Winter is the perfect time to explore the natural stone shelters where native Arkansans once lived
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.
As public attention faded, the gilding wore away. By October — the four-year anniversary of her purchase of the house on Starlite Road — Ward and her kids had been living in a hotel room for seven months. She was now working at her parents' business, having lost her job in the chaos after the spill. Between attending town hall meetings, changing hotel rooms, and juggling her kids, she missed too much work at a peak time and her branch office was shut down.
"It just was all bad timing. It was right in the middle of our every-six-years new contracts. A corporate office in another state — they really don't care what's going on in your neighborhood with the oil spill when you're messing with their money. Of course, they were somewhat nice. They said, 'Go file your unemployment, you won't have any issues.' "
"But that's just a side note," she continued. "You know, crap happens. It was my fault. I should have been on top of my game, and I wasn't."
Ward did not take up Exxon's offer to buy her home because it made no financial sense for her. The terms of her loan stipulate penalties for an early sale, and she holds little equity in her home. Selling to Exxon, she said, would leave her without the cash (or credit) to easily start over. The company also offered a one-time settlement check as an alternative to selling, but Ward said it wouldn't be enough to put a down payment on a new home.
"They would have put us in a hole," she said. "A huge hole. It's crazy. It took everything for me to even be able to build that home. They didn't want to individualize and help people. I can't tell you how many times I've cried to them and asked them to help me find a different alternative than A, B or C, because A, B and C did not work for me. And I wasn't about to sell them my home and ... what? Then what? What do I do with my children? We wouldn't have a home; we wouldn't have shelter.
"I'm not ashamed to admit that I've had to struggle, or that things might have been difficult at times. The fact is that I wasn't planning on selling this home. And because of that, there's certain things that now they've messed up.
"I've worked really hard to move up the ladder in life, and they've taken me down the ladder so far in such a short time."
Records from the Faulkner County Assessor's office show that ExxonMobil has closed on 25 houses in the Northwoods subdivision. "For sale" signs speckle many of the other yards. Recently, on a wet, chilly March weekend similar to the one that saw the spill, the Times asked Northwoods residents to talk about their experiences over the past year. To a person, they were remarkably friendly to a reporter disturbing their weekend, but except for Ward, none would speak on the record.
"The problem is that Exxon's got most everyone around here to sign nondisclosure agreements," apologized a 30ish man, clad in Sunday afternoon pajama pants.
A slender woman in a sleep cap politely declined an interview as a small crowd of children watched from the dim safety of the living room. She'd like to talk, she said, but she said she was in the middle of a lawsuit. "You're going to have a hard time finding someone in the neighborhood who isn't."
One of the many parties suing ExxonMobil is Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel. The attorney general and the Department of Justice have jointly sued to collect penalties for violating environmental statutes, including the federal Clean Water Act and the Arkansas Hazardous Waste Management Act. Exxon has filed for a motion to dismiss the case, which McDaniel said isn't likely to be granted.
"Obviously, the federal government and the state of Arkansas are on pretty solid ground here," he said. "It was their pipe, it was their oil — they clearly violated the law in allowing the pollutants to be released. They are, as all major corporations who are in high-stakes litigation tend to do, doing all that they can to slow the flow of discovery. [They're] protesting what should be given and how quickly they can give it. They've told us they've just got too much litigation going to promptly respond to our requests. That's not atypical. That's par for the course." The lawsuit isn't scheduled to go to trial until February 2015, by which point McDaniel will be out of office.
The state will also file a Natural Resources Damages Claim against Exxon, to assess "damages as to the broader scope of what's the long-term impact to the environment — what are the financial costs to all of this. [It's] a much more comprehensive set of litigation that can and will be brought by ... the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) and the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission." McDaniel said he does not anticipate that lawsuit being filed until 2015.
Yet another lawsuit could come from Central Arkansas Water (CAW), the local utility that manages Lake Maumelle. If the Pegasus rupture had occurred just a few miles further south, the oil would have spilled into the reservoir that provides water to 400,000 residents of the Little Rock metropolitan area. Alarmed by that nightmare scenario, CAW has filed its intent to seek a federal injunction against Exxon should the company announce plans to turn on the Pegasus again without satisfying CAW's demands. The utility wants the pipe rerouted out of the watershed. CAW spokesman John Tynan said that the company still has not provided CAW with sufficient evidence that a breach like the one in Mayflower isn't likely to happen again.
