Central Arkansas Water fights to move Exxon pipeline 

Short of relocation, the water utility takes steps to mitigate risk.

  • Brian Chilson

Central Arkansas Water is aware that its push to relocate the compromised Pegasus oil pipeline out of its watershed will likely become a NIMBY issue.

But that hasn't stopped the utility from continuing its bulldog-like push for ExxonMobil to remove 13.5 miles of mostly buried pipeline from the northern edge of Lake Maumelle. The man-made lake provides 67 million gallons of water per day to 400,000 residential, commercial and industrial customers in and around Little Rock.

"We want zero risk," said John Tynan, the utility's watershed protection manager. "That's why we're asking for the relocation. Our question is, how do we make this a reality?"

Tynan said he and his colleagues are beginning a conversation that should include everyone who has a stake in the lake or the pipeline. He and other Central Arkansas Water officials broached the topic again Monday with Exxon brass meeting in Little Rock to present the company's latest findings to the utility and other public officials.

Karen Tyrone, an Exxon vice-president, said the company wouldn't submit a plan to restart the pipeline to federal regulators "until we understand what happened and believe that we have the actions to prevent it from happening again."

Arkansas officials in turn insisted that if the line is reopened, Exxon must surpass federal guidelines in maintaining the pipe around Lake Maumelle. The utility still wants the line moved out of the watershed. But if that doesn't happen, Tynan said, every measure should be taken to reduce the risk of a spill.

That project will be anything but cheap. On an episode of "The Diane Rehm Show" last week dedicated to oil pipeline issues, Andrew Black, president and CEO of the Association of Oil Pipe Lines, said "a rule of thumb" on pipeline construction is $2.5 million to $3 million per mile. "Not a practical suggestion, as I understand it," Black said of relocating the pipeline out of the Lake Maumelle watershed.

To move the pipeline to the western edge of the watershed (away from Little Rock) and then back to its current path past Lake Winona would add at least 40 miles to the Pegasus, by a reporter's informal calculation. That would suggest a $100 million minimum cost to move the pipeline out of the watershed, a figure that naturally would escalate if a longer route turned out to be necessary.

"We haven't decided on where Pegasus should go because we're not oil pipeline specialists," Tynan said. "That's where Exxon, its contractors and the people who eat, sleep and breathe pipelines need to come in and decide where it goes. It's something local, state and federal officials need to be discussing, and we're encouraging that dialogue to start."

The Pegasus hasn't pumped any oil since the Mayflower spill on March 29. Exxon has hinted that the 65-year-old pipeline, which stretches 850 miles across four states from Patoka, Ill., to Nederland, Texas, might never re-open.

Despite that, Central Arkansas Water is still pursuing the rerouting angle.

"People expect us to ask the questions we do," said Robert Hart, the utility's technical services officer. "They want us to push and not be laid-back and assume that everything is being taken care of. Where all of this will end up, we just don't know."

Central Arkansas Water began worrying about a spill on the Pegasus long before the gusher in Mayflower of 5,000 barrels of heavy crude oil just eight pipeline miles northeast of Lake Maumelle.

In May 2009, the utility created a risk mitigation plan with a heavy emphasis on the pipeline. It has conducted tabletop and field exercises with emergency responders that simulated spills in creeks the Pegasus crosses and is outfitting a lakeside trailer with oil-spill-response equipment that can be quickly deployed. The utility has also partnered with Exxon to install a storage facility on the lake's north shore equipped with 3,000 feet of boom.


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