decision based on that documentation.”

AP Photo/Danny Johnston
U.S. Rep. Tim Griffin, R-Ark., left, speaks with Dr. William Mason, associate director for science with the Arkansas Department of Health, during a visit to Mayflower in July 15.

Stryk says the company has spent approximately $70.5 million in Mayflower so far, and the bulk of the clean-up lies ahead; the company is working on its "remediation" proposal, which it will submit to the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ hasn't set a deadline for this because Exxon is still trying to ascertain contamination levels in the lake water and soil). The process promises to be lengthy: Oil spills are calamitous in general, but bitumen’s weight makes it particularly intractable. (Exxon is simultaneously examining miles of the Pegasus, trying to decide if it can eventually reactivate the aging apparatus.) ADEQ’s chief of hazardous waste, Tammie Hynum, assured me her agency will have the final say on Exxon's clean-up plan, and the company will cover the costs no matter what, but residents grumble that Exxon is calling the shots. The energy behemoth certainly has leverage in Arkansas state politics: Exxon gave between $500 and $1,000 each to 41 members of the state House and Senate in 2012, and has already given at least $6,000 to Mark Pryor, a Democratic Senator who has endorsed the Keystone pipeline, for his 2014 reelection campaign. The U.S. Representative for Mayflower, Republican Tim Griffin, returned the $2,500 he got from Exxon this year, but stayed silent on the thousands he has accepted in the past.

In the face of Exxon’s near-omnipotence, Mayflower residents have organized into a rabble of class action suits, most of them represented by one of the many personal injury lawyers who flooded the town after the pipeline burst. Jason Thompson is part of one of these class actions, represented by the Duncan Firm from Little Rock, and he told me he hasn’t heard from his attorney since the day the man showed up in Mayflower and asked to take his case. When Thompson calls, “he acts like he has no clue who I am.”

Thompson said he just wants Exxon to cover his medical expenses: The company paid about $1,700 for him and his girlfriend to get a battery of tests in April, a few weeks after the spill, and that’s when doctors told him about the spot on his lung. But when he submitted a claim to Exxon, they refused to pay for a follow-up, or for a safety deposit on an apartment outside Mayflower. Thompson is uninsured, and newly unemployed; he used to work in automobile repossession, but he took too much time off because he was sick, and got replaced. He fell behind on payments for his prized Jaguar, and before long it was his car that had been repossessed.

When I spoke with Thompson Sunday, it was his last night in his home: He and his girlfriend were evicted from their rental. “I’ve lost everything that I own,” he told me. But his main concern is finding a way to get back to the doctor: He’s afraid he has cancer. “I don’t want to die,” said Thompson, who has four kids, ages eight through sixteen. “I don’t want to be sick the whole time my kids are growing up.”

Thompson moved to town a year before the oil spill, and had planned on staying awhile. "I lived on the lake, and I loved it,” he said. “Now, I hate this place more than you can imagine. Just the sight of Mayflower makes me physically sick.”