In the spring of 2009, Michelle Ward was finishing her last semester at UCA. She was on her own, supporting her 2-year-old daughter, Kayla. The economy was in recession, and the future looked uncertain, but she decided to take a leap: She secured a loan to build a home. By October, she had moved out of the Conway apartment she'd shared with her college roommate for the previous six years and into a brand new brick house in a subdivision, Northwoods, that is located in a sleepy town just off Interstate 40 heading south towards her hometown of North Little Rock.
"I knew nothing about Mayflower," said Ward, now 29. "I mean, it's like you blink and you miss it — I didn't even know it existed. But it was quiet and nice and I found a builder ... who was building homes already and could do it in my price range. I'd be an idiot to have turned it down. Some people said, 'Don't do it, you can't have a home, you need to just stay in an apartment.' You know, I don't make that much money, but it was an opportunity to better my life and better Kayla's life."
Four years later, in 2013, Ward was groping her way toward a solid foothold in the middle class. She was a supervisor in a three-person office for a firm that provided sales and accounting services to larger companies. She had a second daughter, an infant, and Kayla had made friends with the neighbor children living on North Starlite Road. Ward wasn't quite where she wanted to be just yet — her credit was not good, her bills caused concern some months — but she'd come a long way.
"The stability came with the home," she said. "It helped to ground things and make things seem somewhat OK even when everything else wasn't, because no one was going to take the house from me."
Then, on March 29, a pipeline burst open in the easement behind her house and spilled an estimated 210,000 gallons of crude oil into her street and beyond.
It's been one year since ExxonMobil's Pegasus pipeline ruptured in Mayflower. Although it's still not entirely clear why the disaster happened when and where it did, an investigation found the proximate cause to be a 60-year-old manufacturing defect in the pipe. Microscopic cracks in the steel slowly evolved into a total failure of the metal, and a 22-foot split ripped open along a welding seam that Good Friday afternoon. Technicians shut down the line soon after the spill was reported, and it has remained turned off since.
Oil soaked into yards and poured through drainage ditches as it ran beneath Interstate 40 and into an inlet of Lake Conway called Dawson Cove. Fumes hung heavy in the air throughout town, sparking headaches, nausea and respiratory problems. Local, state and federal authorities teamed with Exxon to manage the unfolding crisis under the banner of "Mayflower Unified Command," and residents and first responders sprang into action to plug the culverts that separate Dawson Cove from the rest of the lake. Residents of 22 homes in the Northwoods subdivision were evacuated immediately, including Michelle Ward and her daughters. Exxon provided speedy assistance to these families — free lodging, helpful claims personnel, and an offer to directly buy any of the 22 houses at their pre-spill appraised value. Along with the other 40 families in Northwoods, each was given a $10,000 check to compensate them for "nuisance." Meanwhile, although oil remained standing on the ground for days afterward, Mayflower residents living outside of the Northwoods subdivision received no evacuation notice and little or no compensation from Exxon in the following months. Some complained that the company was attempting to mask its larger negligence with its apparent generosity toward "the golden 22," as one aggrieved citizen put it last summer.
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