"We had known the Exxon pipeline was a risk, but given the information we had prior to the Mayflower rupture, the assumption that we had was that there was a very low risk of a rupture occurring," said Tynan. "Obviously, that calculus has changed. ... The information we have to date still doesn't give us confidence that [Exxon] can reliably identify cracks. At this point, we want to keep all actions on the table."
Exxon is known for stretching lawsuits out for years. The major damages claim related to the 1989 tanker spill in Valdez, Alaska, for example, was not resolved until 2008 — almost 20 years after the spill. Considering Exxon's profits last year were $45 billion (nine times the budget of the state of Arkansas) such action may at first seem petty, if not malicious. But Exxon's size is also its vulnerability. When a company operates such a messy, dangerous trade on a global scale, the next accident is always around the corner. Exxon does not want to take actions that will establish legal precedent.
"They have been very explicit over time that they don't want to settle claims in Arkansas that in any way would set a bad precedent for them going forward," McDaniel said. "For instance, if they'd gone in and bought every home in that subdivision, they had indicated that that would set a bad precedent for the next time this happens. What if it'd been more homes? What if they'd been more expensive homes? What if they'd been businesses? What if it'd been beneath the Dillard's headquarters? What if it'd been in the Lake Maumelle watershed? ... They are not just looking at this from their current perspective, but also what could happen in two years or five years."
That also helps explain the company's refusal to negotiate terms with Michelle Ward, right down to the minutia. By late summer, most of her neighbors were in the process of selling their homes to the company. The friendly claims people she'd dealt with at first had left town, replaced by a hardball negotiator — "a killer," said Ward — who pressured the remaining families to accept the deals as offered.
"I had no problem with Exxon this entire time. Things got rough in about July, August, and that's when it all went downhill," Ward said. "It went from me really thinking they cared and were sorry and were going to make it right to they were going to screw us any way they could and they really didn't care. And I understand that. It's a job. It's their job."
When asked about compensation, Exxon spokesperson Aaron Stryk replied, "Property owners outside of Northwoods and along the Cove are able to address any harm they feel they have incurred due to the spill through the claims process. We will continue to honor all valid claims, which will be handled on a case-by-case basis."
The money Exxon provided for Ward's hotel room ran out on Oct. 23, the date Exxon set for "forced re-entry" of homes that it had not yet bought. Ward stayed for a couple more weeks anyway, though she couldn't really afford it. She was still waiting for Exxon to replace ruined items that had sponged up the smell of the oil and had to be thrown out or cleaned.
"We had just been waiting for a phone call saying, 'Your home's finished, we've replaced all of the items that we've moved,' which was four beds, two couches, every item of clothing, toys ... we didn't have any pillows in the house, no towels. We didn't have anything. Exxon was nonstop emailing my lawyer wanting to know why we hadn't returned home. He said, 'Do you expect them to sleep on the floor?' "
"They turned around and said, 'Here's a $1,500 check to go get the mattresses.' " Her voice rose. "You know, why don't you just replace the stuff that you removed from the home and said you would replace and put it all back to normal?"
"They did not reimburse us for any of the items except for the four mattresses," she said. Workers cleaning her home had filled 15 contractor-sized garbage bags with various possessions, which were thrown out before she had a chance to make an inventory list.
Then there was the refrigerator, which had sat untouched for months. "We went there to check on the house after they cleaned it to do an inspection," Ward recalled. "I opened the fridge, and there was like a million gazillion maggots and I almost passed out. I started screaming." She insisted on a new fridge, given its condition; Exxon suggested it simply be cleaned instead. "They did replace the fridge but after, you know, a ruckus."
Well before the move-in deadline arrived, the company stopped reimbursing kennel fees for her dog; that cost her more than a thousand dollars. Because the homes adjacent to hers had been demolished (due to oil found under their foundations) she requested a follow-up soil test from Exxon; it was delayed for weeks. The claims negotiator, she said, continued to lean heavily on all the families remaining.
"There was no negotiating. We were told 'Take it or leave it, but this is the best you will ever get.' They will continue to file appeal after appeal and draw it out as long as they can, and you will end up with nothing in the end. The scare tactics were not only to me. It caused most of the others to just settle and be done, because they were already moving on to their new homes.
