By Roy Ockert
Most disturbing of the many allegations in a lawsuit filed jointly last week by Arkansas and the federal government in the Mayflower pipeline rupture is that the oil companies responsible for the disaster continue to risk further property damage and public health in defiance of state officials.
The lawsuit was filed against ExxonMobil Pipeline Co. and Mobil Pipeline Co., alleging violations of state and federal pollution laws resulting from the March 29 rupture and oil spill at Mayflower.
The amount of Canadian tar sands oil spilled from the Pegasus Pipeline is disputed. One lawsuit alleges that it was more than 10,000 barrels (a barrel is 42 gallons), but Exxon says it was "only" 3,500 barrels — or some 147,000 gallons. Regardless of who’s right, that’s a lot of oil.
The rupture of the pipeline, buried two feet under ground, spewed thousands of gallons of the messy stuff all over streets and yards in Mayflower’s Northwoods subdivision and nearby wetlands, as well as a cove of Lake Conway. Occupants of 22 houses were evacuated, and none have been able to return. Foul-smelling air still hangs over the entire subdivision of 63 houses.
Since March 29 ExxonMobil employees and contractors have been working diligently to clean up the mess, much easier said than done. Crude oil clings to whatever it touches; cleanup means removing both the oil and the dirt, water, vegetation, pavement, animals, birds, fish, insects or whatever else has been touched.
The question is what to do with the contaminated substances, and the sheer volume leaves no easy answers. (Wildlife officials have attempted, with limited success, to save the living creatures affected.)
The oil company’s answer was to establish a site east of Conway — at 322 Arkansas Highway 36 to be specific. There, according to the U.S.-Arkansas lawsuit, the company has taken soils, oily debris, wood chips, mud, concrete and oil-water mixture wastes.
The lawsuit points out that Arkansas law prohibits the storing, collection, transporting, treating or disposing of any hazardous waste without a permit and alleges that no permit has been requested or issued.
The Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality notified the oil companies on May 1 to remove the hazardous materials from the Highway 36 site within seven days. Despite all the negative national attention ExxonMobile has received as a result of the Mayflower spill, the companies continue to flaunt state law.
"To store this material without following the law in advance and then not remove it upon being demanded to do so, we felt was particularly concerning," Attorney General Dustin McDaniel said in announcing the lawsuit.
ADEQ Director Teresa Marks noted that a natural disaster like a tornado could spread the contaminated materials.
The storage issue is one of six major allegations in the Arkansas-U.S. lawsuit, and the others directly address the primary damages to the Mayflower neighborhood where the pipeline ruptured. The state is seeking a declaratory judgment against the defendants for payment of removal costs and damages, plus various civil penalties.
U.S. Attorney Chris Thyer of Jonesboro said the federal government’s interest is related to the Clean Water Act, which provides for a civil penalty of up to $1,100 per barrel of oil discharged, or up to $4,300 per barrel if gross negligence or willful misconduct was involved.
This lawsuit doesn’t affect the cases filed by Mayflower residents, many of whom not only allege property losses but also health problems such as headaches and nausea in the aftermath.
For those of us who don’t live in the affected Mayflower neighborhood, it’s easy to tire of such a story three months later. After all, 22 homes is a small number, and we so want cheap gas and oil. Oil company executives consider such incidents to be a small cost of doing big business.
But we must insist that they do their jobs well and protect the public safety to the best of their ability. The evidence indicates that wasn’t done here.
U.S. Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., a member of the House Natural Resources Committee, announced in a news release Friday that ExxonMobil took four extra minutes to shut off the supply of crude oil after the rupture occurred. That’s because, he said, the company was relying on an unapproved response plan instead of the 2009 plan still in effect.
That doesn’t sound like much time, but it was enough to add thousands of gallons of oil to the problem. The new plan increases the expected response time.
This small community in Faulkner County happened to be the site of the rupture and oil spill, but it could have occurred in any of the 12 counties of Arkansas that the pipeline passes through. It enters the state in Randolph County, runs through Lawrence and Independence counties, on to more populous areas of Faulkner, Pulaski and Garland counties, then leaves Arkansas in Little River County.
Everyone else along the way should consider themselves lucky. Pegasus was built in the 1940s and expanded to 20 inches in 2009 to carry 90,000 barrels of oil a day. Yet it’s small compared to the proposed Keystone XL project, which would be a 36-inch pipeline carrying up to 830,000 barrels.
Thankfully, that one won’t run through Arkansas.
Roy Ockert is editor emeritus of The Jonesboro Sun. He may be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.