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15 Things You Need to Know About the Tar Sands Oil Spill

Reporters trying to look at the cleanup site have described a "martial law" atmosphere.


The first "Tar Sands Oil Arkansas"  (published April 7)discussed a number of questions raised by the ExxonMobil Pegasus pipeline that burst in Mayflower, Arkansas, on March 29, pumping tar sands oil — technically Wabasca Heavy crude oil — into a residential neighborhood for almost an hour.

Among the questions touched on in that piece were protecting the pipeline from terrorists, residents suing ExxonMobil in federal court, the nature of Wabasca Heavy tar sands oil, some effects of the spill, and the "martial law" atmosphere described by reporters trying to look at the cleanup site.

As the second week of toxic air in Mayflower begins, here are more of the questions this disaster raises and some of the current answers, subject to future refinement. A reader writes:

1. What is the point of origin of the leak? In front of whose house? Why no image of the hole in the ground or in the pipe? Was it corrosion, a weld failure, sabotage by cutting or explosives, or WHAT? Do we have to wait for NTSB for answers? Are ExxonMobil and their execs too big to jail?

The point of origin appears to be in the woods, behind the houses, and underground. The absence of images is unexplained.

Corrosion or weld failure seem to be two likely possibilities for the cause of the leak.

As reported so far, the spill started quietly, with no one aware of the moment it started. It's not clear how long it took for someone to become aware, but not too long, presumably.

The circumstances known so far make sabotage (or inadvertence) by cutting, explosion, backhoe, bulldozer, or other means seem unlikely.

Several of the press releases issued by the Mayflower Incident Unified Command Joint Information Center over the past several days conclude with the statement: "The cause of the spill is under investigation."

Since ExxonMobil and its employees have not yet been convicted of committing a crime, it seems premature to consider jailing them.

2. Why were the pipeline and the residential subdivision built so close together?

Close is a relative term. There's no suggestion so far that the subdivision was built illegally, or didn't have the right permits, or interfered with the pipeline right of way, or anything like that.

Interestingly, though, the Arkansas Times interviewed a former ExxonMobil pipeline worker who raised questions about the company's commitment to safety.

The report continued:

He raised, too, a question mentioned here yesterday by another pipeline engineer about the wisdom of building new subdivisions over existing pipelines, as happened in Mayflower.

Considering the potential stress of building on top of a pipeline and the high pressure used when transporting heavy crude,É the developer of Northwoods should have worked with Exxon to reroute Pegasus around the neighborhood.

Other options, he said, include replacing the section of the pipeline with newer, stronger steel or burying it deeper under the ground. But ... pipeline companies have little incentive to take costly preventive action.

Even if they get a fine the fine will be a small fraction of the cost to correct a dangerous condition, he said.

3. Who Is the Mayflower Incident Unified Command?

The command's letterhead includes the logos for ExxonMobil, Faulkner County, the U.S. Environmental Protection Service (EPA), and the City of Mayflower, Arkansas.

It has been hard for reporters on the scene to learn much more. Even CBS News had to stay outside the yellow tape.

4. Hasn't ExxonMobil been forthcoming with information and documentation relating to the Pegasus pipeline rupture?

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