Lake Conway spared from Mayflower oil spill catastrophe 

But testing shows cove needs more cleanup.

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Arkansas Times and its news partner InsideClimate News asked Merv Fingas, a Canadian scientist who has researched and written extensively about oil spill cleanups, to analyze Exxon's data.

"It does not appear that major contamination of the lake occurred," said Fingas. "We may never know about minor contamination."

Fingas said the main body of the lake was already "fairly heavily contaminated" with hydrocarbons before the Pegasus spill.

The status of Dawson Cove is clearer. Oil sheens continue to appear in surface water, as evidenced by ongoing monitoring reports published by Arcadis, and the sampling data show varying levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons present in the soil and sediment of the cove and its surrounding wetlands. These organic compounds, abbreviated as PAHs, are found in all fossil fuels. They are also formed whenever a flame meets organic matter, so humans create PAHs when they burn wood, smoke tobacco or barbecue meat.

"PAHs are the source of the toxicity in oil," said Jacqueline Michel, an environmental consultant hired by the state Game and Fish Commission with years of experience working on oil spills. "That's what gets inside gills of fish, inside cells of organisms, and causes disorientation — and if levels are high enough, death."

State regulators say levels of PAHs in the cove are above normal, but they're no longer severe enough to cause acute harm to humans or large species such as fish or turtles. However, PAH levels might be high enough to harm small lakebed creatures such as worms and crustaceans that live in sediment and are a crucial link in the food chain of Lake Conway's freshwater ecosystem.

"It's those little communities that build the very foundation for an ecological recovery," said Ricky Chastain, deputy director of Game and Fish. "It's the effects on those organisms that we're trying to assess and see if there's a hot spot where we need to do more remediation to get those levels down."

Chastain said his agency is particularly concerned about PAH levels in a two- to three-acre section of the cove area. The testing sites that show the highest levels are concentrated along the drainage path of the oil as it flowed towards the water and in the spot where the first boom was placed to contain the spill. The dilbit pooled along the length of this boom, explained Michel.

Matt Moran, a professor of biology at Hendrix College, said he worries that the initial round of testing may have missed a significant amount of oil. The sample sites were systematically spaced along the path followed by the oil, but there are some places — such as along that first boom — where the substance may have penetrated more deeply into the ground.

"Because they've chosen these sites that are systematically spaced, they might be missing a lot of the oil that's there," Moran said. "I think what we've found is that a lot of it has been buried in sediment now, and it gets exposed every time it rains hard — something gets stirred up and released back into the environment. I think it's very patchy. But, you want to find those patches, because even if it's only a couple of places, those are places that can provide contamination, which can spread every time we have more rainfall.

"It does appear to be in decline," he continued. "There's less there now than there was two or three months ago. At the same time, it's still fairly easy to find petroleum product down there."


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