Exxon Turns Suburb into an Oil Slick, Giving Environmentalists a Boost for their Cause

Deceptively beautiful, an oil sheen on tar (Photo by arbyreed / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)


A pipeline rupture in Mayflower, Arkansas Friday has given anti-oil advocates new fodder for the fight against Keystone XL. Thousands of gallons of Canadian Wabasca heavy crude oil en route from Illinois to the Gulf Coast burst from an Exxon Mobil pipeline, leaving slick roads, oil-logged lawns, and evacuated homes in its wake.

Wabasca crude oil, one variety of ‘oil sands’ from Canada’s tar fields, is “a heavy bitumen crude diluted with lighter liquids to allow it to flow through pipelines,” Reuters explained. So far, cleanup crews have recovered 12,000 barrels of oil and water from the suburb north of Little Rock, officials say, and it’s not yet clear how much of that was pure oil.

Dan Scheiman, Audubon Arkansas bird conservation director, says that some spilled into the woods around Mayflower. "In terms of wildlife that’s been harmed, several ducks have been oiled, [as well as] reports of egrets, beavers, and otters that have been oiled, too," he said.

Exxon currently won’t predict how long repairs will take because it depends on the excavation set to occur around the damaged pipe. “I can’t speculate on when it will happen,” Exxon spokesperson Alan Jeffers told Reuters. “Excavation is necessary as part of an investigation to determine the cause of the incident.”

Clearly, that cause also remains unknown, though environmental groups have their theories. Tar sands sent surging down pipelines can have extraordinarily corrosive effects, they say. That weakens the pipes and paves the way for events like this. The National Resources Defense Council argues that detection systems are less likely to pick up on tar sands leaks, that the mechanisms currently in place to respond to leaks are inadequate, and when they do happen, they are far more damaging than other types. "The Keystone XL pipeline is much bigger than this," Scheiman added. "A lot more oil could be spilled in an accident just like this. I think it’s a wake-up call."

For now, the leaking Arkansas pipeline has been cut off, and more than a dozen vacuum trucks are on site to continue dredging up the spilled oil, CBS News reports. “We could see oil running down the road like a river,” said one Mayflower evacuee, Joe Bradley, to KTHV as he described the spill’s extent. Consultants contracted to survey the area, like the Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health, are also measuring air quality to ensure that residents aren’t at any major health risk.

In addition to concerns about the town’s locals, officials worried about nearby Lake Conway. Oil found its way into storm water drains that almost funneled it into the lake, a popular spot for bream and bass fishermen. Luckily, the oil was stopped in its path by responders who built dirt dikes across drains. Exxon also installed 3,600 feet of boom near the water to contain the oil and stop it entering the lake. 

Nevertheless, residents and conservationists still worry that oil could find its way into the water. "Since this is crude oil from the tar sands, it's really heavy," Scheiman said. "Our concern is that its going to sink to the bottom of Lake Conway." Dredging the water body for oil could badly damage the environment there, he added, harming a spot where osprey, cormorants, pelicans, and other birds are seen.

CBS reports that ExxonMobil and local officials said they suspected that only a few thousand barrels of oil were contained in the retrieved 12,000 barrels of water-oil mix, but that authorities were preparing for more than 10,000 barrels “to be conservative.”

Despite this cautious disaster response and small successes like temporarily staving off the oil from the lake, critics point out that this spill is just one in a list of many that suggest the rising effect of tar sands oil on our surroundings. Massachusetts Representative Ed Markey encapsulated the concern when he spoke to Reuters: “Whether it’s the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, or ... [the] mess in Arkansas, Americans are realizing that transporting large amounts of this corrosive and polluting fuel is a bad deal for American taxpayers and for our environment.”

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