Tuesday, April 09, 2013

William Boardman: 14 Things You Need to Know About the Horrifying Arkansas Oil Spill

14 Things You Need to Know About the Horrifying Arkansas Oil Spill: The situation remains fluid, as it were, with potential impacts possible from local to global.
by William Boardman

Within a week of the ExxonMobil tar sands oil pipeline burst in Mayflower, Arkansas, ExxonMobil was in charge of the clean-up, the U.S. government had established a no-fly zone over the area, some 40 residents were starting their second week of evacuation, ExxonMobil was threatening to arrest reporters trying to cover the spill, and several homeowners had filed a class action lawsuit seeking damages from the world's second-most-profitable corporation, which had helped keep the pipeline secret from terrorists.

Before March 29, even some people living next to ExxonMobil's Pegasus pipeline didn't know it was there. All that changed abruptly around 2:45 pm that Good Friday afternoon, when a resident of the suburban subdivision reported a fresh rivulet of diluted Wabasca heavy crude oil from Canada snaking across the lawn, pooling around children's yard toys, filling gutters, and flowing on down the street, to the nearest storm drain.

And it smelled! The smell carried for miles. Up close, prolonged exposure was potentially unhealthy, for lung, brain, peace of mind. Environmental responders monitored the air quality for days, but only some of the cleanup workers wore breathing masks.

The pipeline gushed for almost an hour before ExxonMobil had it shut down.

The cleanup began at once and continues. Local volunteers responded immediately to keep the spill from entering nearby Lake Conway, with apparent success so far. Rain hasn't helped. ExxonMobil has promised to be there till it's done. Local, state, and federal teams are also on site, but the situation remains fluid, as it were, with potential impacts possible from local to global.

Eight days into the Mayflower spill, here are some of the questions it raises and some of the current answers, subject to future refinement.

1. Why Didn't People Know They Were Living Near a Pipeline?

Excellent question. And if it gets to court as a real estate dispute, a judge may have to weigh the comparative negligence of a seller's failure to disclose against a buyer's failure to do due diligence.

But government decisions in recent years made due diligence more difficult. After September 11, 2001, fear of further terrorist attacks led to concern about the pipeline as a target. As the local KTHV television station reported, "details of its location were somewhat suppressed, but the information has become more public since then."

2. Is That Why There's a No-Fly Zone, Fear of Terrorists?

Probably not. The official Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) notice was effective shortly after 2 p.m. on April Fools Day and stated: "No pilots may operate an aircraft in the areas covered" by the notice, which cited unnamed "hazards" and was effective "until further notice." The area covered is a circle with a 5-mile radius around the spill, up to an altitude of 1,000 feet.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported on April 3 that relief aircraft in the no-fly zone would be "under the direction of Tom Suhrhoff," who turns out to be an ExxonMobil employee.

The same day, FAA spokesman Lynn Lunsford told Dow Jones that at least one helicopter was needed to move workers around and scout the area for further spills, and that helicopter (or helicopters) needed to be able to move about freely without needing to worry about other aircraft in the area.

A five-minute aerial video, shot by Adam Randall the same day the FAA put the no-fly zone order in place, shows some of the cleanup activities at the subdivision and in the surrounding wetlands, where the oil spread is measured in miles:

Rivulets of oil filled up ravines and trenches in the marshes near Mayflower. Black balls of crude rolled on top of the water, with the major portions of Lake Conway protected by floating partitions.

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