On Sunday, officials with ExxonMobil and local leaders allowed the press to get its first look at an area where an oil pipeline ruptured a week and a half ago, spilling an estimated 5,000 barrels of tar sands.
The tour occurred as workers in yellow hazmat suits continued working to clean up the upscale neighborhood in Mayflower.
“So here we are at the scene of the rupture. In the background you will see the site. It’s in the general vicinity of the orange tape and you’ll see workers excavating oil-soaked soil,” said Faulkner County Judge Allen Dodson, who is among those overseeing the effort.
So far, officials say more than a thousand cubic yards of contaminated soil has been removed.
Karen Tyrone, vice-president for the ExxonMobil Pipeline Company, says they haven’t yet removed soil above where the Pegasus pipeline ruptured.
“It is important that we do that right so that the investigation yields all the information,” Tyrone said.
“We are starting to put things in place in the pipe so that we can evacuate the remaining oil that’s sitting in the pipe so that we can safely excavate it, then remove it.”
Residents of the 22 homes in the neighborhood are still only being allowed brief visits back to pick up needed supplies or check on pets.
Jennifer Whittington lives across the street from where the rupture occurred. While stopping by Sunday with her young daughter, she recalled what it sounded like.
“I was here and I heard something. It was a big pop or a loud bang sound and I didn’t think anything about it. And I actually left about five minutes later to pick her up from school and I pull out and I see the river of oil and we just went from there,” Whittington said.
She said the neighborhood definitely looks a lot better, but still has concerns.
“Just about the safety of my kids when we come back, the long-term effects of that. Exxon’s been great up to this point, but there’s still lots of unanswered questions that I’m sure everybody’s aware of.”
This week officials hope to begin letting residents come back to stay, starting with homes furthest from the rupture.
Concern from many in the area is whether ExxonMobil has had too much control over the cleanup. To that, County Judge Dodson pointed to an ID on his chest, saying “You see this title? This is local on-scene commander. I’m one of four that make up a unified command and none of this activity happens without my authorization and the authorization of three others, one of which is Exxon.”
The other two are representatives from the state and federal government.
“You know, a plan is submitted to us for each planning cycle, each operational period. We review that. We either send it back with edits or we approve it as is,” Dodson said.
Another concern addressed has been the lack of media access to the site.
Last week reporters following Attorney General Dustin McDaniel were kicked out of the neighborhood as he and a team from his office investigated.
Also, the FAA declared a no fly zone over the area, preventing TV helicopters from observing the work, before that was rescinded Friday.
As she walked reporters through the neighborhood Sunday, Karen Tyrone with ExxonMobil said it was about safety.
“There was not an intent to not give you information, but to actually bring you in like this,” Tyrone said. “We really wanted to bring you in when it was safe. And we want to get our message out. I mean, we want the people to know what we’re doing. We want to answer those questions about getting the oil out and we want you to see how they’re doing it.”
County Judge Dodson said he understands the concerns and wants to reassure the community.
“We’re trying awfully hard and yeah, I think it’s been… you’re never satisfied, but I think the progress has been good and I can’t imagine it could have been done any faster than what has been done, in terms of safety,” Dodson said.
Meanwhile the Arkansas Attorney General has set a deadline of Wednesday for initial documents related to the spill to be turned over to his office.
Tyrone said the company will provide that information so that an appropriate state investigation can be conducted.