Dan Reed

Spill in Tiny Arkansas Town Becomes Battle Cry Against Keystone XL

I grew up in Arkansas, a state with countless places of natural beauty and majestic awe. The tiny central Arkansas town of Mayflower is not one of them.

And that’s a problem for the Keystone XL pipeline project as it continues to endure passionate opposition from environmentalists as it awaits approvals – or rejections – from the U.S. State Department and, ultimately, the White House.

Mayflower is a mile-wide community of less than 500 homes and fewer than 2,000 people built in swampy marshlands on the southwestern edge of Lake Conway, itself a murky 6-foot-deep, stump-filled fishing lake 30 miles north of Little Rock. To call it nondescript would be to insult truly nondescript places. If Intestate 40, one of the most heavily-traveled east-west transportation arteries in the nation, didn’t bisect this blue-collar village, even truckers, who know the location of pretty much every city of even minimal consequence is located, wouldn’t know where Mayflower is.

I’m sure people who live there love the place. But most choose to live in Mayflower not because of its beauty (it hasn’t any), but because it really is “nowhere,” a truly rural enclave where they can live almost completely unbothered by the rest of the world. Yet it’s close enough to Little Rock and Conway to make easy grocery store and mall runs.

The Oil Spill That Put Mayflower on the Map

But now Mayflower has entered the American lexicon, not so much as the name of a place, but as the name of an event. On March 29, a 20-plus foot section of the Exxon Pegasus pipeline ruptured and spilled out thousands of gallons of thick crude there. Exxon and its contractors so far have recovered more than 12,000 barrels of crude and contaminated water, and continue to work on the cleanup. But it is likely that a handful of homes closest to where the Pegasus pipeline broke open will never again be inhabitable. And while it’s hard to tell whether there are real health issues among the local residents following the spill or just a lot of medical posturing going on under the advice of, ahem, “plaintiffs’ lawyers,” it’s pretty much a certainty that Mayflower will remain on the periphery of the news for a year or more as medical and property liability cases wind their way through the courts.

Thus, Mayflower joins the list of other undistinguished places that have been turned into buzzwords, if not actual battle cries, by environmentalists following energy and chemical industry accidents or bad practices.

There’s Valdez, Alaska, of course, location of the famous Exxon Valdez oil tanker spill in 1989. There’s the entire northern coast of the Gulf of Mexico, which was damaged by the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform spill in 2010. Times Beach, Mo., a town of 2,000, was abandoned in 1983 because of dioxin contamination. And there’s Love Canal, a 36-block section of Niagara Falls, N.Y.  It was mostly abandoned after 1978 when it became known that the neighborhood had been built on a 1950s-era toxic waste dump, a fact that some health officials and attorneys blamed for above-average incidence of certain serious health problems among residents.

The Mayflower Spill Shouldn’t Doom Keystone

Oil and chemical spills are relatively rare. But they do happen. And when they happen in or near even relatively small communities like these, environmentalists and people inclined to make the NIMBY argument (“Not In My Back Yard”) are given powerful public relations ammunition to use against the industry. And though the Mayflower spill, while certainly not inconsequential to the few dozen families affected, was a relatively small spill in a remote place of no particular significance, it came at a really bad time for the industry.

It doesn’t make much sense that the Mayflower spill could be the thing that finally tips the scales against approval of the Keystone XL project. But for an administration that has made it clear it sides with the environmentalists on general policy and emotional levels – even as it weighs the huge economic stimulus approval of the Keystone XL project would trigger – not much is needed to tip the scales against approval.

I hope that the Mayflower spill doesn’t become the convenient excuse for White House disapproval of Keystone XL. And rationally, I really don’t think it will.

But Don’t Let ExxonMobile Off the Hook

But ExxonMobil didn’t do the industry any favors by allowing the Pegasus pipeline infrastructure to deteriorate enough so that the Mayflower spill could happen, especially now, while the Keystone XL project is in limbo. The forensic reports aren’t all in yet, so we really don’t’ know what, specifically, caused the Mayflower spill. But we know that the pipeline wasn’t damaged by outside third parties, like construction workers. So the cause ultimately will be laid at the feet of inadequate maintenance and/or system monitoring.

I’m sure ExxonMobil spends a substantial amount of money on pipeline maintenance and upkeep. And I’m not suggesting that negligence was involved (though others, with the support of plaintiffs’ attorneys, are likely to do so). But it is incumbent on the oil industry to raise continuously its standards for pipeline maintenance and monitoring, just like it became obvious in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon spill that offshore drilling policies, practices and techniques need to be stepped up continuously.

Yes, it’s expensive for any industry to continually be about the business of raising its own safety and environmental protection policies and practices. But how much more expensive is it in the long run – in mediation and amelioration costs, in legal costs, in lost revenue and capital, and in the hit to a company’s reputation and brand value – not to be continuously improving the state-of-the-art in terms of safety and environmental protection?

A Lesson from the Airline Industry

Until very recently airlines never really made enough profits to justify investing in newer, safer planes, or investing in new technologies for existing planes. But they did so anyway because they recognized that nothing could hurt them more, in the long run, than to be perceived as being cheap when it comes to safety. Oil companies, on the other hand, have remained, for the most part, handsomely profitable for a couple of decades now. So they surely can’t plead poverty. Heck, they can’t even take the position that they spend “enough” on pipeline maintenance and monitoring. They need to make it clear that they go well beyond simply spending “enough.”

Of course, no matter how much they spend, spills will continue to happen. Systems made of earthly materials inevitably deteriorate. And systems engineered, constructed and maintained by fallible humans inevitably will fail. But oil companies can and should improve their already reasonably good record on limiting and containing pipeline spills. And they MUST improve how others – especially political decision makers – perceive their commitment to pipeline safety and environmental protection.

“Where’s that?” places like Mayflower, Ark., should never again be given the opportunity to become environmentalist battle cries, or scale-tippers in momentous decisions.

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