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Arkansas Oil Spill Health Issues, Lingering 'Putrid Stench' Worry Mayflower Moms

05/13/2013 07:28 pm ET
April Lane

Genieve Long recalled the fear of waking to her 5-year-old son "wheezing and struggling to breathe" a few days after an oil spill hit her town of Mayflower, Ark.

Long, a mother of four, is just one of many Mayflower parents worried about their kids' health, despite repeated assurances from ExxonMobil and local officials that toxic chemicals in the air have remained at safe levels since the company's Pegasus pipeline ruptured on March 29, spewing 210,000 gallons of Wabasca heavy crude mined from Canada's tar sands region into the community.

Results of independent health surveys and air sampling conducted in the weeks following the spill raise some reason for concern, said Wilma Subra, an environmental health consultant who has worked extensively in the wake of the BP Gulf oil spill. Levels of carcinogenic benzene and four other volatile organic compounds in samples taken on March 30 exceeded safety standards used in Texas and Louisiana. In all, tests in the days after the spill identified some 30 toxic chemicals in Mayflower.

"The chemicals detected in the samples match the health impacts experienced both in the immediate neighborhood of the spill, and in the surrounding community," said Subra.

arkansas oil spill health

Mayflower Elementary School did not close in the wake of ExxonMobil's Pegasus pipeline rupture. (EPA)

She and other experts also noted that many of the health standards currently in place, often devised to protect healthy adult workers, aren't appropriate for a situation like the one in Mayflower. Pregnant women and children, especially young children who are still developing, can be far more sensitive to the same chemicals at lower levels.

Even if a child is not repeatedly breathing, touching or ingesting these chemicals -- a real possibility due to the difficulty of cleaning the heavy material out of the water and soil -- early exposures may still be enough to result in reproductive problems and other long-term health issues, said Subra.

Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel is now expressing his concerns for the health of Mayflower residents, as well as his frustrations with ExxonMobil for not taking extra steps to safeguard the public or to adequately compensate residents whose property or health has already been harmed.

"There's a difference between legal levels of an eminent cancer-causing chemical in the air and what a homeowner would feel safe and comfortable with as a long-term chronic exposure for their family," said McDaniel, who has opened a toll-free hotline for concerns, questions or complaints related to the spill. "But when you get beyond the minimum of what is legally required of Exxon, we're finding resistance."

He added that lessons for Mayflower could be gleaned from another tar sands oil spill in Marshall, Mich., in 2010.

Susan Connolly, a Marshall resident, recalled similar concerns in the wake of the disaster there. Her kids' daycare, located within a mile of the Enbridge pipeline rupture, remained open after the spill.

Similarly, Mayflower Elementary School, located less than a quarter-mile from the Arkansas spill site, never closed. On the Monday after the spill, as HuffPost previously reported, the local elementary school sent home eight children who had become ill breathing the petrochemical fumes.

Like parents in Mayflower, Connolly recalled being told by company and public officials that the air around her home and the daycare was safe to breathe. "They said that it was just a temporary inconvenience and nothing to be concerned about," she said. Yet she recalled a host of health issues that quickly cropped up for both her son and daughter and others at the daycare -- from headaches and respiratory problems to diarrhea and skin rashes.

"They were the same exact symptoms as we're seeing in Arkansas," said Connolly, who has been advocating -- unsuccessfully, thus far -- for a long-term health study for Marshall.

April Lane of the Faulkner County Citizens Advisory Group performed the independent air sampling in Mayflower. She noted that the instruments she used were less prone to human error, more sensitive to low -- yet potentially still hazardous -- levels of chemicals and capable of identifying a longer list of contaminants than tests done by the EPA and ExxonMobil contractors.

"I can't wrap my mind around why, three years out, they still have not performed a comprehensive health assessment in Michigan," said Lane.

Had health impacts of the spill in Michigan been better monitored, she said, Arkansas officials could have been better prepared and perhaps more proactive in evacuating Mayflower's most vulnerable residents, such as young kids and others with underlying health conditions.

Lane and Subra criticized the decision by Arkansas state and local authorities to evacuate just 22 homes in the Northwoods subdivision, where the rupture occurred. Both suggested that other people, including some that live just as close to the rupture as the crow flies, also complained of health effects and got the run-around or were simply ignored by ExxonMobil.

The corporation, Lane said, is now often requiring doctors to say a health issue was caused by the oil before picking up a patient's bill. "None of these doctors have an environmental toxicology background," she noted.

"Looking back on it, the forceable evacuation area should've been much larger," said McDaniel, the Arkansas attorney general. He added that many people outside the Northwoods subdivision had been generally "overlooked."

The Longs live beyond the subdivison's boundaries near Lake Conway, on a cove where much of the oil eventually migrated. When Long asked ExxonMobil to relocate her family after the spill, she said the corporation rejected the request and stated that her air quality was just fine.

"They've completely disregarded this side of town," said Long, who has helped put together a Facebook page and a Google map to track health effects of the spill.

When questioned by HuffPost, ExxonMobil spokeswoman Rachael Moore said that "ExxonMobil will honor all valid claims."

"We have a team of experts in place who will review these cases and address the specific needs and concerns of each homeowner," she added.

Linda Lynch lives even closer to ground zero in Mayflower. "We're not more than 350 yards from the impact zone. You could stand on my deck and see the rooftops of Northwoods," she said. "But Exxon never came over and talked to us."

arkansas oil spill health

Genieve Long, of Mayflower, Ark., speaks in front of the U.S. State Department. (JP Strother)

Lynch said she woke up on Friday morning with a rash running up and down her lower legs. She added that she spent Thursday battling to get her daughter-in-law's breathing treatment covered by Exxon.

"This used to be a quiet little community, very kid-oriented," said Lynch, whose 5- and 9-year-old great-grandchildren play softball for the Mayflower Eagles. The team continued to practice at Frank Pearce Memorial Park, adjacent to the elementary school, in the days after the spill. "The ramifications are going to be long-term around here," said Lynch.

At a rally in front of the U.S. State Department Thursday, Long asked Secretary of State John Kerry to visit Mayflower so he could see -- and smell -- for himself why transporting Canadian oil sands is a bad idea.

Her goal, she said, was to raise awareness of potential risks to the health of people living along the proposed Keystone XL pipeline route between Alberta, Canada, and the Gulf Coast. But she also noted an unintentional personal benefit of the trip.

"It was lovely to go to Washington just to breathe clean air," she said. "When I came back home, the putrid stench was still not gone."

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