The oil that erupted in Mayflower back in March began its trip in an Illinois hamlet named Patoka, 90 minutes east of St. Louis. It shot down ExxonMobil's 20-inch Pegasus pipeline, under farms and forests, over the Mississippi River via a state highway bridge, through the Missouri Ozarks, across the Arkansas state line and, a few miles later, near the workplace of one Glenda Jones, whom you can find on a summer Saturday at her bar job, watching the Cardinals thump the Cubs.
The other bartender here at the Rolling Hills Country Club in the town of Pocahontas is named Brenda, so anyone visiting the golf course in far Northeast Arkansas is bound to meet one of the Endas, as they're known around the club. At 5 p.m. it's quiet in the 10-table lounge but for a Fox broadcaster making Jones's day: "Molina deep ... back to the wall ... it's gone!" Jones, the proud Enda and part-time house cleaner who refers to the Cardinals as "we," hollers, "Yes, finally!"
Ask her about Pocahontas, and she's quick to tout its famous five rivers (the Spring, the Black, the Current, the Fourche, the Eleven Point). And the people are sure friendly. "Course they are," she says. "We're in the middle of the Bible Belt. Know what I mean? Everybody's nice here." If one thing gives her pause about this area, it might be the Pegasus. It runs right under her yard, and she worries about it rusting. "Stuff like that only lasts so long," she says.
The Pegasus spill surprised many people in Mayflower, in part because many of them had no idea they were living atop an oil superhighway. So we got to wondering: Where does the Pegasus go? To find out, we traced its path using maps publicly available from the federal agency that regulates pipelines, the Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA). We got precise with Google Earth, following the pipeline's easement — the broad, bald line where trees are kept off the pipe — through the 13 Arkansas counties the Pegasus crosses on its way to Texas. From satellite images, we could see what another break in the Exxon pipeline could directly threaten: pastures, national forest, rivers, creeks, homes, churches, at least one school, this golf course. It also crosses watersheds for 18 drinking water sources that, together, serve about 770,000 people, a quarter of the state's population. We asked the people in those areas how the pipeline affects their lives. The prospect of a spill makes most of them fretful, while one man thought a spill would punch his ticket to better places.
The 858-mile Pegasus, now well into its seventh decade, has lain unused since March 29, when it burst open in the otherwise pleasant Mayflower neighborhood of Northwoods and belched up 210,000 gallons of heavy crude, by Exxon's tally.
The old pipe spends most of its time underground and is, in any case, just a long, steel conduit, without much character. Ah, but the places it traverses in Arkansas — nearly 300 miles of them! — are full of characters. They've lived with the pipeline underfoot since the 1940s, so long that many have never given it a thought. Many Arkansans we visited — Glenda Jones among them — didn't realize until a reporter called that their local pipeline was the same one that cracked open in Mayflower. And because they're living on top of a pipeline that's now been shown to crack itself open with no apparent provocation, and which a forensic report after the spill cited for manufacturing defects, they get to wonder the obvious.
"If it burst, right here, right now?" asks Derik Fitzgerald, the voluble golf course superintendent, at the Endas' bar. "What do you do?"
Fitzgerald knows and respects the Pegasus. Tuesdays and Thursdays Exxon flies a plane over to scope it out. One time Fitzgerald and another man on his crew were fixing an irrigation line maybe 40 feet from the pipe, on Hole 5, when Fitzgerald's friend heard the plane turn. "He said, 'That plane just seen us doing something.' "
They got a friendly visit from an Exxon rep after that one, just to be sure they knew to call in any projects within 200 feet of the pipeline. They also got a visit the time a flood piled branches and logs against the exposed pipeline in a creek. Fitzgerald called, and Exxon was out in a jiffy, yanking timber off the pipe and supervising the burning of the brush.
"I hate to take up for oil companies, I hate it," Fitzgerald says. "But they seem like they're on top of it." When he needs to notify the company that he's working near the pipe, Fitzgerald rings a guy. In his cell phone the contact reads "Billy Exon."
The trip from the clubhouse to the Pegasus takes five minutes. Fitzgerald steers a golf cart down a knobby asphalt path, through hairpin turns between trees, and to the creek where the pipe is exposed, parallel to a little bridge. It's a mottled, muddled thing, speckled with lichen and splotched with some tarry coating.
