Exxon pipeline breaks spilling 84,000 gallons of Canadian crude oil near Arkansas lake [UPDATED]

[NOTE: Scroll to bottom for latest updates]

Originally published: March 31, 2013

On Thursday, I wrote about the 30,000 gallons of Canadian oil that spilled in Minnesota following a train derailment and noted the differences in oil spills caused by train accidents versus oil pipelines. Unfortunately, we now have another example of the large scale disasters oil pipelines create. On Friday, the ExxonMobil Pegasus pipeline, which brings Canadian crude oil from Illinois to Texas, ruptured, leaking at least 80,000 gallons of oil into the Central Arkansas town of Mayflower.

Arkansas' THV11 reports:

It was a rough start to the Easter holiday weekend after an oil spill struck in Mayflower. Authorities said as many as 40 homes had to be evacuated Friday afternoon.

Lisa Song at Inside Climate News reports on the size of the spill:

The size of the spill remains unclear. Dodson said the Environmental Protection Agency has estimated the spill at 84,000 gallons. The EPA and the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management did not return calls for comment.

According to a Saturday afternoon press release from Exxon, 189,000 gallons of oil and water have been recovered from the site so far, and it is prepared to clean up more than twice that amount.

KARK posted some photos taken by residents in the affected neighborhood.

Another photo shared on Facebook shows an another view of this oil-soaked backyard.

And don't miss the incredible video showing the oil spewing out of the ground right beside peoples' homes:

The spill was dangerously close to Lake Conway, but Arkansas' KARK reports that the spill has so far been prevented from reaching the lake:

More from Diane Sweet at Crooks and Liars:

"In 2009, Exxon modified the capacity of the Pegasus pipeline, increasing the capacity to transport Canadian tar sands oil by 50 percent, or about 30,000 barrels per day. In a 2012 report, Bloomberg News reported the pipeline daily capacity to be 96,000 barrels of oil per day."

According to the Arkansas Times the spill could have been much worse:

the break was in the same Exxon Mobil 20-inch pipeline that carries Canadian crude to Texas refineries across 13 miles of the Lake Mamelle watershed and crosses the Maumelle River at three places.

Had the spill occurred on either Lake Maumelle or the Maumelle River, this would have been a huge disaster for Arkansas.

Arkansas Senator Mark Pryor was one of one the seventeen Democrats that joined all the Republican Senators in voting for symbolic approval of the Keystone XL pipeline. Pryor has claimed the pipeline will help create jobs in Arkansas, where some of the pipe is manufactured, however as Bloomberg reported recently, the project will only create 20 full time jobs, not the thousands that Pryor, TransCanada and other supporters like to talk about.

Maybe when Pryor talks about how many jobs will be created by building more oil pipeline, they are referring to the emergency clean up crews that are needed when these things inevitably break and create environmental disasters.

UPDATE 1: April 1, 2013 - As with most oil-spills affected wildlife is often a cause for concern and this spill is no different. Here is one of several birds that have been delivered to The Hawk Center after coming into contact with the oil:

For more on the oil-soaked birds and what it means for the spill, read this post:
Are oil-soaked birds a sign that the oil has spread to Lake Conway?

UPDATE II: Kate Sheppard at Mother Jones wonders why Exxon is not being more forthcoming with the specific details about the size of the spill:

Exxon was cagey, at first, about giving an estimate of how much spilled, initially telling reporters it was "a few thousand" barrels or declining to give an estimate. In an interview with Inside Climate, a local official gave an estimate of 2,000 barrels (or 84,000 gallons).

UPDATE III: You may be wondering "what kind of oil spilled in Arkansas?" Well, it's not ordinary crude. The crude oil that spilled in Arkansas is actually dilbit, which stands for diluted bitumen.

Following the 2010 Enbridge pipeline dilbit spill in Michigan, InsideClimate News produced a good primer on the differences between dilbit and conventional oil:

Bitumen is a kind of crude oil found in natural oil sands deposits—it's the heaviest crude oil used today. The oil sands, also known as tar sands, contain a mixture of sand, water and oily bitumen.
Conventional crude oil is a liquid that can be pumped from underground deposits. It is then shipped by pipeline to refineries where it's processed into gasoline, diesel and other fuels.

Bitumen is too thick to be pumped from the ground or through pipelines. Instead, the heavy tar-like substance must be mined or extracted by injecting steam into the ground. The extracted bitumen has the consistency of peanut butter and requires extra processing before it can be delivered to a refinery.

To make the thick bitumen flow through a pipeline, chemicals and water are added to dilute it. Benzene, a known carcinogen, is often part of the diluents mixture.

So when you see a pond of oil in that Arkansas backyard above or the river of oil flowing through this suburban street, it likely contains more than just oil.

UPDATE IV: As far as the corporate response goes, ExxonMobil has launched a web page dedicated to this spill. And, this is not an April Fools joke, their PR team handling the response is called Downstream Media Relations. Fitting!

UPDATE V: "A coalition led by the National Wildlife Federation is demanding a moratorium on pending tar sands pipelines—including the Keystone XL—until regulators establish new rules to ensure their safety," reports Lisa Song at InsideClimate News:

Filed on behalf of 29 environmental and community groups and 36 individuals, the petition includes a list of nine policy recommendations for the safe transport of dilbit, a type of crude oil produced from Canada's oil sands region.

