People In ‘Safe’ Areas Becoming Ill From Exxon’s Mayflower Oil Spill

As Exxon promised residents they were safe, birds, bees, and anyone breathing air were really in danger. Photo by Courtney Spradlin/Log Cabin Democrats@LATimes

As Exxon promised residents they were safe, birds, bees, and anyone breathing air were really in danger. Photo by Courtney Spradlin/Log Cabin Democrats@LATimes

A very disturbing picture is emerging of the lengths the oil industry will go to to protect their own interests. We recently learned that BP lied extensively about the environmental and human impact of their oil spill along the Gulf Coast and it was disturbing to say the least. Now, a similar story is emerging from Arkansas; this time it is ExxonMobil at the center of the controversy but the story is much the same.

On March 29th the people of Mayflower, Arkansas awoke to news that an Exxon-owned pipeline had ruptured, spilling roughly 10,000 barrels of oil onto the streets and into the swamps of the town. As a result of the spill, authorities had to evacuate 22 homes in the Northwoods subdivision where the spill occurred, but other areas, as close as 300 yards away from the spill, were told it was safe to stay home. Now those people outside of the evacuation zones are suffering serious, serious illnesses and, consequently, are suing Exxon for ignoring their problems and lying about the safety of the air they’ve been breathing.

While ExxonMobil continues to assure people that the air is perfectly safe, residents and testing results tell a completely different story. At a May 29th town hall meeting organized by Faulkner County Citizens Advisory Group, residents spoke out about the problems they faced as a result of the oil spill. They complained about headaches, nausea, breathing problems; some are now using inhalers for the first time in their lives. A local elementary school had to send eight students home after the children fell ill. The school was outside of the evacuation zone and deemed safe, therefore it never closed after the spill. No bog deal, right? They’re only kids and surely kids can handle a few deadly chemicals.

One woman, Ann Jarrell, spoke of the irony that her bees were moved a safe distance away but she was not.

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Ann Jarrell said she was at home with her daughter and her three-month-old grandchild when the spill occurred. Once they smelled the oil, Jarrell’s daughter said they should leave. Jarrell called the Mayflower Police Department and was told she did not have to evacuate. “’That smell is just put in there so we know if the pipe breaks or something,’” she said she was told. “So we stayed.” She is a beekeeper and a couple days after the spill she went to check on her two hives when she found the front porch of the hives covered in dead, oil-covered bees. “I called the state plant board and they did an emergency evacuation of my bees,” she said. “I stayed there, but my bees got moved to a safe distance away.”

An independent study conducted by the Faulkner County Citizens Advisory Board and Community Monitor found 30 toxic chemicals in the air at the site and in the surrounding areas. The air samples contained chemicals such as benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, n-hexane and xylenes. Benzene and ethylbenzene are cancer-causing chemicals. Breathing n-hexene can cause permanent damage to the nervous system and numbness in the genital regions, muscular weakness, blurred vision, and headaches. Seven of the chemicals found are regulated under the 1990 Federal Clean Air Act amendments as the most toxic of all known airborne chemicals.

So obviously the area was unsafe for people, yet Exxon did absolutely nothing to warn people of the danger. That sounds mighty familiar. The oil pipeline that ruptured carries Canadian tar sands from Illinois to Texas and environmentalists warn that it is a preview of what is to come if the Keystone XL pipeline is approved. If that is the case, people should be very, very worried. This recent oil spill puts an extra big spotlight on the fact that the oil industry is not above lying to protect themselves. BP did it and now Exxon is doing it.

Republicans think that the pipeline from Canada and more drilling along the Gulf is good business and are lobbying heavily for these projects to be approved. There is no doubt they would be good business and, hey, they might even provide jobs… but at what cost? The cost of more sick  people and kids? The cost of huge environmental impacts like we saw along the Gulf? That’s not a worthy price to pay and people need to wake up. This will continue to happen over and over and over again as the oil industry gains more power over our lives and, yes, they have lots of power over us. BP had to pay the biggest fine in U.S. history and still that fine only equaled one-quarter of their profits. So really, what do they have to worry about? The people of this country are the ones who are paying.

Let’s wish the people in Arkansas the same luck we are wishing the people along the Gulf Coast; hopefully they are all compensated for the oil industry’s bad business practices. They will certainly need it to pay for all of the huge medical bills they have and are likely on the horizon.