When the pipe was operating, 4 million gallons of crude would shoot through here at a pressure of 700 or 800 pounds per square inch. The crack that opened in Mayflower was some 22 feet long, roughly the length of this exposed segment. If there were another break, odds are people here would know it before the pipeline's built-in remote sensors. PHMSA records show that of the 960 spills in the United States between 2002 and 2012, the general public reported 22 percent of them. Oil company employees found 62 percent. Sensors caught only 5 percent. That makes people like Jones and Fitzgerald part of the state's first line of defense in a spill.
Fitzgerald heads back to the clubhouse for a Reuben with blue cheese dressing and to order a Miller Lite from Jones. As he picks his way through the trees he ponders life in Pocahontas. "Play golf and drink beer," he says. "And call for a driver. ... Thank God for wives. Understanding wives."
Two months after the Mayflower spill, Nathaniel Smith, director of the Arkansas Department of Health, sent a letter to Exxon and PHMSA asking that the pipeline company and federal regulators act on eight measures to guarantee that the Pegasus pipeline does not harm the 18 watersheds from which Arkansans drink.
Those recommendations include removing the pipeline from critical drinking water sources and installing isolation valves and protective encasement of the pipeline at all stream crossings. The letter also called on Exxon to update its emergency response plans and stockpile enough equipment to address spills promptly and thoroughly.
Jeff Stone, director of the health department's engineering section, says the state felt obligated to speak out after the spill. "Mayflower was a wakeup call for everyone," Stone says.
One of the water sources in northeast Arkansas is the Spring River, which the Pegasus crosses just before the Spring dumps into the Black River. When the hazardous materials team in Lawrence County considers the possibility of an oil spill, that near-convergence of the Pegasus, the Spring and the Black emerges as a particular bugbear.
"As firefighters, emergency response here, we don't clean anything up, we just try to stop it as soon as possible," says Joe Chappell, the medical officer for the county's hazmat team. "We mitigate the circumstances with it and wait for professional teams." They hold classes, they stock booms, they stay ready. The county hasn't been through a pipeline break, but it has seen a couple of train derailments, and an overturned propane truck that prompted the evacuation of a nearby school but which did not, thank goodness, explode.
"We always considered ourselves real lucky," Chappell says.
Lowell Myers apologizes for his murky river. "This is normally crystal-clear," he says, but high rains have brought in mud from the hundred-odd upstream creeks that empty into this world-class fishery. Myers has guided here full-time for three years, and, for the 18 years before that, part-time while he managed the business side of Downtown Church of Christ in nearby Searcy. In the house of God, Myers spent his weekdays futzing with spreadsheets. He loved that job, but now he gets to guide people from all over the country, 12 months a year, on the river. "There's a great quote, and I can't remember what it is," he says. "Something about being in church, thinking about God, and being outside, being with God." Close enough.
Myers is heavyset, with an easy smile and snowy stubble that glints against deeply tanned cheeks. His flat-bottomed boat is 21 feet long and seats three comfortably. He backs it down the ramp at Ramsey's Access, a launch point on the Little Red River downstream from Pangburn. A blue heron loiters on a log as Myers aims the boat downriver.
The river is low, and the pregnant clouds overhead suggest why. With so much flooding downriver, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers isn't releasing water from Greers Ferry Lake — the impound that births this clear, cold current. Myers cranks up his outboard and steers around a slough. Cypress trees hunch along the banks, their knees jagging the shallows. A turtle slides off a log; dragonflies constellate overhead. It's a summer Tuesday, and there's not another person in sight.
These waters produced a world record brown trout once — 40 pounds and 4 ounces, caught by Rip Collins in 1992 — and remains a factory for brown and stocked rainbow trout. The river bottom's rocky moss beds breed insects like caddisflies and blue-winged olives and sowbugs, which feed trout. The trout, in turn, feed people.
The banks of the Little Red are lined with floating docks that range from the ramshackle to the ornate. The fancier roosts have padlocked rod closets, barbecue grills, picnic tables. They carry etched wooden plaques with names like Lloyd's Lodge and Lazy A Trout Dock.
