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As we spoke, a helicopter was flying slow circles over the cove. It was probably owned by ExxonMobil or someone working for the company, since on April 1, the Federal Aviation Administration had issued a NOTAM, or Notice to Airmen, which placed a five-nautical-mile flight restriction around the Mayflower site. All aircraft flying below 1,000 feet, the NOTAM said, were prohibited from entering the area unless given permission by Tom Suhrhoff, an aviation advisor with ExxonMobil. The ban came after KARK-TV sent a helicopter to capture aerial footage of the spill. Many critics of the response immediately seized on the NOTAM as an ExxonMobil effort to create a "media blackout" of the site, but the company has denied that anything other than air safety over the spill was the goal. The FAA ban was lifted April 5.
Sentney said his sinuses have been acting up and he's had a sore throat since the spill. As a homeowner, he wonders how the spill will affect the property values on homes along Dam Road. An avid fisherman, he wonders if it will be OK to eat the fish from Lake Conway in coming years. "It's a big question," he said. "I fish quite a bit out there and we eat a lot of fish. So, is it going to be safe? ... Personally, I think Exxon is not going to tell us the truth. They've got more money than we've got."
Sentney's fears about the future quality of the lake are shared by biologist Dr. Ben Cash, a herpetology specialist at the University of Central Arkansas who has taken on the job of cleaning snakes that have been rescued from the marsh that feeds the cove. (Wildlife Response Services, hired by Exxon to clean the dozens of mallards, teal, coot, beavers, muskrats, raccoons, turtles, nutria, grebes, squirrels and ducks too coated to identify in a facility in Sherwood, draws the line at snakes; it's delivered cottonmouths, water and mud snakes to Game and Fish to take to Cash.) "We know from other events like this that there is wildlife that moves back into the degraded habitat," picking up contaminants and spreading them, Cash said. Also, he said, "there may not be black crude" in Lake Conway, but the naphthalene in the crude will leach into the cove's water, which can't be fully blocked from the lake.
Today, the focus is on clean-up. "What will be important," Cash said, is what kind of shape the area is in "two years from now."
Ryan Senia has lived on North Starlite, a few houses away from where the breach occurred, since 2009. He said his house was actually listed for sale on the day of the pipeline rupture, but he's since taken down the listing.
Senia said he was at work in Little Rock when he got a text message about the spill from a friend and rushed to Mayflower to find his neighborhood already blocked off. He was able to get in to his house from 10 a.m. to noon March 30, the day after the spill. Oil had run up his driveway and seeped into the edge of his lawn.
Like the press and public, Senia was warned away by local authorities acting under the instructions of Exxon. "When I came out, there was a police officer there and he said, 'If you don't have everything you need right now, if you leave, you can't come back.' " He said he tried to go back to his house with a journalist in tow on April 1, but was turned away by sheriff's deputies. "It's easier to get onto a military base than it is to get into that neighborhood right now," he said.