Winter is the perfect time to explore the natural stone shelters where native Arkansans once lived
In the week after an oil spill strangled the air in Ann Jarrell's neighborhood, tens of thousands of her bees either died or went mad.
Jarrell has kept bees in her backyard since she moved to Mayflower almost two years ago. Living in the hamlet between Little Rock and Conway has afforded her the chance to be close to her daughter, Jennifer. Behind her three-bedroom brick home, at the corner of her small fenced-in yard, she tended to two beehives. Apiarists select and breed passive bees, and Jarrell's were no different, until they were.
ExxonMobil's Pegasus pipeline ruptured March 29, pouring what the company says was at least 200,000 gallons of oil into Mayflower. For days, the stench blowing from the sour heavy Canadian crude was rank. It was the familiar smell of oil, intensified. "Burning tires," Jarrell said. "It was just putrid. You'd smell it and you would gag." But no one told her it could be any more worrisome than the oil-stink of hot asphalt. Early on, Jarrell called the Mayflower police to ask whether she was in danger. A man on the other end told her she was merely noticing an additive meant to alert people to a leak, like the artificial chemical that gives natural gas its distinct aroma. (That was flatly wrong.) A few days later, an Exxon employee working on the cleanup came near her house, and Jarrell asked about the smell. The woman told her not to fret. "I didn't know what we were breathing in was toxic," Jarrell said recently. "Nobody was giving us any information."
Jarrell stayed put in her house, some 300 yards from the rupture site in the Northwoods subdivision and about 200 yards west of homes that were under a mandatory evacuation order. So did Jarrell's daughter, Jennifer, and Jennifer's baby, Logan, who was 15 weeks old when the pipe broke. Just an additive, after all. Nothing to worry about. Only in late April would she learn, at an Earth Day meeting in nearby Conway where citizens swapped oil spill information, from a report by a Louisiana firm called the Subra Co., that the Wabasca Heavy Crude that Exxon was forcing through the old pipeline needed a formidable shot of lubricating chemicals, called diluents, to grease its passage. Together, the brew was brimming with polyaromatic hydrocarbons, which are a family of molecules that you don't want in or on your body, and benzene, a carcinogen that causes a range of sicknesses with acute or prolonged exposure. It's impossible to say how much of what spilled were aromatics, but even a conservative estimate would place tens of thousands of gallons of poison in the town's air.
In the days after the pipe rupture, air monitoring tests show, the surrounding neighborhood showed dangerous levels of benzene and possibly harmful levels of octane, cyclohexane, heptane, and hexane, along with detectible levels of toluene, butane, pentane and several other industrial chemicals. While the Mayflower Unified Command — a joint response body made up of state, federal and Exxon representatives — did evacuate some residents of the Northwoods subdivision and notified others, people who lived just a short distance west of those backyards weren't told of the risks.
But the bees provided a clue. Piles of oil-stained bees turned up on the porch of one of the hives. Jarrell called the State Plant Board. Elizabeth Scott, one of the agency's two full-time bee specialists, went with two other inspectors on April 5 to help move Jarrell's two hives to a remote farm. She remembers it was late, and the ground was soggy. Even a week after the spill, Scott told the Times, "There was an odor in the whole town, like petroleum."
The next day, Jarrell took stock of the hives. She found them only half-full — tens of thousands of bees hadn't survived the previous day in her yard — and those who remained were highly aggressive. Normally, bees didn't mind a visit. "These would go back, get more bees, and come back with a bigger group of bees to come after us," Jarrell said. The move didn't explain that personality shift.
Many people in the neighborhood, like Jarrell, didn't understand the risks. That isn't their fault. Not even environmental chemists can tell you exactly how harmful the chemicals in that pipeline were. Most doctors aren't trained in environmental medicine that would prepare them to treat patients with chemical exposure and oil companies such as ExxonMobil consider the chemical formula proprietary anyway. Outside the Northwoods subdivision, where 22 of 62 homes were marked for mandatory evacuation, there's scant evidence that anyone from Exxon, the Environmental Protection Agency or the state Department of Health showed any urgency to notify residents that they were breathing an unknown quantity of known poisons. No one in a seeming position to help them make an informed decision about their health or that of their kids and pets did so.