Two dozen such platforms pass, then stillness. Myers points to a blurry smudge perpendicular below the surface, prominent enough to roil the current. There, two feet down, is the line of rocks that armors the Pegasus as it pierces the Little Red River.
"We call it the pipeline shelf," Myers says. "It's good fishing right behind it, where the water comes over and drops off over those rocks and into the deeper pool. Fish just hang out."
Myers figures no one on the river connects this pipeline to the Mayflower spill. Despite the slouching yellow warning signs at the top of the bank, the pipe and the rocks that protect it are, to fishermen, simply another feature to navigate and exploit, akin to a manmade sandbar or boulder.
"I've been over that pipe, pshew, a hundred times," he says. "I had no clue that was the same line as in Mayflower. And it could have easily been here instead of there. Why Mayflower instead of right in the middle of the Little Red?
"One rupture, one leak, one bad episode in a pipeline history, it could devastate our fishing industry."
"We always plan for worst-case scenarios," Tamara Jenkins says on the phone. She coordinates the Arkansas Department of Emergency Response in White County, and once every two years, her crews and Exxon conduct drills that suppose the unthinkable.
If the pipeline were to break in the Little Red River, three things would happen immediately. Searcy, a town of 23,000 people 23 miles away, would shut off the intake valve that slurps drinking water from the Little Red. First responders would lace absorbent booms across the river to corral the oil. The Army Corps of Engineers would stanch the river at its source, by closing the hydroelectric dam at the base of Greers Ferry Lake.
The severed river would continue to spill across the pipe for at least half a day. "It's like trying to stop a train on a dime," Jenkins says.
Counties have reciprocal agreements to help one another in times of crisis. White borders Faulkner County, home to Mayflower. The drive from the Little Red's intersection with the Pegasus to Conway, Faulkner's county seat, is a winding ride beneath bursts of forest canopy, through rolling pastures. The highway passes natural gas pads, an honor-system $6 watermelon stand, the Cleburne County livestock auction barn, a long-gone gas station, now just a bare slab and a sign for $1.39 unleaded. From there it's just a few miles of asphalt to the largest Arkansas city the Pegasus crosses.
Megan Brown picked up her road map at the Chamber of Commerce. If you need your own, she says, just walk in and say you're looking to buy a home in town. They'll give you one for free. She modified hers with a black marker, on the lower right corner: the cameo appearance the Pegasus makes in this college town of 52,000.
"I wanted to know where it was, because I live here," the young mother says. "If it spills and a mile away the kids are sick, I want to know, where is it?" Lately she's been thinking about what would happen if the Pegasus — fallow for five months and counting, gunked up with stale sludge — re-opened. If they flip the switch, could the pressure build in Conway, so near the rupture site?
(We ran this scenario past Richard Kuprewicz, a pipeline expert in Washington state, and he said the chance of a blowout during a restart is remote. "It'll mix pretty quick again," he said. "They could run a cleaning pig [pipeline robot] to help get the thing moving, if it started to tar out.")
But when Brown asked Pegasus-related questions around Conway, she didn't get far. She says she called her city councilmember Mary Smith, who according to Brown said the pipe doesn't go through Conway and suggested she should direct her questions to Faulkner County Judge Allen Dodson, who has led the Unified Command that responded to the spill. "I was like, 'Aw, man. Really?' " Brown says.
Brown's an environmental geology student at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, and her view of her surroundings is decidedly topographical, rather than political. The PHMSA maps put the lie to the reassuring notion: The pipeline runs through Conway proper, full of places where another break would become its own unique species of calamity.
On Amity Road, the Pegasus runs beneath a Halliburton-owned outfit called Multi-Chem, all vats and big trucks and metal staircases. Everything considered, this might be the most convenient spot for a Conway spill.
At the southeast edge of town, near the north tip of Lake Conway, the Pegasus goes within an eyelash of Caney Creek, a feeder for the fishing lake. Then it burrows under the yard behind the True Holiness Family Life Center, a boxy, metal-sided church.
In the adjacent neighborhood, it runs under a little berry farm where you can pick your own and where silver ribbons on strings flutter to deter birds. It runs under an above-ground pool in a backyard and near a yard that's full of alpacas. Then, onward, just outside town.
