Clean-up or cover-up? Latest in Exxon oil spill reveals AG hired firm with oil industry ties, residents are ill and workers misinformed.

Tar Sands Blockade /CC BY 2.0

In the weeks following the rupture of the Exxon Mobil Pegasus pipeline that spilled hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil ( or tar sands diluted bitumen) into a Mayflower, Arkansas neighborhood and lake, the news about the spill was just one depressing story after the next as we learned that wildlife had been oiled, local residents, including children, were becoming sick, contaminated water was pumped into the lake, the media was being intimidated to reduce access and coverage and that Exxon may have known about the spill earlier than they are letting on.

Through all of this, one of the only sources of hope that justice would be served was Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel. He quickly launched an investigation, cut through the misleading language about oil reaching Lake Conway and brushed aside Exxon's attempts to manage his access to the spill site, sending a message to Arkansans and the nation that he wouldn't be misled or handled by the oil giant. However, a new report raises concerns that even McDaniel has been tainted by the oil industry when hired to help his investigation a firm known "for cover-up and not clean-up."

The Attorney General's office has hired the private contractor firm of Witt O'Brien's, which, according to Steve Horn at Desmog Blog:

"has had its hands in the botched clean-up efforts of almost every high-profile oil spill disaster in recent U.S. history, including the Exxon Valdez spill, the BP Deepwater Horizon spill, the Enbridge tar sands pipeline spill into the Kalamazoo River, and Hurricane Sandy."

Horn's exposé at Desmog Blog is well-researched and loaded with background information, including this gem:

O'Brien's was formed in the early 1980s by Jim O'Brien - a former U.S. Coast Guard officer - as O'Brien Oil Pollution Service, otherwise known by OOPS, Inc. That's not a joke, it was their actual name.

He summarizes the implications for Arkansas:

Yet its track record in Valdez, the Gulf of Mexico, Kalamazoo and now in Arkansas indicates that O'Brien's is more interested in PR damage control than spill cleanup. Crisis management is a key aspect of Witt O'Brien's client offerings, and its spin machine is currenly likely working just as hard as its actual spill clean-up team.

With Lake Conway and its accompanying cove now contaminated with tar sands dilbit, 22 households evacuated in Mayflower, it's no wonder ExxonMobil is running the show both by land and by air there. Yet, Attorney General McDaniel is taking spill cleanup advice from a firm known for cover-up and not clean-up, all under the guise of a robust independent investigation of Exxon.

Only time will tell how well McDaniel's office handles this investigation and how much Witt O'Brien is able to help or cover-up the full scope of this disaster, but this doesn't not bode well. Read the full report here.

UPDATE:

A friend with ties to Arkansas politics wrote to point out that despite whatever history Witt O'Brien may have, it wouldn't make sense for McDaniel to want to give Exxon a slap on the wrist. The tougher he is on Exxon the better it will be for Arkansas and for his own political prospects in the state. McDaniel had ambitions to run for Governor, but only dropped out of the race when news of an affair became public. If he is seen as being soft on Exxon and Arkansans feel like justice was not served, they will blame him, thus tarnishing his future political ambitions in the state. However, if he is successful in pursuing criminal charges on Exxon and wins in court, he'll be hailed as a hero that represented the interests of affected Arkansans, setting him up for another shot at a higher office.

Clean-up or Cover-up?

Fears that Exxon is misleading the public to cover-up the full-extent of the danger to the community are not uncommon.KARK has a report (non embeddable video!) on how the oil that spilled may cause cancer, which has residents confused and concerned.In a good recap of the health issues facing the community, Lynne Peeples at The Huffington Post reports a creepy encounter one resident had with Exxon workers in the middle of the night:

After nine days of headaches, stomachaches and a persistent sore throat, Appleman's sleep was disturbed again on Monday night by what she perceived as a "strange noise" coming from the lake. She spotted three guys in a boat equipped with a computer and large video screen netting several dead fish from the popular fishing spot. According to Appleman, the men ignored her questions and shined a spotlight on her as she tried to take pictures from the shore with her iPhone.
Citizen journalists for Tar Sands Blockade also claim residents are noticing a strange behaviors and a difference in the protective gear workers wear during the day versus the night.
At night, according to reports from several residents, workers wear full protective suits.
Something is wrong here. There are two possibilities, both alarming.1. Workers are wearing protective suits at night because they are spraying toxic dispersants. We also have independent reports from multiple residents that workers are spraying something, but only at night. They also report that the smell is different and more intense while this is happening.2. Exxon is knowingly exposing its workers to carcinogenic and teratogenic compounds, without their full knowledge or consent, in order to create a media fiction in which this spill is minor enough to not even require full hazmat gear.Air quality testing trucks from Center for Environmental Health (CEH) are only on scene during the day, when residents say that the air is better anyway because of higher winds and when the alleged dispersal-spraying isn’t happening.
NOTE: I can't confirm these allegations and it is worth noting that there are other possibilities than the two scenarios the Tar Sands Blockade activist presents above. However, scenario #2 seems plausible when you consider how Exxon has their own doctor that claimed the children that became sick at school were simply more sensitive than other kids.Tar Sands Blockade also has been documenting how misinformed workers are about the risks they face by helping with the oil spill cleanup:
The workers we’ve spoken to, including police guarding the scene, uniformly say that Exxon has told them that they are cleaning up “crude oil.” They don’t think they need masks. This is a problem. Over the course of a prolonged exposure, acute symptoms may recede and the smell may become less noticeable, but toxins continue to bio-accumulate.
Meanwhile, in Mayflower, Reuters reports that the damaged section of pipe will finally be removed today:
A 52-feet section of Exxon Mobil Corp's damaged Arkansas crude oil pipeline will be cut and removed on Monday, the company said.
All this work will be making things extra busy in the Northwoods subdivision, according to this letter Exxon is giving residents:
Thankfully for all those workers and residents, threat of snake bites shouldn't be a problem, as Exxon seems to have bragged that most of the wildlife they killed are "venomous snakes." Really.I'll update this post as new information becomes available.UPDATE I: See above regarding political context in which McDaniel is operating and reasons hiring of Witt O'Brien may not be as worrisome as first thought.UPDATE II: AG McDaniel told KARK, ""Remember, this pipeline goes all the way across Arkansas. We have to make sure this never happens again," McDaniel added.More on the Mayflower, Arkansas oil spill Exxon pipeline rupture is 22 feet long, indicating immense pressure, possible criminal negligence.
As Exxon censors local media, citizen journalists document Arkansas oil spill. Can the pros be doing more?
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)

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