"A mistake that was made — there's blame to spread, including the state — is that we didn't evacuate that whole neighborhood, making mandatory some parts of it and optional other parts of it," Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel says now. "When you see people now who say, 'I wasn't forced to leave so therefore I didn't leave and I wish that I had, because I didn't know how bad it was going to be,' and now they're claiming that they have still headaches and respiratory distress, children with respiratory distress ... one lesson to take from this is you err on the side of caution and you expand the evacuation area. You can always send people back sooner."
The people who live on the wrong side of the fence that separates homes in Northwoods from the rest of the neighborhood were left to fend for themselves. The Exxon employee who talked to Jarrell might not have been so wrong: Low-level exposure likely would have been a mere nuisance. But that sharp early exposure to the airborne chemicals might've triggered nasty respiratory and digestive symptoms — especially in people who have weaker immune systems. By the time Jarrell and other neighbors got a full account of what they'd been exposed to, the damage was largely done. Now they're stuck with the bills, the uncertainty, and because their exposure has been underplayed, a persistent stigma that they're opportunists looking to exploit Exxon in court. Because who needs to strike oil when you can just strike benzene?
Except that road is an unpleasant one. Jarrell had been suffering headaches for about a month before the oil erupted — a sign, she said, that the 67-year-old pipeline could have been leaking aromatics before it burst wide open — and those only intensified after the spill. It was a month before the community meeting where she first learned the pipe contained more than oil. She and her daughter fled with the baby. Jarrell has remained persistently sick with headaches and nausea; in June her doctor ordered an MRI because her aberrant thyroid levels were consistent with a brain tumor. (It came back negative.) The baby, now almost 8 months old, was diagnosed with a respiratory infection and now uses a steroid inhaler twice daily. His immune response is out of whack. He developed a 102-degree fever after a mosquito bit him. His family is scared witless.
"The oil went to the lake," Jarrell said. "But the toxic fumes came to us."
Jarrell's house backs up to the parking lot of the Mayflower Full Gospel Church. Inside the church are 13 pews, a rear room for Sunday school and a two-stair stage given to music: an organ, a Casio keyboard, a guitar, a drum set. The carpet underfoot doesn't give. Ceiling fans spin overhead, accessible by pull chains that dangle above the aisle. Behind the pulpit, in a little apse, is a mural of John baptizing Jesus in the river Jordan, with the spirit of God, in dove form, hovering behind Christ. The decor on the windowless walls of the nave leans inspirational. One small tapestry reads, "When God Closes One Door He Opens Another." On the opposing wall, a tapestry quotes Psalm 84: "How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord Almighty!"
On July 29, a Monday, the stage was dominated also by a collapsible screen onto which a little projector threw a photo of a bootprint in twiggy mud. Water gathered in the depression reflected the opalescent sheen of what you can only assume is oil. Digging up those shiny slicks is incredibly easy in Mayflower: Jab a stick into wet ground anyplace the oil has passed through and watch as sparkly bloblets leak up to the surface. After a good, stiff storm, the smell gets strong, too. Rain may be dragging evaporated chemicals back to earth. When it rains, people in Mayflower say, they get headaches and queasy stomachs. They feel tired. They have trouble finding words. Such symptoms have lingered in the four months since the spill, and it's getting harder for residents to disassociate them from the spill, even as any definitive medical link to chemical exposure grows ever more tenuous as time passes.
