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Arkansas Oil Spill: Warning for the Future?

By Mike Andrew 

On March 29, a river of oil washed through the little town of Mayflower, Arkansas.

The oil belonged to Exxon Mobile, and it spilled into the streets of Mayflower when a pipeline ruptured. Although Exxon Mobile initially admit- ted to spilling only 4,500 barrels of oil, later reports put the figure at 12,000 barrels – more than 500,000 gallons.

While this is a minor disaster compared to the nearly 5 million barrels, or 210 million gallons, BP spilled in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, it’s an important event because of the kind of oil the pipeline was carrying.

The pipeline running through Mayflower was carrying tar sands oil from Wabasca, Alberta, Canada to Ned- erland, Texas, along a route roughly parallel to the proposed Keystone pipeline. Same route, same oil, same safety issues.

Unlike so-called “light sweet crude” oil, tar sands oil is not liquid in its natural state. To become liquid enough to flow through pipelines, it has to be mixed with some solvent, in this case benzene.

Consequently, when the pipeline ruptured, toxic solvents spilled into the streets of Mayflower along with the oil. Many residents said they became sick from the fumes. Twenty-two families had to be evacuated.

Although Exxon Mobile said the spill would not harm local waterways, the oil flowed into storm drains leading to nearby Lake Conway, a fishing lake. The manmade disaster was made even worse on April 10, when a rainstorm hit the region and spread the oil even further along the shores of Lake Conway.

Again, unlike light sweet crude, tar sands oil is denser than water, even when it’s mixed with benzene. That means that it sinks rather than float- ing on the surface where it can be contained by the floating booms we’re familiar with from the Gulf disaster.

At the present time, there is no technology available to retrieve tar sands oil once it’s sunk in a lake or waterway. It’s there for good.

Mayflower residents were astonished to see the oil bubbling up out of their backyards and running like a toxic river down their streets.

The pipeline was installed 40 years ago, and most Mayflower residents didn’t even know it was there till it burst. That’s one of the problems with oil pipelines – no one pays much atten- tion to them till they burst.

The oil company promised residents they would have the spill cleaned up within a week, but Mayflower residents say the problems are still unresolved. They continue to demand action and have formed a group called Arkansans Concerned about Oil Pipelines to force the company to take action.

How many local citizens’ groups will have to be formed if the Keystone Pipeline is approved?

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