The pipe goes under a neighborhood on Skunk Hollow Road, just beyond the city limits, and cuts beneath the backyard of the Little Dumplings daycare. On a recent Friday afternoon, the front yard was full of dumplings scampering around plastic playsets. Everything considered, this might be the least convenient spot for a Conway spill.
"I hear, 'Well what can I do about it?' " Brown says. " 'Is there a petition, can I sign a petition?' Even from people who are uncertain about what really happened in Mayflower, even those people say, 'Don't turn it back on.' "
At sunset one evening, Ryan Senia, a displaced former resident of the Northwoods subdivision, walks around his side yard, and into a wide orange clayscape. This area used to be backyards, until crude swamped it and Exxon's crews stripped away trees and exhumed tons of earth. "This is all new dirt," Senia says over the thrum of a generator powering a tall light. He walks behind a neighbor's empty home where the remnants of a former yard — a bike, a hose, a lawnmower, a propane grill, part of a birdbath — clutter the back porch. "Come up over here, you can see they've dug up under the slab," he says. "You can see how deep they've dug it. So you know the oil is underground."
He turns to another home's foundation. There, in a grey puddle a foot beneath the brick, floats a glossy black blob the size of a fried egg. "It's eye-opening to see the oil right there," Senia says. "I know it's not a large amount, but that's only what you can see. The oil's under the house."
This is 20 weeks after the spill. Unified Command has cleared 19 of the 22 homes that were under mandatory evacuation as safe for re-entry, Senia's included, and Exxon notes that some people are moving back. By an informal count, maybe three homes are back to normal. Senia, for one, just sold his home to Exxon. At sundown on a weeknight, the driveways of Starlite Road North are blank, the windows are dark and all is quiet but for the generator and the yo-yoing moans of cicadas.
Up state Highway 113 near the western side of Lake Maumelle in Pulaski County is a "Jesus Saves" sign tacked to an oak tree. The wooden, hand-lettered sign points like a welcoming arrow to an opening in the forest where hikers can merge onto the Ouachita National Forest Trail, which wends its way along the northern edge of the impound lake.
This section of the trail roughly parallels the 13.5 miles of pipe that snakes through a watershed that provides water for 400,000 people in and around Little Rock. About one in seven Arkansans drinks, bathes, cooks and cleans with water from the reservoir.
Like the drone of cicadas and the babble of creeks, the Pegasus — with its distinctive red, yellow and black markers — is pretty much a constant hiking partner. Sometimes the trail runs right atop the buried spine of the pipeline itself. In places, rain has rutted gullies in the reddish soil, exposing the top of the pipeline to the elements.
Expansive views of the 8,900-acre lake are never far away. At points, the Pegasus skirts within 600 feet of the lake's edge. West of Highway 113 it's easy to count the spots — one, two, three — where the Pegasus crosses the Maumelle River, which Little Rock's water utility dammed in 1957 to create the lake. East of Highway 113, the Pegasus runs through miles of rugged, steep terrain without road access. At least half a dozen robust creeks drain that area, carving a direct path to the lake below.
There's only one shut-off valve for the Pegasus in the 88,000-acre watershed, a fact that makes Central Arkansas Water nervous. The valve is at the western end of Lake Maumelle and would require at least one Exxon representative to drive to the site to manually close it. The utility figures at least two hours would pass from the time a rupture was detected to the time the valve was closed. By then, the utility estimates that about 1.2 million gallons of oil could escape from the pipeline into the watershed.
The utility's auxiliary water supply, little Lake Winona, can supply only 38 percent of water required on a daily basis. If Lake Maumelle took a shot of oil, Central Arkansas Water would have to draw and treat water pulled from beneath the Arkansas River, a highway for barges. "The Arkansas River ... would not be anybody's second, third or fourth choice" as a drinking water source, said Graham Rich, the utility's chief executive officer.
Up state Highway 7 from the sprawl of drug stores and restaurants at the west gate of Hot Springs Village, the sleepy burg of Jessieville sits like a jewel in rolling hills and deep greenery.
