Dr. Jonathan Jameson of Maumelle signed the papers to buy his new home the afternoon of Friday, March 29. Two hours later, an ExxonMobil Corp., pipeline ruptured and pumped 5,000 thousand barrels of tar-like black oil into what was to be his new neighborhood.
He hasn’t seen his home since. About 22 homes were evacuated. Many people don’t know when they might be able to return.
Motorists passing by can smell the oil fumes from Interstate-40.
Residents say the spill is among the worst in Arkansas in recent history.
As crews scraped the earth near the area where the line failed this week, the off-gas worsened, said Ed Barham, state health department spokesman.
The department reviews air quality data and decides when homeowners can go home once Exxon finishes the cleanup, Barham said. That green light for homecomings isn’t likely to happen this weekend, he said Friday.
Exxon still has to scrape down areas and then bring in sod, Barham said.
Some owners aren’t waiting.
On Friday, homeowners filed a civil lawsuit against Exxon in the U.S. District Court Eastern District of Arkansas Western Division. In the class action suit, homeowners said the pipeline was unsafe and its rupture hurt property values.
Before the spill, Northwoods was a nice subdivision with paved roads and brick homes with landscaped yards. On Starlite North, where Jameson wants to move, most homes are appraised at more than $140,000. At least one home is above $230,000, according to county assessor records online.
Those property values are likely to feel a blow, said Tammy Rogers, department chair and associate professor of finance at the University of Central Arkansas.
The next potential buyer will be told the area had an oil spill that impacted the house. Most people would rather live somewhere else, unless the owner drops the property value enough, said Rogers and Anthony McMullen, associate professor of business law at UCA.
“There’s always going to be the question ‘is it really clean?” McMullen said. “Knowing that you’ve had an accident, there’s always going to be an inkling in your mind, ‘Is this going to happen again?’”
‘A city that smells like oil’
As clean-up efforts continue, people are starting to talk about the impact the oil will have on home values, on the economy and on the spirit of those who live in Mayflower.
“No one wants to live in a city that smells like oil,” McMullen said.
The Mayflower economy and home prices might take an initial hit as the smell and oil linger in areas around Lake Conway, but long term the town will be OK, Mayor Randy Holland said.
“I think it’s going to be fine once it’s all said and done,” Holland said.
That optimism isn’t just from the mayor.
Jameson said he believes ExxonMobil will clean up his neighborhood, that the economy of Mayflower will grow and that the company will take care of displaced homeowners.
Jameson has until April 29 to move out of where he is now, he said. After that, he guessed he’d be in a hotel paid for by Exxon. After that, who knows, Jameson said.
If his home is severely damaged, he still won’t be able to renege on the contract, experts said. The home — near the center of the oil spill — is his.
“You buy it, you buy it,” said Wendy Moore, Real Estate One Realtor who represented Jameson in the sell.
“Once you sign it’s yours, along with all the problems that go along with it,” Rogers said.
Jameson plans to move into his home eventually but he is worried about the value of his investment, he said.
“Whenever you buy a home, you always want it to be an investment and not a liability,” Jameson said.
Mayflower is just beginning to understand the damages from the oil spill, McMullen said.
That includes: loss to businesses that were forced to shut down, property depreciation, cleanup costs and the fact that many people won’t want to do business or buy homes in Mayflower when the area smells and gives people headaches, he said.
Cleaning up Mayflower and paying for the economy could run into seven figures, McMullen said. That’s a price tag of more than a million, possibly, he said.
Exxon spokesman Kim Jordan said in email the company couldn’t comment on estimated damages.
The homeowners’ lawsuit asked for more than $75,000 exclusive of costs and interest for individual damages for the nuisance Exxon caused and another $5 million exclusive of costs and interest for damages “in the aggregate,” according to court filings.
So far, about 140 claims have been filed asking Exxon for compensation because of the oil spill, according to the company’s news release.
Jordan said she “didn’t have specific information on the claims.”
The Pegasus line
The broken line representing the now ruptured Pegasus Pipeline in the Northwoods subdivision plat is marked “gas,” but those who were building homes about a decade ago knew of the pipeline, a project manager said.
“I knew it was there,” he said.
The pipelines were marked on site and anytime construction crews were on those easement representatives from the company were there too, watching.
But if people didn’t wade through paperwork at the courthouse, they might not know the pipeline was there, Rogers said. Arkansans should decide whether they want to “fix” it so that home buyers can tell more readily what is in the pipeline or that it’s even there, she said.
“I think it’s a risk that people should be made aware of,” Rogers said.
The plat and the map from the Arkansas Geological Survey show the 1947-1948-built pipeline as labeled gas, but the state map could be wrong or the pipeline could have switched from oil to gas, said Doug Hanson, a geologist with the state survey.
Pegasus Pipeline was constructed to move crude oil from the Gulf to the Midwest, Jordan said in email. She said the pipeline was shut down in 2002, then reversed and restarted in 2006.
That change may have impacted Pegasus, according to federal records.
“A change in the direction of flow can affect the hydraulic and stress demands on the pipeline,” according to the Corrective Action Order issued to Exxon by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.
ExxonMobil has been cited previously in 2010 for not inspecting the pipeline as often as required, Jordan said.
The ruptured section is also from the late 1940s, Jordan said.
On the day of the rupture, the pipeline was transporting Wabasca Heavy crude — about 95,000 barrels of oil a day — from western Canada, Jordan said.
The entire Pegasus Pipeline, all 850 miles of it, are out of service, according to the corrective report.
In the corrective action report, a federal official noted the pipeline “without corrective measures would be hazardous to life, property and the environment.” When issuing the order, Jeffrey Wiese, associate administrator for pipeline safety, pointed out concerns that included the age of the pipeline, the flow change by ExxonMobil and concern for nearby waterways, people and environmentally sensitive areas.
The investigation into what happened is ongoing, officials say.
The federal department is involved in making sure that the pipeline is safe, preventing future leaks and finding out whether Exxon violated regulations, said Damon Hill, federal pipeline agency spokesman.
The investigation into the rupture can take about 20 months, Hill said.
Home sweet home
About 600 Exxon workers were working on the oil spill this past Friday.
By then, most of the “impacted soil” was removed from yards of six homes impacted by the spill, according to a company news release.
“Work will continue as weather permits to enable residents to return as quickly as possible to 22 homes evacuated on Starlite Road and Shade Tree Lane.
Meanwhile, Jameson said he is taking one day at a time
“We have good days and bad days,” he said.
The path to recovery is long, but things are getting better, said Fire Chief Carl Rossini.
On Friday afternoon, the mayor said in a news release that someone asked him “Is there anything we are missing?” Later, he awoke in the middle of the night with an answer.
“Mayflower was dealt this situation, but again this too shall pass,” the mayor wrote. “After all the oil is cleaned, and the residents are back in their homes, a normal life will resume. The debate on oil will continue, but the town, with God’s grace, will move forward.”
(Staff writer Scarlet Sims can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 505-1246. To comment on this and other stories in the Log Cabin, log on to www.thecabin.net. Send us your news at www.thecabin.net/submit)