October 17, 2013

Maine Voices: Visit to spill site offers look at what it’s like to live the tar sands nightmare

The plight of Mayflower, Ark., underscores the need for Mainers to act to prevent a similar disaster here.

By Peter Lowell, Lakes Environmental Association executive director

 BRIDGTON — On March 29, an ExxonMobil pipeline experienced a 22-foot rupture, spilling more than 200,000 gallons of tar sands oil and inundating Mayflower, Ark., with noxious fumes and a calamitous recovery problem. The continuing misery perpetrated on the tiny town of 2,200 provides a powerful, immediate incentive for Mainers to learn from this experience.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Peter Lowell is executive director of the Lakes Environmental Association in Bridgton.

The environmental, economic, social and public health reverberations in Arkansas are troubling to observe, particularly as they could easily be replicated in Maine’s Sebago Lake watershed. The 60-year-old Portland Pipe Line crosses the Crooked River at six locations and hangs exposed under Route 302 at Panther Run in Raymond on the edge of Sebago Lake. The Crooked River is the main tributary to Sebago, which serves as the water supply for 200,000 Mainers.

Court documents filed in late September by Central Arkansas Water – the Portland Water District equivalent – list violations of the federal Pipeline Safety Act that are haunting to read. Every violation cited could easily apply to the situation here.

Lindsay Millar, editor of the Arkansas Times, provided copies to the Lakes Environmental Association and encouraged our organization to seek information on pipeline inspections and emergency response plans, and to learn proactively from the Mayflower disaster.

The Arkansas Times, in collaboration with Inside Climate News, has provided exhaustive coverage of the plight of Mayflower residents who were displaced from their homes, refused ongoing housing compensation and denied health screenings for six months after the calamity.

When LEA staff visited Mayflower this month, the team overseeing the spill had recently shifted from cleanup to restoration mode.

Arkansas Chief Deputy Attorney General Brad Phelps confirmed they are “finding oil in the cove” and “are trying to get the cleanup team back,” as fall rains threaten to move contaminants into the main basin of Lake Conway. Many residents such as Genevieve Long, who lives just a few hundred feet from where the oil flowed toward Lake Conway, contend the oil has already reached the lake.

Matt Moran, a biology professor at nearby Hendrix College, expressed concern that the oil and heavy metals would adversely affect wildlife and the area’s ecosystems, and would accumulate in fish consumed by both bald eagles and humans.

When I visited a forested wetland abutting a lake cove, the heavily excavated forest looked like a clam flat bisected by numerous containment booms. Aluminum pie plates had been tied on strings hung from poles to scare off the wildlife. Humans were warned off with “Danger Do Not Enter – Falling Tree Hazard” signs. The muddy wasteland, saturated by recent rain, glistened with the petroleum sheen on the puddles that my footprints left in the oil-scented ground.

Central Arkansas Water in Little Rock is scrambling to protect Lake Maumelle, the water supply for 400,000 Arkansans. John Tynan, watershed protection manager, explained that Central Arkansas Water is filing a suit against ExxonMobil in an effort to have the 13.5 miles of pipeline in the lake’s watershed relocated.

“No one had planned for the contingency that this oil would sink,” Tynan explained. “Exxon did not seem interested in researching how to respond to a sinking contaminant.”

The state of Arkansas also filed suit against ExxonMobil, alleging violations of state laws. Heather Richardson, chief investigator in the Public Protection Department of the Attorney General’s Office, and Phelps, the chief deputy attorney general, agreed that “This is like nothing we’ve ever experienced.” Phelps added that ExxonMobil “was not cooperating, period. They’re not being nice in this process, at all.”

One person already in response mode when Mayflower made the news was April Lane, who founded the public awareness website ArkansasFracking.org.

She quickly converted that group’s focus to tar sands and brought in air sampling canisters after the spill. Residents reported that children in the elementary school adjacent to the spill were nauseated for weeks after the incident. I spoke with other residents who complained of lingering sickness from breathing the oil fumes.

The only people evacuated in Mayflower were homeowners in Northwoods, an upscale subdivision at the epicenter of the leak. Nearby residents, including schoolchildren, were not evacuated and are not being considered eligible for compensation by ExxonMobil.

The people of Arkansas have proven themselves resilient and resourceful in their recovery efforts, and generous in sharing lessons from a catastrophe that might have been avoided. The message for the people of Maine is that the time to act is before, not after the fact. We cannot afford to repeat the Mayflower story in Maine.

— Special to the Press Herald

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