Exxon Tar Sands Pipeline Ruptures in Arkansas, Forcing Evacuations and Threatening Wildlife (UPDATE)

Exxon Mobil pipeline oil spill, Mayflower, AR, March 2013 (AJ Zolten)
An Exxon Mobil pipeline carrying tar sands oil from Canada spilled in Arkansas on Friday, sending thousands of gallons of heavy crude oil flowing through residential streets outside Little Rock, forcing families to evacuate 22 homes, and threatening a reservoir treasured by sport fishermen. The disaster comes as regulators consider new, expanded or repurposed pipelines across America like Keystone XLto carry Canadian tar sands to port refineries.

It’s unclear exactly how much oil spilled, but as we saw in the early days of BP’s Gulf oil disaster, the number is growing exponentially each day. “Exxon Mobil officials said the total amount of water and oil pumped out of a Mayflower subdivision nearly tripled Sunday, reaching 12,000 barrels, or 504,000 gallons, compared with estimates on Saturday that crews had pumped 4,500 barrels,” reports the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette this morning.

The spill comes just days after a National Wildlife Federation-led coalition called on federal agencies to develop stronger safety standards for pipelines carrying heavy, corrosive tar sands oil. “It’s clear we need tough new standards to protect wildlife, our natural resources and public health,” said Jim Murphy, NWF’s senior counsel. “Until the right standards are put into place, we shouldn’t be exposing more communities and resources to tar sands risks.”

Watch this clip taken by a man who lives in the Mayflower, Ark. neighborhood where the pipeline ruptured:


Those storm drains head towards Lake Conway, a huge manmade reservoir stocked with bass, catfish, bream and crappie. Local authorities built several earthen dams to try to keep the tar sands oil out of Lake Conway, but if the water is fouled, it won’t just threaten the fish, it will threaten the area’s recreation economy.

As Reuters reports, the Arkansas spill comes at a critical juncture of America’s debate over whether to accept the risks inherent in transporting Canadian tar sands:

The 848-mile pipeline used to transport crude oil from Texas to Illinois. In 2006 Exxon reversed it to move crude from Illinois to Texas in response to growing Canadian oil production and the ability of U.S. Gulf Coast refineries to process heavy crude.

The Arkansas spill drew fast reaction from opponents of the 800,000 [barrel per day] Keystone XL pipeline, which also would carry heavy crude from Canada’s tar sands to the Gulf Coast refining hub.

Environmentalists have expressed concerns about the impact of developing the oil sands and say the crude is more corrosive to pipelines than conventional oil. On Wednesday, a train carrying Canadian crude derailed in Minnesota, spilling 15,000 gallons of oil.

Whether it’s the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, or … (the) mess in Arkansas, Americans are realizing that transporting large amounts of this corrosive and polluting fuel is a bad deal for American taxpayers and for our environment,” said Representative Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat.

It’s not just Keystone XL – there’s also the Enbridge pipeline in Michigan that spilled into the Kalamazoo River in 2010 as well as the proposal to reverse New England’s Trailbreaker pipeline to carry tar sands from Canada to Maine. As NWF reported in 2010, oil disaster’s aren’t rare – they’re tragically common.

The National Wildlife Federation is working with staff, partners and our state affiliate, the Arkansas Wildlife Federation to monitor the impacts of the Arkansas oil spill. Keep checking back to this post and to Wildlife Promise for updates.

Take Action

The risks to our wildlife, communities and clean water are just too great — tell President Obama he should say no to the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.

UPDATE: The Helping Arkansas Wild Kritters (HAWK) Center is posting pictures of oiled birds to their Facebook page.

Lauren Ray, a University of the Ozarks student, sent NWF this photo of one of the ducks that was treated at the HAWK Center. According to Lauren, “This duck had already been washed multiple times, yet the oil was still very apparent.”

Oiled duck from Mayflower Ark. oil spill. Photo by Lauren Ray.