"It was a tactic of bullying. Basically, we'll bully you until you break and you either sell to us or you settle with us, and I wouldn't do either." At the moment, Ward and her lawyer are still weighing her options. They have not ruled out a lawsuit.
Robin Lang and her boyfriend, Marty Garrity, live in a house on the shore of Dawson Cove, the terminal point of the spilled oil. On the afternoon of the break, Lang recalled, they were hit by the stench before they saw it.
"The way we found out about it was the smell. At first we thought it was gasoline, because that's what it smelled like. It smelled like raw fuel. And then we were told it was a pipeline, and from there Marty and his brother and a couple other guys ran to the woods to where we were told it was at. ... They were trying to help them stop up that drainage ditch." But by the next day, oil was sloshing around the trunks of trees not far from their house.
The oil smelled of gas because it contained chemicals similar to those in gasoline. The oil carried by the Pegasus was diluted bitumen, a heavy crude extracted from Canadian tar sands and intended for a refinery on the Gulf Coast. Bitumen has the consistency of cold molasses on its own; to move it through a pipeline it must be diluted with volatile hydrocarbons (gasoline-like chemicals) to reduce its viscosity to that of conventional crude.
Some 1.2 million gallons of water and oil were recovered in the following months, according to ADEQ, not including what was soaked into debris and soil and cleaning materials. Exxon declared the initial "response" phase of the cleanup to be complete by late summer. A round of extensive soil and sediment testing followed, performed by a third-party contractor and paid for by Exxon. Water samples were taken on a daily basis until January 2014. The two state agencies charged with monitoring the cleanup, ADEQ and the Game and Fish Commission, approved the data contained in Exxon's environmental status report in March.
"To date, ADEQ does not feel there is any risk to human health or undue risk to the environment," said Tammie Hynum, chief of the agency's Hazardous Waste Division. Most of the oil has been removed from the land, and tests indicate the oil's progress through the water was indeed halted at Dawson Cove. "We found nothing in the water [in the rest of the lake] that ever suggested there was any contamination of the water by the oil," agreed Ricky Chastain, deputy director of Game and Fish.
However, Chastain also said Exxon's report incorrectly downplays the environmental situation. "There are no unacceptable ecological risks in the drainage ways, Dawson Cove, and Lake Conway," the company report concludes, adding that no further action is necessary. ADEQ and Game and Fish disagree.
"We don't dispute any of the data," said Chastain, "but what we dispute is some of their conclusions to the data. ... The bottom line is we would not say definitively across the board that there is absolutely no risk, no contamination, that would cause problems environmentally down the road."
Oil sheen still regularly coats the waters of Dawson Cove, especially after a rain. The sorbent booms that are still installed in the cove keep trapping oil. ADEQ and Game and Fish want Exxon to implement further remediation steps, which might consist of removing additional soil, capping areas of sediment with a layer of clay, or injecting air into the sediment to force lingering petroleum to the surface.
"We want to make sure we evaluate several viable alternatives ... and select the most appropriate technology to restore Dawson Cove and the drainage areas back to pre-spill conditions," Hynum said.
For homeowners on the cove, things are definitely not back to pre-spill conditions. Cleaning up an oil spill necessitates a massive disruption to the environment. Between March 29 and Aug. 15 last year, crews of workers collected some 8,000 tons of fouled soil, sediment, vegetation, cleanup materials and other debris from Mayflower. To remove the contamination, much of the ecosystem itself had to be scraped away.
"It's nowhere near looking like it did," Lang said. "They took out the woods; there's no replacing that. And they took out the wildlife when they took out the woods; there's no replacing that either." She and other residents say they miss watching deer from their backyards, and they've stopped planting gardens out of fear of soil contamination. They've also stopped fishing in the cove. "We were avid fishermen," Lang continued. "Every day, if we had a chance. If work permitted, we were in the lake fishing or on the bank fishing. But we haven't eaten fish out of there since this all took place. There's no way." (Game and Fish and ADEQ say fish in Lake Conway are entirely safe to eat.)
What bothers her the most, Lang said, is the feeling that Exxon has played down the damage done to Dawson Cove by defining it as something apart from Lake Conway. "Exxon generally refers to this back here as the marsh like, 'It's just a marsh,' " Lang said. "Well, it wasn't just marsh to us — it's our property. Our deed says this is lakefront property on a cove of Lake Conway. Now we feel like when you look at that, it's just marsh. It wasn't that before, but that's what it was brought to."
