Pipeline leak floods U.S. neighborhood with tar sands oil

• April 1, 2013
Tar sands oil spilled in Mayflower, Arkansas into a suburban backyard. Source: 350.org, 2013

Tar sands oil spilled in Mayflower, Arkansas into a suburban backyard. Source: 350.org, 2013

On Friday March 29th, families in Mayflower, Arkansas were evacuated after an ExxonMobil oil pipeline burst in their neighborhood, sending over 80,000 gallons of tar sands crude down their streets in only 45 minutes. Many of the residents were completely unaware of the pipeline until the accident filled their yards with oil and they were forced to leave with only what they could carry in their cars.

As of the morning of April 1st, clean up crews are working to contain the spill and prevent oil from running into waterways and storm drains, but rainy weather has complicated the process. So far, the oil does not appear to have run off into the nearby Lake Conway, an important source of drinking water. Twenty-two homes were evacuated and, while no one was hospitalized, it is not yet safe for residents to return. The vapors that rise off of the oil are dangerous to breathe, but those in the area report that the smell has lessened since Friday.

This spill is a vivid reminder of the unacceptable and unwarranted risks associated with transporting Canadian tar sands oil. Tar sands bitumen is a particularly heavy form of crude oil that is difficult to access, dangerous to transport, and requires high levels of land, water, and climate pollution in its processing.

Some local U.S. officials are praising Exxon for its quick response to the oil spill – but that praise ignores that such an accident should never have occurred at all and that this risk to communities should not be tolerated, especially when advanced, clean energy alternatives that do not pose such risks are readily available.

The leaking pipeline is ExxonMobil’s Pegasus pipeline, which is 20 inches in diameter and buried two feet underground. It runs 58 miles from Patoka, Illinois to Nederland, Texas, carrying heavy, bitumen crude from the Albertan tar sands region. This oil is a particularly heavy and low-quality form of crude, making it very corrosive and requiring it to be kept at a high temperature to ensure it flows during transport. These factors make pipelines such as the Pegasus particularly likely to leak. A study of a small network of high temperature pipelines in California showed they were 23 times as likely to rupture due to external corrosion than conventional pipelines.

The nature of this particular accident has led many to compare the Pegasus pipeline to TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline. The proposed KXL would also be carrying high temperature tar sands bitumen across thousands of miles of the interior United States. The KXL would be carrying almost nine times as many barrels of oil as the Pegasus, making even small pipeline malfunctions potentially devastating in consequence.

Earlier in the same week, a train carrying 15,000 gallons of tar sands oil derailed in Minnesota, creating another major spill. The U.S. Department of Transportation also proposed hitting Exxon with a $1.7 million fine for a spill in 2011 that sent 1509 barrels of oil into the Yellowstone River.

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About the Author

Emily is a graduate of St. Mary's College of Maryland with a B.A. in psychology. While in school, she spent her time leading environmental and social justice campaigns. She recently worked for the Chesapeake Climate Action Network as a grassroots organizer for a moratorium on natural gas fracking in Maryland.

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