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Did quick response on the day of the Mayflower spill keep oil from reaching the main body of Lake Conway? 

ADEQ says yes. A lakeside resident is skeptical.

click to enlarge Jimmy Joe Johnson image
  • Brian Chilson
  • Jimmy Joe Johnson

Anything for his treasured fishing hole. That was the mantra cycling through Jimmy Joe Johnson's head on the afternoon of Friday, March 29, as he rushed to keep a filthy stream of crude oil from spilling out of a cove and into the main body of Lake Conway.

Standing at the edge of the lake more than four months later, Johnson had his fingers crossed that his efforts that day weren't for naught. Officials with the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) say they feel certain that soon-to-come results from sediment testing will confirm what water tests revealed — that no oil reached the main body of the lake.

But Johnson won't stop fretting until he sees definitive proof that the lake wasn't sullied.

Johnson's lookout on this steamy August day is roughly nine-tenths of a mile from the spot where oil from ExxonMobil's ruptured Pegasus pipeline gushed into a subdivision of neat, brick homes. Instinct and familiarity with the local topography guided Johnson and a crew of locals to this site — a man-made dike about the length of a football field that supports two lanes of state Highway 89 traffic — on that fateful Friday afternoon.

The dike isolates a 30-acre, elbow-shaped cove thick with lily pads from the sprawling 6,700-acre Lake Conway. On the day of the spill, Johnson knew he and his team were too late to keep oil out of the cove. But they were intent on stopping the plume of black goo before it contaminated the main body of a lake renowned in Central Arkansas for its stocked bounty of catfish, crappie, bluegill and bass.

"We had one mission and that was to keep the oil out of the lake," Johnson, superintendent of the Mayflower streets department for 15 years, told a reporter. "Once I figured out where the bust was, there was no doubt the oil was headed to Lake Conway. We used everything we had."

Johnson joined volunteer firefighters and public works employees from Faulkner County and Mayflower equipped with dump trucks and backhoes. Together, they scrambled to position plywood, dirt, rocks and close to 1,000 tons of gravel to construct barricades to keep oily water from surging over or through the dike. One of their first jobs was plugging a pair of 48-inch metal pipes connecting the cove and the main lake. Meanwhile, pumps sucked water from the bottom of the cove so it wouldn't overflow into the lake.

"We was part of a big team," said Johnson, 50, who grew up fishing in the lake and playing in its network of nearby streams. "We was working to save our lake."

Ryan Benefield, the ADEQ's deputy director, is confident the local crew did just that.

So far, water tests in the main lake conducted by the agency have shown no signs of diluted bitumen, Benefield said. That's the type of heavy Canadian crude that the Pegasus was carrying when it broke.

Sediment testing throughout the spill corridor, roughly a mile long, began July 27 as the spill cleanup evolved from "response" mode, overseen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, to the "remediation" phase, coordinated by ADEQ. Results of the sediment tests are not yet available, Benefield said.

He is convinced the sediment tests also will bring good news because water tests have repeatedly come back clean enough to be below any level of concern.

"We haven't seen anything in the main body of the lake indicating that it has been affected by the oil spill," Benefield said. "There's just no opportunity for the sediments to be impacted."

Much of the lake is quite shallow, measuring barely six feet deep, Benefield said.

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