Arkansas oil spill could be almost 300,000 gallons, video shows oil in wetland (UPDATES)

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New estimates of the amount of oil spilled by Exxon Mobil in Mayflower, Arkansas have grown far beyond the initial figures of 84,000 gallons. Susan White at Inside Climate News tries to get a sense of the actual size of the spill:

Engelmann said Friday that "3,500 to 5,000 is not our number" and suggested that InsideClimate News ask PHMSA where those figures came from. A PHMSA spokeswoman confirmed that the higher figures came from ExxonMobil Pipeline Company (EMPCO).

Reports posted online by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimate the spill even higher—at 4,000 to 7,000 barrels—as much as 40 percent more.

Austin Vela, the EPA spokesman at the spill site, said the agency stands by its 4,000 to 7,000 barrel estimate. When asked why those higher numbers aren't being included in the daily press releases issued by the joint command of the cleanup operation, Vela did not respond. The joint command includes five EPA employees as well as ExxonMobil officials.

Few, if any, media reports have cited the higher official EPA figure.

Aside from just a normal curiosity about how big of a mess there is to clean up, pinning down the number of barrels spilled has important financial implications:

Estimating the size of a spill in the first days after an accident can be contentious, because the volume of the spill affects the fines and penalties companies may eventually pay for violating the Clean Water Act. Fines can be as high as $1,100 for every barrel spilled. If gross negligence or willful misconduct is proven, violators can be forced to pay as much as $4,300 per barrel.

And the true size of the spill could be even larger:

Exxon says it shut down the pipeline within 16 minutes of detecting a pressure drop last Friday afternoon. The line continued to leak for 12 hours as it lost pressure, according to the PHMSA corrective action order. Two valves 18 miles apart were shut to isolate the leaking section of pipe.

If full, the 20-inch pipe would contain about 36,000 barrels of oil, or more than 1.5 million gallons.

As Rachel Maddow makes clear in the video above, Exxon Mobil is so profitable, even using the higher fines and the larger spill amount is not nearly enough to penalize the company.

While much attention has been given to the homes of the evacuated residents that are getting new lawns, the activist group, Tar Sands Blockade, has members on the ground in Mayflower risking arrest to show the public areas even local media have not seen, such as this "dumping ground" in the wetlands near the spill site. Tar Sands Blockade says they've heard reports that "because Exxon had already partially destroyed this wetland, they pumped diluted bitumen spilled in other areas here to get it all in one place and keep it out of sight of the media."

As RawStory notes, "While it’s not clear if the oil was intentionally moved into the wetland, the company says it is cleaning pavement with power washing devices, which could cause some of the oil to be pushed off neighborhood streets and into other areas." Whether this area has been used as a place to put oil so it can be cleaned later or it was just polluted with oil during the initial spill, it is clear the wetlands are highly contaminated and will be a massive challenge to clean.

See their video below:

TarSandsBlockade also has some good photos from this area on their Flickr page. Here are a few:

Tar Sands Blockade/CC BY 2.0
The photographer suspects this is the Pegasus pipeline, with a clamp over the damaged section. I cannot confirm this at this time.

Tar Sands Blockade/CC BY 2.0
Here is a still photo of the wetland that is contaminated with oil.

More photos at Flickr.

The Environmental Protection Agency's On Scene Coordinator website has a big gallery of photos documenting the spill site, cleanup and the command center. Grist called attention to these photos and said the website was shut down for some time Friday, but it is now back up.

ADEQ, the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality has a page on their website of data related to tests that are on-going in the area, including air quality monitoring. From their summary of the current data:

Overall, contaminant levels in the community continue to be below levels likely to cause health effects for the general population with the exception of the cleanup areas where emergency responders are directly working.

I think of this when I see photos of workers not wearing face masks even while working directly in the oil.

RT.com has a good timeline documenting the daily news since the spill occurred.

Greenpeace "asked Rick Steiner, an oil spill expert who has helped communities and regulators hold oil companies responsible since the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, for some important questions to try and get to the bottom of this most recent Exxon spill." Here are a few of Steiner’s questions:

5. How long after the leak detection alarm did it take Exxon to shut down the flow through? It is inexcusable that 10,000+ barrels came out without the flow being suspended.

6. When was the pipeline last pigged? (Pipeline Inspection Gauge = PIG)

7. What was the last maintenance on this segment of the pipeline, e.g., replacement?

8. Dilbit pipelines run much hotter, and thus have more corrosion, and thus have 2-3 times the failure rate of normal crude pipelines. What additional design factors were incorporated into the Pegasus pipeline to accommodate this added risk?

KARK has audio of the 911 calls when the spill was first reported.

A cartoon by Brian McFadden in The New York Times pokes fun at Exxon Mobil and Monsanto.

PBS' Newshour invited Anthony Swift of the Natural Resources Defense Council and Andrew Black of the Association of Oil Pipelines on to debate the merits of new pipelines.

Watch Weighing Risks of Keystone Pipeline Extension After Spill on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.

Dave Biello at Scientific American reports on whether tar sands oil increases the risks to older pipelines.


Critics charge that pipelines carrying diluted bitumen, or "dilbit"—a heavy oil extracted from tar sands mined in northern Alberta—pose a special risk because, compared with more conventional crude, they must operate at higher temperatures, which have been linked to increased corrosion. These pipelines also have to flow at higher pressures that may contribute to rupture as well.

Max Brantley at The Arkansas Times reports that the first of what will surely be many lawsuits has been filed against Exxon:

The suit argues that a decision to reverse the flow of oil transported in 2006 contributed to the break. Where lighter crude had been shipped north from sources to the south, the line now carries Canadian crude to Gulf refineries. The higher volume of more abrasive crude put greater pressure on the pipeline, the suit contends. It says pipeline capacity was increased by 30 percent in 2009 with activation of pumping stations. The pipeline has not been adequately maintained or inspected, the suit says.

There is a lot more to come on this story. Keep an eye on this post and follow along on Twitter for the latest. @TreeHugger and @ChrisTackett

More on the Mayflower, Arkansas oil spill
Exxon pipeline breaks spilling 84,000 gallons of Canadian crude oil near Arkansas lake [UPDATED]

Are 'oiled' birds in Arkansas signs the Exxon oil spill has spread to Lake Conway? (UPDATED)
Exxon won't pay into cleanup fund because oil spilled in Arkansas isn't "oil"

Shocking aerial video shows magnitude of Arkansas oil spill, as cleanup continues and frustration at Exxon grows [VIDEOS]
As Exxon cleans oil spill in Arkansas, Shell pipeline spills 700 barrels in Houston
Exxon's Arkansas oil spill has reached Lake Conway, says Attorney General McDaniel
Mayflower, Arkansas "on lockdown" following Exxon oil spill
Arkansas oil spill could be almost 300,000 gallons, video shows alleged "dumping ground" in wetland (UPDATES)

MORE: See all of our Mayflower, Arkansas oil spill coverage here.

Tags: Arkansas | Mayflower, Arkansas Oil Spill | Oil | Oil Spill | Tar Sands