A dozen people from Mayflower and other points in Faulkner and Pulaski counties gathered at the church to share stories and information on what to do now that Exxon's presence in Mayflower has dwindled. It was a loose affair; people chatted. "What scared me," one man said, "was they just said 'oil.' They didn't say all those other chemicals." A reply came from April Lane, a volunteer with the Faulkner County Citizens Advisory Group, which aims to connect citizens to state agencies: "They did that as long as they could." The feeling in the room was that residents been shunted under a big, black rug.
"We're the forgotten few," a mother of four named Genieve Long told the gathering. She lives near the cove of Lake Conway into which culverts directed the spilled oil and which has been bottled up, mostly. She complains of persistent migraines. She runs a Facebook page called Mayflower Arkansas Oil Spill dedicated to the aftermath of the spill. "We didn't live in that subdivision, so we don't count," she continues. "But if you could smell it, you could be sickened by it."
Had public officials asked all people living near the oil to consider evacuating for a few days, it might've made a big difference for many of the people in the church. Residents have been unable to ask the Arkansas Department of Health directly why there was no contact from them; the state agency has declined invitations to the last four monthly grassroots community meetings. In an email, agency spokesman Ed Barham said that the agency began monitoring air the day of the spill. Only one of the tests around the spill site showed benzene as high as 50 parts per billion, and with the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry the health department "calculated theoretical doses for infants, children and adults at this level for an extended period and determined that this level would not likely result in a long-term health risk," Barham wrote. At a meeting organized by Unified Command soon after the spill, the department told citizens and the news media that anyone with symptoms should talk to a doctor or call the poison control center.
What wasn't communicated, perhaps despite the health department's honest efforts, was any sense of urgency or specificity about the risks of sticking around the neighborhood. Residents here wish they'd been nudged to decamp for a few days, or been told early on that benzene was being detected at hazardous levels just a few steps from their homes. "The fact they didn't follow up with neighborhoods, like send one person to a neighborhood and check on people — what the hell," Lane said. "I don't understand why they didn't do that, unless they just didn't want to cause panic. I'm dumbfounded they haven't gotten out in the community more."
With no health officials on hand at the church, the people did their best to fill any gaps themselves, by sharing news, passing around photos they'd shot and trying to decipher government pipeline reports. At lunch everyone convened to the church's food pantry at the back for a potluck lunch. Then they returned to the church to continue comparing notes, and to commiserate.
"I think the problem we've got is people think because we're such a small town, we're just a bunch of hicks who don't have any God-given sense," Linda Lynch, a church member who lives across the street, told the room from her pew. "There's a lot of people who moved here in the last 10 or 15 years who retired like I have, and moved here to get into a smaller community, because I've got family who had been here for years. We're not country hicks. We're smart people. We're educated."
Lynch's voice, forceful, carried in the small vestibule. Her polite, tight cursive on an undated index card pinned to a cork board on the back wall informed parishioners her son Scott's capital-c Cancer has returned, and asks for prayers.
The Pegasus pipeline runs between Illinois and Texas, over streams, under rivers, through wilds, and under relatively few homes. The fact that it split open underneath a neighborhood would've been extraordinarily unlikely if it were a random event. An independent forensic metallurgical report on the faulty stretch of pipe made note of that coincidence, and gave a half-nod to possible causality: "During construction of the homes, the pipeline may have experienced vehicle loadings caused by construction equipment and/or vehicles crossing the pipeline at multiple locations, including over the fractured segment." All else equal, humans are safer keeping a distance from pipelines, and vice-versa.
The reasons for energy infrastructure to be routed away from populated areas are obvious. In the '60s, for instance, before Arkansas built Lake Maumelle some seven miles southwest of Mayflower, the state insisted Exxon move the Pegasus out of its original path. Now the pipeline merely runs through Maumelle's watershed — one of 18 drinking water sources it traverses in Arkansas alone. State leaders insist Exxon move the Pegasus even further from the lake before the pipeline is restarted, if indeed it ever is, given that the pipeline's failure threatens the drinking water source for 400,000 people in and around Little Rock. Because pipelines rarely run under neighborhoods, not a great deal is known about what happens to people when there is a break in one.