Jessieville High School's stern main building resembles schools from little towns all over Arkansas, with puzzle-piece stonework walls built by the WPA. The Pegasus runs about 800 feet beyond the back fence of the property. Before he fielded a reporter's call, Andy Curry, the superintendent of the 910-student district, didn't know his school might be nearer to the Pegasus than any other in Arkansas. Though Curry knew a pipeline was nearby (hunters install deer stands along the easement, he said) he didn't know it carried petroleum, and he didn't know it was the same line that ruptured in Mayflower. During his three-year tenure, he says, Exxon hasn't contacted the school with instructions on what to do in case of a leak.
By his reading, the Mayflower story faded quickly from news coverage in his area. To Curry, it was just like the Gulf spill that he says BP "PR'ed" to death.
"Our society is about the big news story of the day," Curry says. "Everybody forgets about it, and there's something new the next day, and we forget about that. ... It seems like [a spill] on the mainland, around people, would be a huge news story for awhile. But you really haven't heard anything else about it."
South of the school, 100 yards from where the pipeline crosses Highway 7, Todd Breedlove and 9-year-old Todd Jr. are carrying boxes into an old storefront he rents as storage for his small business. The Breedloves live in Hot Springs Village.
The father says he had no idea the pipeline he drives above several times a week carried petroleum, or that it is the one Mayflower made famous. In a perfect world, Breedlove says, nobody would have a pipeline running near their home. Instead, we all have to shoulder some risk. Oil companies irritate him, constantly hiking gas prices while shipping crude overseas. But, he says, "oil greases the wheels of democracy, and it's just one of those things where you've got to have it in the future."
Even so, Breedlove admits he found parts of Exxon's response to the Mayflower pipeline breach "disturbing."
"It's a scary thing when, with the kind of money they have, they can come in and say: 'Why don't we just buy you a new house and you shut up?' " Breedlove says, looking down at his son from time to time. "That's when we all have to say: 'What's right is right. I'm not going to go after you, but I'm not going to sell out either.' "
Dan Rubio lives by the Hot Springs airport, where he works on planes. His friend Tim Lute lives in the trailer park on the hill above the pipeline. On a summer afternoon, Lute and Rubio pull up in a creaking 1971 Chevy pickup — a former Coca-Cola Bottling truck apparently held together with prayer. In the back, Tim's son T.J. and his friend Dakota Blackburn had come down to swim with Lute's blue heeler puppy, in the spot between Lakes Ouachita and Hamilton where the pipeline intersects the Ouachita River.
The park features a playground, concrete picnic tables, a boat dock, and a tree with a rope swing that leans out over the wide, deep, lovely river. Homes with backyard boathouses surround the park, secluded in a maze of switchback streets. Crickets squeal in the grass, and boats putt past. Half a mile upstream the county's water authority has an intake point. Downstream is open water and Lake Hamilton.
T.J. scales the tree with the swing. The rope arches out over the water, and the boy drops with a whoop and a splash. Rubio stands by a picnic table and looks out at the Ouachita. He was a fisherman in Alaska in March 1989, when the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Prince William Sound. Though he's leaving Arkansas soon for work, Rubio says he wants to return to Garland County, buy a place, and live near the water for the rest of his life. The prospect of oil escaping into this river petrifies him.
"Everybody I know hunts and fishes. When you walk along the lakes here, you see the fish, you see the deer," he says. "To me, there's nothing wrong with progress and doing what we have to do. ... But they can't have any chance of what happened in Mayflower happening here. ... Here, the impact would be catastrophic."
A couple of times a year, Exxon updates the county on what to do in such an event. Joy Sanders, director of Garland County Emergency Management, says that once, during a drill, Exxon dumped truckloads of flax seed into the spot where the Pegasus crosses the Ouachita River, to see whether a spill there could pollute the drinking water intake upstream that serves some 90,000 people. The seeds traveled into coves, but never reached the upstream dam.
While that test convinced Sanders that a breach wouldn't poison the water supply, she says the "cascading event" would still overwhelm emergency services. "We're depending on Exxon and their response team to be there," she says. "Honestly, with the equipment and resources that are available in Garland County, we wouldn't be able to handle it."
The odds of an accident happening here are slim. But then, the Pegasus has cracked open in Garland County before, in 1995, where the pipeline crosses Glazypeau Road, five miles from the county's emergency management headquarters.
"Evidently the county road grader got too deep after grading over and over and over," Sanders says, "and finally it got down low enough that it hit the pipeline."
