Arkansas, Texas towns poisoned with pools of oil

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The rupture in the ExxonMobil-owned Pegasus pipeline, which sent a deluge of tarsands oil through the Arkansas town of Mayflower, is worse than previously thought. The gash is 22 feet long and two inches wide, workers observed, and has released between 200,000 and 420,000 gallons of oil since March 29. Meanwhile in West Columbia, Texas, a pipeline owned by Royal Dutch Shell burst, unleashing 30,000 gallons of oil. Some of that has now entered a waterway that connects to the Gulf of Mexico. So what, many ask, are these big oil companies doing about it?

Well, for one, ExxonMobil is making things difficult. The oil giant has established a no-fly zone above the affected area in Arkansas. They have also restricted media access - any reporters or observers must ask ExxonMobil's permission before even approaching the area.

Cleanup crews have recovered about 28,000 barrels of what they call "oily water," as well as contaminated soil and debris. But other than that, the company is very much restricting how much information is released - even the exact amount of spilled oil.

State attorney general Dustin McDaniel, a Democrat, has vowed to hold ExxonMobil accountable for this, and says that the oil company is responsible for footing the bill for the cleanup, rather than pushing it off on the government. "I think when most people found out there was a rupture and [it was] a 65 year-old pipeline, I think almost everybody assumed there was some small crack due to age," he said. "But the rupture was 22 feet long. [That's] not something one would think would happen gradually. So now we're starting to ask all new questions."

This is "heavy tarsands crude," he added. "There are obviously a lot of chemicals that are incorporated into the product. I need to know what those are." To acquire such important information, he has demanded ExxonMobil turn over investigative reports, inspection reports, photos, videos, and other data. "We don't know what the solvents are," he explained. "I still want to know, and I don't know if they've included that in what they've provided to me."

He said that, because of the damage that has been done to townspeople and homeowners, future litigation with ExxonMobil is "a certainty. Selling a house in the neighborhood has become substantially more difficult. The fault of that, and the responsibility of that, should not fall on the shoulders of homeowners."

He noted the condescending attitude of ExxonMobil, whose representatives tried to assure him that the spill was "relatively small," and that cleanup efforts "were just going great." He countered, "I hope they realize that for homeowners in this area, this is not a small thing. It is catastrophic. For those who fear for their drinking water, it's not 'great.'"

In addition to the pollution (which has soaked local wildlife in oil), the fumes of the oil are negatively affecting residents, as well. Children at a local elementary school were sent home on April 3, after feeling nauseous. McDaniel himself said he had a headache while in Mayflower.

Resident Sherry Appleman said she was already feeling negative health effects 48 hours after the spill occurred. "I couldn't breathe," she said. "My throat and nose and eyes were burning really bad. I could smell that horrible smell. I got really scared."

April Lane, chair of school health and safety with the Faulkner County Concerned Citizens Advisory Group (a state health advisory organization), remarked, "A lot of the released chemicals [from the oil] - benzene, hydrogen sulfide, toluene - are all extremely toxic, especially to children, the elderly, and pregnant women." She said that air quality tests ExxonMobil has conducted are simply not sensitive enough to detect levels of these harmful toxins, and thus cannot be trusted by residents. "Claiming that the air is okay is inappropriate and unsafe."

Clearly, everyone is demanding accountability and honesty from ExxonMobil. The corporation has a lot of explaining to do - to workers, activists, and townsfolk alike.

Over in Texas, it remains to be seen whether Royal Dutch Shell will be just as difficult. The West Columbia pipeline was shut down on April 5 after electronic calculations by the U.S. National Response Center determined there was a leak. Shell has dispatched cleanup crews, and admitted that their current estimates of how much oil was released are "very early. Things can change."

Given oil companies' penchant for lying to the public, one could not be blamed for worrying that things will indeed change - as with Mayflower, for the worse. But these disasters continue to strengthen the case against construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.

Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune remarked, "In these latest oil disasters, oil companies have proven they are irresponsible. In Arkansas, ExxonMobil is bullying reporters who want to tell the public what's going on. In Texas, a major oil spill came to light that Shell had been denying for days.

"Transporting toxic oil is inherently dangerous, moreso because oil companies care about profit, not public safety. This is why Keystone XL, at nine times the size of Arkansas' Pegasus pipeline, must never be built."

Photo: As can be seen, oil has ravaged peoples' properties in Arkansas town of Mayflower. (AP)

 

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