Scott Crow, Linda Lynch's son, lives next door to his mother, across the street from the church on Snuggs Circle. On the day of the spill, when he heard oil was gushing out of the ground in Northwoods, his first thought was that someone had struck it rich. He grabbed a digital camera and tromped through the weeds that cover the pipeline's easement. It took him five minutes to reach the black swamp.
At the time, the smell didn't alarm him much. "It was like being at the gas station and there being oil on the ground," he said. "I figured it was probably about as dangerous as that, at the time, because there weren't announcements coming saying you need to get out of town." He posted photos to Facebook; news outlets that had been blocked from entering the subdivision picked them up. That night, he said, the smell became overpowering, "like being in a house on fire." He began developing headaches, nausea. A few days later, he became dizzy while working in his yard and fell to his knees.
The first indication that he could be in danger came from strangers writing to him online and saying, hey, you really ought not to breathe that stuff. "Before this I didn't know the difference between the Keystone XL and a Keystone beer," Crow said, referring to the controversial oil pipeline many times the size of Pegasus that is proposed to run from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. "It wasn't something I was studying up on." Early town meetings weren't much help. To Crow, it seemed that representatives from the state and from Exxon were more interested in keeping everyone calm than in addressing concerns directly. "Exxon finally, when they showed up, it felt like 'Red Dawn,' " he said. "You felt like your town was being taken over and there wasn't anything you could do about it. Any questions you asked it was like go back to your house." At their first meeting with officials, falling as it did so close after the Good Friday pipeline break, residents who attended also got to take home a little Easter basket, courtesy of Exxon, for their troubles.
It was mid-April before they got word — official word, via the news — that the pipeline contained known carcinogens and other chemicals that might explain the headaches and dizziness. It was an alarming revelation, not least because Crow had suffered a round of cancer two years earlier that cost him one testicle and left him monitoring a stable mass on the other. Crow and his wife, Barbara Bogard Crow, drove to the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences medical center in Little Rock, they say, where they received two different receptions. Crow told his attending physician that he was worried about how close he was living to the oil spill. He underwent a few tests and emerged with no definitive diagnosis. Barbara, meanwhile, didn't mention the oil spill. Doctors ran several tests and diagnosed her with bronchitis. Exxon's claims department paid for that visit for the two of them but hasn't answered their calls since. (Aaron Stryk, an Exxon spokesman, said in an email that all health claims from Mayflower are handled "on a case-by-case basis" and that "for all valid claims, we have paid all medical expenses.")
These days, after a rain, Barbara's tongue tingles with a metallic flavor.
"I feel like anything on this side of Northwoods, they don't care about," Crow said. "If they'd let us know from the get-go, I could've gotten out of there for a while. Two weeks I'm out here breathing it and no one's telling me?
"There was a real good sense of community in Mayflower before all this happened. And now it's like everybody picked a side. A lot of people, unless somebody drops dead and a doctor said, 'The oil spill is what caused it,' they're not going to believe it. They think a lot of us are just troublemakers, and that's just not the case."
Like others in his situation, Crow has deflected accusations that he's angling for a handout. It wasn't until a couple of days after the church meeting, more than four months after the spill, that Crow even signed with an attorney. And he hesitates to blames the spill, because who even knows with this sort of thing, but he also just had his second testicle removed, after the lump on it doubled in size this summer.
Two months after the spill, a gaggle of people in Mayflower (though no one interviewed for this article) filed a lawsuit against Exxon, regulators, the subdivision developers — a net cast far and wide. Residents claimed devalued property, nuisance, expenses and the usual. The most alarming reading is in the suit's details of health claims, which include, variously: sore throat, nausea, burning eyes, nosebleeds, "vomiting for several hours after the initial exposure," severe headaches, blurred vision, loss of balance, insomnia, severe coughing, loss of appetite, diarrhea, aggravated asthma, rashes, shortness of breath, dizziness, watery eyes, pneumonia, bronchitis. People literally got as sick as dogs: The suit says a pet dog developed a "weeping discharge" from the eyes; another developed a "chronic wheeze."
