New from the Times: Muckraking the Mayflower Oil Spill | Arkansas Blog

Sunday, June 23, 2013

New from the Times: Muckraking the Mayflower Oil Spill

Posted By on Sun, Jun 23, 2013 at 11:02 PM



I'm excited to announce a new partnership between the Arkansas Times and Pulitzer Prize-winning InsideClimate News. Together, we're undertaking a deep reporting project on the ExxonMobil oil spill in Mayflower.

It's been three months since the spill. ExxonMobil and local officials have said all visible freestanding oil has been removed and cleanup efforts have transitioned from “emergency” to “remediation.” Lt. Gov. Mark Darr said recently that it looked like ExxonMobil had made the area better than it was before. But many questions remain.

ExxonMobil has yet to explain what caused the 22-foot-long gash in the pipeline. Estimates of the number of barrels of oil spilled vary dramatically, from ExxonMobil’s latest estimate of 147,000 gallons to one lawsuit’s contention of 420,000 gallons. The federal agency that regulates pipelines has declined to provide information on the integrity of the pipeline to Arkansas officials.

ExxonMobil continues to insist that no oil escaped from the cove into the main body of Lake Conway, even though internal documents acquired by Greenpeace through a Freedom of Information request show that the company's own water tests indicated rising levels of benzene and other contaminants throughout the lake.

The spilled oil includes toxic chemicals such as benzene, hydrogen sulfide and toluene — and dozens of area residents have complained of headaches, stomach aches, nasal bleeding and hives.

Getting to the bottom of these issues obviously matters deeply to the people of Mayflower. It also has broader state impact — the 65-year-old pipeline travels through the Lake Maumelle watershed, the source of drinking water for more than 400,000 Central Arkansans. Futhermore, the question of pipeline safety is especially pertinent nationally as the debate over the Keystone XL pipeline continues.

This is a tremendously important story — and it's been significantly under-reported. Why? Small outlets like the Times can't afford to devote a staffer to the story full time. It's also extremely complicated, so even the larger organizations that are covering it regularly struggle to delve deeply enough.

We're excited to be teaming with InsideClimate News because it's one of the few outlets that's really been doing yeoman's work on the spill, though largely from thousands of miles away. Just last week, they published important pieces on the strange timing of the joint lawsuit filed by the state and feds against Exxon and the lack of scientific research on the health effects of exposure to an oil spill. Their coverage of the 2010 Enbridge Spill in Marshall, Mich., won them a Pulitzer this year. They have the institutional knowledge necessary to close the knowledge gap that ExxonMobil enjoys with most other journalists (not to mention state and local officials).

What's kept the Times and InsideClimate News from covering the spill sufficiently is a lack of resources. We both have small staffs and limited budgets. So we're turning to a new funding model. Together, we're trying to raise a little more than $25,000 to pay for two journalists — InsideClimate's Elizabeth McGowan, who was part of the Pulitzer team, and Times contributor Sam Eifling, a Fayetteville native who's worked for Arkansas Business and contributed to the likes of Slate and the Columbia Journalism Review — to come and spend several months aggressively reporting all aspects of the story. Each staff will provide support, and we'll collaborate on photo and video projects. Sam and Elizabeth will work independently and collaboratively when appropriate. They'll file regular dispatches from the scene as well as longer features. We'll publish everything jointly.

We're crowdfunding through the site ioby.org, a nonprofit that's focused on environmental projects. Because of ioby's nonprofit status, all donations to the project are tax deductible. Unlike Kickstarter and the like, ioby doesn't require us to set a fundraising deadline, but we're eager to meet our goal and get our reporters on the ground.

If you agree that the Mayflower spill deserves aggressive coverage, we hope you'll consider contributing.

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