Despite the sampling data, it's going to take a long time to rebuild public confidence in the health of the environment near Mayflower. Likewise, fears persist about the effects of the spill on human health.
The principal public health concern among Mayflower residents is exposure to airborne toxins released in the spill's aftermath — including known carcinogens such as benzene. Since only the 22 families on Starlite Road were evacuated, others living nearby continued to breathe the fumes. One of those residents is Ann Jarrell, whose story appeared in the Times last fall. Jarrell's house lies on the other side of the pipeline from the Northwoods subdivision, only 300 yards from the rupture site, but because oil didn't touch her property, she was told by local police and Exxon employees that there was no need to evacuate. Jarrell said she's acquired a suite of alarming health issues since the spill, including sometimes debilitating lung problems.
Jarrell has lived with a friend in North Little Rock since her symptoms arose after the spill. Even visiting her house in Mayflower makes her sick today, she said, and she's fearful for her future.
"I still make my payments even though I can't live in it," she said. "I'm stuck."
The Arkansas Department of Health (ADH) insists that there was no need for other homes to have been evacuated, based on the recommendation of experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A team of ADH epidemiologists coordinated air quality testing at multiple sites around Mayflower for weeks after the spill and concluded that concentrations of benzene and other chemicals were well within the threshold of hazardous exposure. A year after the spill, the agency says it made no mistakes.
"A good job, an outstanding job was done by the Mayflower community in getting residents evacuated," Dr. William Mason, the lead ADH official assigned to the disaster, said recently. "The community itself, other agencies and our agency really responded appropriately."
Attorney General McDaniel, who was also involved in the initial response, disagrees. "Local officials did a good job under the circumstances," he said. "I said then and still believe that the evacuation area should have been much larger." He also cuts ADH some slack for their lackluster response, noting that the agency wasn't designed to handle such a crisis. It was only after being pushed by Gov. Beebe that ADH began offering health screenings to Mayflower residents, five months after the spill.
ADH said it's unable to disclose any information about the results of the program due to health privacy laws, but the agency conducted 26 screenings, all in 2013. Some Mayflower residents have criticized it as too little, too late. Linda Lynch, a neighbor of Jarrell's who also was not evacuated, said her screening was "a joke and a waste of my time." Lynch's complaints of spill-related health problems were diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) by Mason after a telemedicine session.
Though the PTSD diagnosis was ridiculed, the mental health effects of such a disruptive event are serious and real, according to Dr. Dale Sandler, a researcher at the National Institutes of Health. Sandler is leading a landmark study into the long-term health effects of BP's 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Sandler said there's not a clear line between the physical and psychological trauma associated with such a disaster.
"You'll also see increases in other symptoms that might be associated with neurological effects of the chemicals in high doses, like depression," she said. "You have people with unexplained pain, with depression, with fatigue. ... And it's hard to know whether this is all because of exposure to oil — which we know in high doses, exposure to benzene and those kinds of chemicals have been associated with diagnosed depression — or whether it's totally explained by the fact that you've got this mess in your backyard where you eat and where you fish and you can't go about your business."
Sandler also emphasized the slippery nature of identifying direct cause-and-effect relationships between exposure to hazardous materials like oil and serious health problems later on.
"We know from occupational studies of people who have had heavy exposures to things like benzene that over a lifetime they are at increased risk for developing certain cancers, notably the blood cancers like leukemia. But that's steady exposures over a long amount of time and at higher levels than what we believe people involved in an oil spill would be exposed to." And, she continued, oil is only one carcinogenic substance out of many. "One of the major contributors to benzene exposure is cigarette smoke."
The results of the study Sandler is leading won't be available for some time, she said, because there are so many variables at play. "We don't want to get it wrong. It's really important to make sure we don't alarm people unnecessarily and it's also important that we don't pretend there's no effect if there is one."
Not far from Mayflower, the path of the Pegasus intersects with that of another manmade conduit for fossil fuels that dwarfs the Exxon pipeline in terms of breadth and length. Its fuel payload is hidden away in the gas tanks of the 58,000 vehicles that pass by on that stretch of Interstate 40 on an average day.