Many of the people who sued live in the Northwoods subdivision and are covered by a range of benefits that Exxon has extended to those residents. Those include compensation for lost rental income, a promise to cover any drop in value for a house sold there in the next three years, moving expenses and an offer to buy outright the 22 homes that were under mandatory evacuation orders, at pre-spill prices.
Exxon's corporate communications underscore this emphasis on Northwoods. As the wind swirls, the difference between what's in the subdivision and what's immediately outside seems immaterial. There would seem to be an understandable preference to define the spill by the black stuff that stuck to driveways and yards, and less by the invisible hydrocarbons that went into people's lungs and bloodstreams.
"It was a couple of days before it started to sink into people," Attorney General McDaniel said. "A lot of people were under the impression there were 22 houses in the whole subdivision. That was just one half of one street. So to say that the 22 houses impacted, as if that is a declarative statement of the totality, that just became a refrain there for a while: 'Twenty-two houses were evacuated.' Well, yeah, 22 houses were mandatorily evacuated, but the folks right across the street, or right next door, even though they weren't forced to evacuate that night, most of them left anyway, whether it was in the next 24 hours or in the next week.
"Hindsight being 20/20," he continues, "it would not have been unreasonable to double or even triple the number of mandatorily evacuated homes."
Perhaps no home outside the subdivision is closer to the spill site than that of Rex and Cynthia Stover, whose home at the end of Northside Drive sits one-eighth of a mile southwest from the rupture site. On a Saturday afternoon, Cynthia was found running a yard sale with her young granddaughter, Madison. Box fans cooled the inside of her garage, where she noticed a visitor's attention turned to a velvet portrait in the corner. "We've got lots of Elvis," she said, smiling. She also apologized for how croaky she sounded: "This isn't my real voice." The night of the spill, she said, the fumes positively blared into their home. To get through the night, she helped herself to some of her husband's bottled oxygen.
He seems to have weathered the aftermath without any ill effects — a factor, perhaps, of his own immune system, or perhaps of his breathing prepackaged air. Since the spill she's found herself feeling fatigued at her job, and she has developed a persistent, ratting cough. "It's not very comfortable to wake up two or three times a night," she said. Her granddaughter added, "I hear her, too."
The Stovers had been planning to sell this home, to retire and buy a motor home, to see the country and spend more time in Northwest Arkansas, near their granddaughter. Their proximity to a "major" spill, as the EPA has classified the accident, is likely to keep them in place longer than they'd intended. No one prodded them to pack up and skip town for a few days, and now, they expect, the market will keep them there all the longer.
Their predicament inspires a question that seems easier to ask well after the spill, when everyone in the neighborhood wishes they'd found somewhere else to stay for a few days: Why, if things were so bad, did you not leave?
Said Scott Crow: "I tried to give the situation the benefit of the doubt." Maybe this is on account of trusting the authorities a little too much, or not understanding the potential risks, or not wanting to seem fearful. If McDaniel talks about lessons for the next such spill, in Arkansas or elsewhere, but especially in the South, one may be: Unless you explicitly advise people to do so, and explain the gravity of the dangers upfront, people's nature is not to leave their homes. Many will stay, and if Mayflower is any indication, many will try to tough it out, not realizing that they could be imperiling their health.
"I'm just as bad as everybody else out there," Ann Jarrell said. "I kept thinking, 'That's their problem. They need to handle that.' Well, I woke up one morning and realized, I am they. That's when I started taking pictures and documenting everything I can. Because nobody's going to do it for us."
This story is part of a joint investigative project by Arkansas Times and Pulitzer Prize winning InsideClimate News. Funding for the project comes from people like you who donated to an ioby.org crowdfunding campaign that raised nearly $27,000 and from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.