DOJ & Arkansas sue, as emails show Exxon misled public about oil spill contamination

Eighty days ago Exxon Mobil's Pegasus pipeline ruptured in Mayflower, Arkansas spilling hundreds of thousands of gallons of diluted bitumen or tar sands oil from Canada into a residential neighborhood, nearby marsh and eventually contaminating Lake Conway, a popular fishing spot. In the past week, the Department of Justice and State of Arkansas have filed a lawsuit against Exxon, while internal Exxon emails have revealed the oil company intentionally misled the public about the extent of contamination in Lake Conway. As cleanup continues, some residents and local politicians feel ever thing is going okay, some going so far as to claim things are even better than before the spill. I suspect the sick and still displaced Mayflower residents would disagree. Details about these and more updates below.

Last week, the US Department of Justice and the State of Arkansas filed a lawsuit against Exxon Mobil. The suit seeks $1,100-$4,300 per barrel discharged and $45,000/day for the illegal storage of contaminated waste removed from the spill site.

The Justice Department said it is seeking civil penalties against Exxon under federal law.

Arkansas is seeking civil penalties for alleged violations of state waste and pollution laws. The state also seeks a judgment on Exxon's liability for damages related to the spill

David Hasemyer, InsideClimate News writes that pipeline experts find the timing unusual because "government agencies usually wait much longer—sometimes even years—before filing lawsuits against companies involved in pipeline accidents."

"And this [the lawsuit] comes along three months after?" said Carl Weimer, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, a nonprofit watchdog organization based in Bellingham, Wash. "There's something at work here we simply don't know about."

Philadelphia attorney Andy Levine, a former senior assistant regional counsel for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, described the legal strategy being pursued in Arkansas as "a head scratcher."

"It makes you wonder what was happening behind the scenes that caused this to ramp up so quickly to full-blown litigation," Levine said.

The degree to which Exxon appears to have clearly shown negligence in the case may be reason for the swift action. I've previously highlighted InsideClimate News' Katherine Bagley's excellent timeline documenting what Exxon new about the spill and their delays in notifying local officials.

Making matters worse for the oil giant are internal emails obtained by Greenpeace through a Freedom of Information Act request that show Exxon intentionally misled the public about the contamination to Lake Conway.

Records of emails between Arkansas’ DEQ and Exxon depict attempts by Exxon to pass off press releases with factually false information. In a draft press release dated April 8, Exxon claims “Tests on water samples show Lake Conway and the cove are oil-free.” However, internal emails from April 6 show Exxon knew of significant contamination across Lake Conway and the cove resulting from the oil spill.

When the chief of Arkansas Hazardous Waste division called Exxon out on this falsehood, Exxon amended the press release. However, they did not amend it to say that oil was in Lake Conway and contaminant levels in the lake were rising to dangerous levels, as they knew to be the case. Instead, they continue to claim that Lake Conway is “oil-free.”

More still in the case against Exxon are documents obtained by Rep. Ed Markey, which found Exxon to have used an unapproved emergency response plan in responding to the Mayflower oil spill.

Exxon had apparently been operating under a response plan received by PHMSA on March 14, 2013, two weeks before the spill, which increases the total estimated response time to 18 minutes to detect a rupture and shut down the Pegasus pipeline under a “Worst Case Discharge” scenario. That plan has not yet been approved, however, and the 2009 version on the books has a time of 12 minutes as its worst case scenario response. It took Exxon at least 16 minutes to detect the rupture in Arkansas and shut it down. A difference in just a few minutes could mean thousands of additional barrels of oil spilled during a pipeline rupture.

You can view the documents obtained by Rep. Markey here.

Considering all of this evidence indicating poor planning and unethical behavior on behalf of Exxon, it is shocking to hear that some Mayflower residents and officials are still supportive of the oil company.

In the video below, Mayflower resident Rob Fellows (or Rob Hall, there is a discrepancy in the print and video versions of this story) compares the rupture of the Pegasus pipeline to his own house being struck by lightning, calling it an "act of God". He goes on to say that he thinks things are even better than they were before the spill.

It would have been nice for this story to ask some of the residents directly affected by this oil spill, like those sharing their stories of illness on the Mayflower Oil Spill Diaries Facebook page, what they think of how Exxon has handled the clean-up and care of the sick and displaced residents.

Fresh lawn and powerwashed streets may make things look nicer on the surface, but the soil, water and air is still contaminated with toxic chemicals that were released during the oil spill. Residents are still sick. How can anyone seriously say this is better than before Exxon spilled hundreds of thousands of oil into this town?

Fellows (or Hall) isn't the only person to make such an audacious claim. Arkansas Lt. Governor Mark Darr and Mayflower Mayor Randy Holland also told UALR Public Radio that the area where the oil spill occurred is even better than before the spill. Really.

Nearly three months after the spill, Angela Spencer of Conway's Log Cabin Demorat newspaper reported that some areas of Mayflower have just now moved from "emergency response to remediation." Watch the report below.

One piece of silver lining about the spill is that the incident has raised awareness to the problems with oil spill regulation. Lisa Song at InsideClimate News reports on the discrepancies in federal guidelines for chemical exposure at oil spills. Aaron Bernstein, a pediatrician and associate director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard School of Public Health calls the differences in regulations "a mess".

"Science knows very little about the long-term effects of these toxic substances," he said. "How much, how often, how long is a very difficult question." The confusion over the difference between Arkansas' benzene guideline and guidelines set by federal agencies "is not new. We need to learn from our mistakes."

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

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

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