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Arkansas Community Watchdogs Concerned After Massive Oil Spill

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Conservative estimates show around 5,000 barrels of crude oil spilled March 29 from Exxon’s ruptured pipeline running through the small town of Mayflower, Arkansas.  That’s about three barrels of oil for every person who lives in Faulkner County, just north of Little Rock.  Independent estimates are double that amount.  Residents spent a recent town hall meeting trying to comprehend health concerns, cleanup efforts and long-term effects from the spill.  And it’s not the county’s only major connection to the energy industry.  Faulkner is one of five counties plundered in a modern-day gold rush for natural gas locked up in the Fayetteville Shale formation.  A billboard along the highway declares with a phone number to call, “We Buy Minerals!”

Mayflower, Arkansas oil spill cleanup
Photo courtesy:  Faulkner County Concerned Citizens Advisory Group

The Faulkner County Concerned Citizens Advisory Group that had recently been trained in monitoring air quality because of natural gas fracking concerns, found itself moving its modern bucket brigade from the gas fields to the neighborhood-turned-unexpected-oil field. A month after the spill, after Exxon has declared the mess mostly cleaned up, the local watchdog group is cautioning that its data seems to differ from Exxon’s and even from official government reports about how the crude oil affected the neighborhood.  The Faulkner County group is still concerned about remnants of oil in local waterways.  Plus, its air sampling backed by Global Community Monitor, at least initially, seemed to vary drastically from official government and industry reports.  Advisory Group member and local resident April Lane said, “I can tell you that we detected 30 chemicals and benzene, toluene, hexane, ethylbenzene were among them in above health standard levels for community chronic exposure and especially those vulnerable populations, children, women, pregnant women, and elderly.”  When FCCAG interviewed residents it found that one Mayfield resident living near the spill chose to evacuate after her son began having wheezing, diarrhea and nausea from the fumes.  There were also reports of severe headaches and nausea from other residents, noted by FCCAG. 

Mayflower, Arkansas oil spill cleanup
Photo courtesy:  Faulkner County Concerned Citizens Advisory Group

Earlier this year in efforts to educate gas station owners about safety measures for underground fuel tanks, the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality said in a news release, “Petroleum making its way into groundwater and vapors rising through the soil are serious threats to the environment and human health.”  After the massive crude oil spill in Mayflower, ADEQ has been sending out messages of reassurance via its website and media that both drinking water and air quality are safe.  On its site, ADEQ states, “Overall, air emissions in the community continue to be below levels likely to cause health effects for the general population.”  The FCCAG is concerned that EPA and industry testing is based only on occupational standards and that officials are not using proper detection limit tests.

The Arkansas Department of Health, while having representatives on the ground near the oil spill, says it doesn’t do any of its own air sampling. ADH representative Ed Barham explained “We don’t do any air quality monitoring at all.  We’re involved in this spill chiefly to evaluate the results that the EPA and Exxon Mobile are coming up with.  The EPA would be responsible for any air quality monitoring.”  Barham explained that while someone checked air quality at the school in Mayflower the day of the spill, officials never found a need to close the school.  Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel’s office shared reports that several students had gone home nauseated the day of the spill. The FCCAG notes that after school sports practice for children “directly across the railroad tracks from where the spill occurred” seemed to indicate a business as usual mode while citizens had health concerns.  AG McDaniel has launched an investigation into the cause and impact of the Mayflower oil spill.

The type of thick, crude oil that spilled from the tar sands of Canada, with toxic additives that help it move through a pipeline, has been somewhat unpredictable to deal with.  Critics of tar sands oil point to this disaster in Arkansas as another reason to deny the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline.

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