The Union Pacific rail line also runs through Mayflower, more or less parallel to the interstate. Because rail carriers consider the information proprietary, it's hard to say how many barrels of oil travel through the town by freight train each month, but it's probably substantial. A single DOT-111 tank car carries about 30,000 gallons of crude; seven of them filled to capacity would equal the volume of oil estimated to have spilled from the Pegasus.
Mayflower has two gas stations. One is an Exxon. The other is a Valero, a company the Times recently reported is proposing to build its own crude oil pipeline across the state of Arkansas.
Disasters like the Pegasus rupture "mask a bigger issue of having a petroleum-dependent economy," said Matt Moran, a professor of biology at Hendrix College who has closely followed the Mayflower spill. "It's not that oil is an absolute necessity, but we've tied ourselves to it with the system we have in place. We are sort of at the moment stuck. It would take decades to wean ourselves off."
The biggest remaining question about the Pegasus is whether Exxon will attempt to restart the line. Thus far, it's only requested to restart a portion of the line in Texas, according to the federal regulator responsible for pipelines. Damon Hill, spokesperson for the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), said the agency is reviewing the request. The company is taking an unusually long time to restart the remainder of the line, considering that every day the Pegasus is shuttered amounts to an estimated $450,000 in lost revenue, based on regulator records of shipping rates. That works out to as much as $160 million over the course of the past year. After a much larger spill of diluted bitumen from a ruptured Michigan pipe in 2010, its operator, Enbridge Inc., petitioned PHMSA to restart the line just two weeks later. (PHMSA gave its permission in another six weeks.) The delay could indicate that Exxon's post-spill inspections are finding serious problems along the length of the Pegasus, or it may be that the company is simply being cautious. Another spill on a reopened Pegasus line might cause regulators to shut it down permanently and jeopardize other pipeline projects.
Stryk, the Exxon spokesperson, offered this explanation: "We recognize this process is not as expedient as some would like but EMPCo [Exxon Mobil Pipeline Co.] believed it was prudent to take the additional time to better understand the root cause of the failure before submitting the work plan. In the meantime, the Pegasus Pipeline remains shut down, and it will only be restarted when we are convinced it is safe to do so."
Before Exxon can restart the Pegasus, it must submit a work plan to PHMSA that explains how any lingering problems with the pipe will be addressed. It's asked for and received multiple extensions on its deadline for submitting the plan. The company's new deadline is April 7, but PHMSA said that Exxon could request additional extensions indefinitely. PHMSA has also announced that it will fine Exxon $2.66 million for pipeline safety violations that may have contributed to the Mayflower spill. True to form, the company is disputing the fine and has requested an administrative hearing, scheduled for June 11.
It's unclear what the future holds for the Northwoods subdivision. Landscaping and construction crews are busy sprucing up the long row of empty houses on Starlite, and the property management company hired by Exxon will soon open a model home to encourage sales. Four of the original 22 evacuated homes are still occupied. Two have accepted Exxon's settlement for potential loss of property value and are staying put for the time being. Michelle Ward and one other are still holding out. There has been one purchase of a Northwoods home other than the 25 bought by Exxon, though it's not on the street where the spill happened.
Bobby Hunter, the new owner, said that he bought the home for $158,000. He's not too concerned about the property value falling, or any lingering health worries. Hunter and his wife were eager to move back from Arkadelphia to Mayflower, which is where he's originally from. "We just fell in love with the house," he said, smiling.
Two streets away, Ward is not so sanguine. She remembers her block as it was before. "Our neighborhood used to be so vibrant, with children out playing nonstop," she said. She's angry about the disregard she feels Exxon has shown toward her situation after so many reassurances at first that everything would be taken care of. About a month ago, she received a letter in the mail letting her know that a pipeline was buried in the easement out back.
It's a routine notice, she's aware, but there's an undeniable symbolism to it that galls her — a form letter, written to a woman whose life for the past year has been upended by the Pegasus, blithely informing her of the pipeline's existence.
"I know, we get them every year," said Ward. "Something telling you about the pipeline — it tells you to call before you dig and has the number to the ExxonMobil pipeline company. Well this year, it was like a packet, addressed to 'The Homeowner.' You. Jerks. Like, of all the crap you've caused in our life on this one street, you couldn't just put our freakin' names? You own the whole damn street anyway! But it's the fact that they don't even know us, they don't even know our names. ... We're just something to clean up."
This story is part of a joint investigative project by Arkansas Times and 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.