Department of Transportation records show that moment of carelessness resulted in a 600-barrel spill, about one-eighth of what the Pegasus would dump in Mayflower 18 years later.
One of the few people in Arkansas who would see an instant upside in case of a disaster is a property owner on the Caddo, upstream of DeGray Lake. Frank Canale — loud, outspoken, tanned a uniform bronze — rents cabins in Glenwood, near where the Pegasus crosses the Caddo close to Mud Lake Road.
Originally from Memphis, Canale long made his living as an international real estate developer. He built the cabins on the Caddo when he came to Arkansas to care for his ailing mother, intending to sell them. Then the real estate market seized up in the credit crunch, trapping Canale in this Arkansas paradise.
His cabins on the Caddo, about 200 yards upriver from the pipeline, are picturesque: secluded, landscaped, with a terraced deck in the cool shade and steps that lead down to the waterline. The Caddo here lies in a cradle of stone rimmed by mountains, in a channel cut by a thousand-thousand years of flood. Most of the sunburnt paddlers who descend on weekends hail from Louisiana and Texas, he said, flatlanders craving trees and contours.
On a recent day, he was waiting to talk with someone from an auction company. He's ready to cash out. He's headed to Ecuador, he says, where some opportunities have opened. A spill? Why, that would certainly be one way out.
"Really, that would probably be my savior if that thing were to bust and wipe me out," he says, laughing. "I'd probably get more from [Exxon] than I could ever sell the place for."
A day later, up the river in Glenwood, Jim Smedley, owner of Arrowhead Cabin and Canoe, is shuttling canoeists back and forth in one of his white buses. A resident of Little Rock who flies helicopters for the National Guard, Smedley says he didn't know the pipeline that ruptured in Mayflower also crosses the river he has floated dozens of times. A spill on the Caddo, he says, would be devastating.
"I understand we've got to have oil to function," he says. "At the same time, if there has to be risk involved, there's got to be some sort of inspection procedure. I'm not sure how they do it, but if that pipeline is that old, I'm sure it's weak in a lot of places. There's been land shift faults and everything else."
Smedley says he'd like to think that Exxon and other oil companies would do the right thing to protect places like the Caddo River. But the spills in the Gulf and in Mayflower undermine that faith.
"I think the risk and the reward have to be balanced — the environmental impact," he says. "I think they wait for something like this to happen to fix a problem they already knew about. Maybe they knew about it, maybe they didn't. Maybe it was going to be too expensive to fix it."
In far Southwest Arkansas, take state Highway 108 past a vast concrete plant that squats on land flat as a cast iron griddle to a place called Matteson's Gin. From there, turn south past a cornfield, where the brown August crop presses in and turns the road into a gutter that fills with dust in the rearview. Pass an abandoned house trailer. Pass an Exxon valve slumbering in a chain link and barbed wire cage. Round a bend. Turn off at a wide, graveled spot, and finally you can drive onto the easement of the Pegasus pipeline itself, two brown ruts cutting through the high grass, the edge of the wide boulevard to nowhere guarded by deer stands on stilts.
Walk along the pipeline markers and a string of oak stakes tied with red ribbon. The grass is high, and on a cool morning, your jeans will soon be drenched in dew to the hip. In the underbrush, doves coo and sigh. There is the smell of wild mint.
Finally, a bright spot in the sky up ahead, the sound of water, a little rise, and then a view — the low bluff over the Red River, where Arkansas hands the Pegasus to Texas.
It's ironic that when the pipeline was built in the 1940s, engineers chose to have it cross the Red here — an old steamboat landing once called Lakeport, according to a cast-aluminum historical marker up on the highway. When the pipeline is running, 95,000 barrels a day blast through that spot, part of the network built to deliver the fossil fuels that long ago elbowed the steamboats off this river.
It's beautiful here. The Red gleams in the sun, with sandy banks wide and blond. A great, bone-white snag breaks the current in a rippling V. On the far shore, birds drink at the edge of the water, then spin away. There is nothing of people in sight, except for the yellow and black pipeline markers.
This story is part of a joint investigative project by Arkansas Times and Pulitzer Prize winning InsideClimate News. Funding for the project comes from readers who donated to an ioby.org crowdfunding campaign that raised nearly $27,000 and from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.
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