"Simply put, diluted bitumen and conventional crude oil are not the same substance," the petitioners wrote. "There is increasing evidence that the transport of diluted bitumen is putting America's public safety at risk. Current regulations fail to protect the public against those risks. Instead, regulations ... treat diluted bitumen and conventional crude the same."

UPDATE VI: Canada's Globe and Mail newspaper reports on how this spill is "seeping" into the debate over the Keystone XL pipeline:

As the thick black sludge was being steamed from yards and roads in Mayflower, Keystone opponents – already critical of the carbon-intensive nature of the product and its extraction process – seized on the spill as evidence of the additional risks associated with oil-sands crude.

“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,” said Democrat Ed Markey, who is running for the Massachusetts Senate seat vacated by Secretary of State John Kerry.

UPDATE VII: April 2, 2013 - Ducks are still coming into contact with the oil. New photos from The Hawk Center show the damage.

Conway, Arkansas' Log Cabin Democrat paper reported on how the oil spill has affected local wildlife:

"The oil is extremely thick. It is like removing gum from someone's hair. That's how thick it is getting it out of feathers," she said.

ExxonMobil spokesman Alan Jeffers said only Hazmat certified individuals should catch or transport the oiled ducks.

UPDATE VIII: For local residents, KATV reports that information for reporting claims to ExxonMobil has been released:

UPDATE IX: Writing at The Brad Blog, Shawn Smith Peirce puts the Mayflower spill in the context of Keystone XL and gets at the core of the debate over that tar sands pipeline and the threat it poses to the enormously important Ogallala Aquifer:

If you don't think the price is too high for that kind of oil --- oil Americans will never see, as it will be shipped to foreign ports and sold abroad --- ask yourself these questions:

If you lived in the neighborhood of an oil spill, how safe would you feel drinking the water from your well? How safe would you feel letting your kids play outside? What price would you pay to never have to see crude oil flooding the streets of your neighborhood?

UPDATE X: Max Brantley of The Arkansas Times has a good piece on the concern over how the pipeline threatens water sources in Arkansas. As Brantley notes, "the Exxon Mobil Pegasus pipeline crosses 13 miles of the Lake Maumelle watershed and thus poses a risk to Central Arkansas's water supply."

He's compiled some good responses from Central Arkansas Water's John Tynan, who manages the watershed and Graham Rich, CEO of the water utility. Both men note that Exxon has purchased some equipment to deal with future spills.

According to Rich, the equipment includes:

One is a stationary boom that is placed in water to prevent drift of oil. Another is a mobile unit that could move an oil-blocking boom to different places.

And in a letter about preparations being made to protect the watershed, John Tynan writes:

In partnership with Exxon, CAW installed oil boom housing and other emergency response equipment at the former North Shore Marina on the north shore of the Lake. This allows for quick response in the event of a spill in the remote north shore of the lake.

I am glad work is being done to ensure the safety of the Lake Maumelle watershed, but boom is just not adequate for containing the type of oil reportedly flowing through the Pegasus pipeline. As I noted in UPDATE III above, the Pegasus pipe is carrying dilbit, or diluted bitumen, which is thicker than conventional oil.

As Lisa Song at Inside Climate News has reported, dilbit also behaves differently than traditional oil when spilled in water.

Because dilbit contains bitumen—a type of crude oil that's heavier than most conventional crude oil—it can be harder to clean up when it spills into water. A 2010 spill in Michigan, which released a million gallons of dilbit in the Kalamazoo River and has cost pipeline operator Enbridge more than $820 million, continues to challenge scientists and regulators as they work on removing submerged oil from the riverbed.

What this means is that boom, which is like a long tube of paper towels and used to contain and absorb oil floating on the surface of the water, is not going to work when this heavy dilbit crude oil sinks to the bottom of Lake Maumelle. If there is a spill, boom is certainly going to be needed because some oil and contaminants will remain on the surface, but it isn't enough. What this shows is that ExxonMobil and other oil companies piping heavy, tar sands oil down from Canada just do not have the technology needed to deal with these spills, which are so frequent to feel inevitable.

I've put a call in to CAW to raise this point and will update this post if I get a response.

UPDATE XI: Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! spoke with Bill McKibben about the severity of this spill and what it means for the debate over Keystone XL:

UPDATE XII: Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel is opening an investigation into the cause of the spill:

In a letter to Exxon Mobil officials, McDaniel said his office will open an investigation into the cause and the impact of Exxon's Pegasus pipeline rupture. Thousands of gallons of crude oil leaked into a residential neighborhood near Lake Conway, leaving significant damage to the State's environment and to property in the surrounding area.

"This incident has damaged private property and Arkansas's natural resources. Homeowners have been forced from their homes as a result of this spill," McDaniel said. "Requesting that Exxon secure these documents and data is the first step in determining what happened and preserving evidence for any future litigation."

Note: Check back frequently as I will continue updating this post as the story develops.

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

Exxon pipeline breaks spilling 84,000 gallons of Canadian crude oil near Arkansas lake [UPDATED]
The ExxonMobil Pegasus pipeline, which carries Canadian crude oil from Illinois to Texas, ruptured Friday, leaking at least 80,000 gallons of oil into Central Arkansas.

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