Arkansas Oil Spill: "I Just Feel So Helpless"

A worker cleans up oil in Mayflower, Ark., on Monday, April 1, 2013, days after a pipeline ruptured and spewed oil over lawns
A worker cleans up oil in Mayflower, Ark., on Monday, April 1, 2013, days after a pipeline ruptured and spewed oil over lawns and roadways. (AP Photo/Jeannie Nuss)

"I just feel so helpless. We had a forum last week at school and people talked about what is going on but it's not like I can go and clean it up. I feel like we just sit around the cafeteria and talk about it and how helpless we feel. I feel so helpless."

She is one of my best friends, the kind of person who I'd fly across the country for in a flash. She is a senior at Hendrix College in Conway, Ark. She is about to graduate with a degree in biology and environmental science, she has a 4.0, and she lives 10.1 miles away from the Exxon Pegasus tar sands spill.

"I know honey," I say. "I guess it is just important to make sure you stay informed about what is happening. It's really close to you, lady."

Over the phone 1,800 miles away I don't say what I'm thinking. I don't want to scare her. What I don't say to her is, Be careful. You are really close to all this. What I don't say is that this spill could change the course of her life and the lives of thousands of other people living in the area. I don't say this because as a culture we don't say these things. Instead we say, I know honey. We say it will be OK. We repeat this over and over; it is the wish we hope with repetition will become true.

When I get off work on Wednesday, I have an email waiting from one of my favorite college professors. He teaches biology and during my time at school was involved in speaking out against the ways that natural gas production has impacted Arkansas environment, quality of life, and community. Earlier in the week he had promised to look into the spill, to take some pictures for me, to give me more insight into what is happening. As someone who has also lived the reality of being neighbors with the petroleum industry, he and his wife moved out of the dream home they built themselves because the natural gas company Southwestern Energy proved to be an impossible neighbor, I know that he understands my feelings about this spill. When I heard the spill had occurred I imagined his face tight with anger, the clipped words of frustration he would utter, the look of resigned defeat.

In the email he tells me that, while he wasn't able to get into the neighborhood where the spill had occurred, there was still plenty to see in the surrounding area. He says that although Exxon claims otherwise, there is definitely oil in Lake Conway and that he wonders how much of the heavy tar sands might sink under the booms they have put up. He says that they have had to take out about 20 acres of wetland and forest in the clean-up so far and that it appears Exxon's method of cleaning up is scraping all of the topsoil off the ground and carting it off somewhere.

As I read these words I wonder where they are taking this contaminated topsoil. We should all be wondering where they are taking it.


Photo credit: Matt Moran

A biologist, naturalist, fisherman and lover of Arkansas' wild places, he tells me about oil in one of the coves where crappie and sunfish should be breeding at this time of year. He says that the oil present there could be particularly harmful to these populations. He attaches eight photos, tells me to use whatever I like, and signs off.


Southern cove of Lake Conway. Photo credit: Matt Moran

I respect this man deeply, have been moved by his teaching, have laughed at his dorkiness. The words he writes are simple and deeply sad. He doesn't dress up the email with emotions or flowery images. Looking at those eight pictures and reading the captions he has included, however, I have seen enough. I feel like I have been hit by a truck.

A thunderstorm is supposed to hit Mayflower with up to 1.7 inches of rain. The lakes and streams will flood and the land will be washed over, not with life giving spring rain but with tar sands oil. I am scared for my friends and for a place that for four years was my home.


Dam built to keep contaminated oil out of the lake. Photo credit: Matt Moran

I keep thinking about my friend feeling helpless, wondering what she could be doing to help, wondering what I could be doing to help, wondering how we help. It seems that many of our leaders have left us in the lurch. President Obama gives no indication that he will deny the permit need for the construction of the northern segment of the Keystone XL pipeline. Several Arkansan elected officials have been outspoken proponents of the XL pipeline, a fact which now seems ironic if not embarrassing. It seems that if help is going to come, it is going to have to come from us.

The Pegasus spill is reported to have leaked at least 5,000 barrels of tar sands oil. The EPA has classified it as a major spill. It is a big deal. I think it is OK if it takes us a while to figure out how we can help. Arkansas, however, will live the impacts of the Pegasus spill for years to come, perhaps for forever. As a country we cannot afford the privilege of forgetting that this is true. We cannot afford to be helpless.

I am worried about people I love being exposed to byproducts of this spill -- worried about the possible impacts of things either not seen or ignored in the air and water, on the land. For now all I can do is write. It isn't much but I'm doing it in hopes that the more I write the closer I will come to figuring out how we can all help, how we can all find a way to feel and be safe, to no longer be helpless.