Mayflower Oil Spill One Year Later: A Look at the Pegasus Pipeline's Future

Mar 28, 2014

Hazmat workers clean oil spill less than 100 meters from an open Subway restaurant. 2013.

March 29th marks the one year anniversary of the Mayflower oil spill, when over 200,000 gallons of Canadian dilbit heavy crude oil seeped out of the Pegasus pipeline. The pipeline, owned by a subsidiary of Exxon Mobil Corporation, sits dormant, spanning Arkansas from Texarkana in the southwest to Pocahontas in the northeast.

KUAR’s Jacob Kauffman explores the lingering question of what will become of the Pegasus pipeline.

The 858 mile pipeline is divided into two sections from Illinois to Texas. The much smaller, slightly younger southern segment, contained entirely within Texas, is could re-open as early as today but for now the northern segment, which includes Arkansas, is still under federal review. Whether or not the portion of the Pegasus Pipeline running through Arkansas, built in 1947 and ’48, will re-open is one many unresolved issues still present after the town of Mayflower found out first hand what it can mean when a pipeline fails.

Soon after the pipeline ruptured, a wave of attention and energy was cast less than 30 miles away, upon the source of drinking water for over 400,000 Arkansans, Lake Maumelle. John Tynan of Central Arkansas Water says the association has concluded shutting down or relocating the pipeline away from the topographically challenging watershed is their ultimate goal because of lingering questions for the oil giant.

“Can they reliably and accurately identify crack threats in the Maumelle Watershed? To this point we do not have enough data to lead us to believe that they can reliably and accurately identify cracks using the tools and technology that they’re currently using,” said Tynan.

Exxon Mobil spokesman Aaron Stryk would not directly address questions about the quality of pre-spill testing but says Exxon plans to meet a deadline set by federal regulators at the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, or PHMSA.

“They’ve set an April 7th deadline for us to basically submit the workplan that will verify the integrity of the entire pipeline and that will take into account the findings of our investigation,” said Stryk.

Rather than focusing on pre-spill tests, Stryk focused on what further testing could tell about the integrity of the pipeline. One of the central questions gone relatively unanswered since the spill is if the pipeline is simply too old and its technology outdated.

Proponents of the pipeline argue that, with continued modification, a pipeline is not bound by fears of aging.

“The ongoing maintenacnce of a pipeline, it really depends on a variety of factors, age alone shouldn’t dictate when it’s necessary for a pipeline to be replaced,” said Stryk.

Back in August former PHMSA head Brigham McCown, currently a lobbyist for an energy transportation organization, came to a similar conclusion while speaking at the Clinton School of Public Service. But Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola, speaking to McCown, didn’t seem reassured.

“You mentioned that pipelines no matter when installed or when constructed if properly inspected could last indefinitely. Of course I don’t, a lot of us don’t know exactly what that means,” said Stodola.

Outgoing 2nd District Congressman Republican Tim Griffin has said the pipeline was moved before to accommodate engineering developments and changes to the Lake Maumelle Watershed, and he prefers it be moved again. Griffin also sees a vast difference between modern pipeline technology, like what is proposed for the also contentious Keystone, and that currently being employed with Pegasus.

“Saying that they’re both pipelines and that’s the end of it is like saying a ’75 Pinto is the same as a 2013 Buick. Yes, they are both pipelines…but they have very little else in common,” said Griffin.

Both Griffin and Central Arkansas Water are seeking to mitigate risk in the event the pipeline does re-open in the future. They advocate for more and better quality sensor equipment, as well as more frequent placements of shut-off valves. Anthony Swift, a staff attorney for the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council, argues even with better safety and maintenance age is still a critical factor.

“When pipelines are proposed today they’re usually proposed as 50 year projects. However, in reality we’re seeing that there is no abandonment plan for these pipelines. We’re beginning to push the envelope with our aging pipeline infrastructure,” said Swift.

Also, the very materials and technologies associated with Pegasus’s construction in the late ‘40s have been called into question. A report from PHMSA last year was critical of the welding technology called ERW, or electric-resistance welded pipe. PHMSA says this pre-1970 weld type is known to be susceptible to the type of longitudinal tear the Pegasus experienced in Mayflower. And, PHMSA said ExxonMobil did not adequately take into account the risk and tests from as recently as 2006 showing the pipeline to be susceptible to longitudinal tears because of the ERW weld.

Perhaps the ultimate question at hand is how much power do local authorities have to protect their water supply? Central Arkansas Water’s John Tynan says it’s been a year of exploring the relationship between international corporate entities, federal regulatory agencies, and state and local entities.

“That balance of authority has been an interesting one for us to find out more about but also has raised a number of questions about how can a state or how a local community can get involved. It’s something that is a conversation we have found is not just limited to central Arkansas but is one that numerous other communities around the nation are having,” said Tynan.

Central Arkansas Water says that, moving forward, more dialogue with Exxon is needed. Tynan says the oil company hasn't seemed very receptive to the idea of relocating the pipeline. But Aaron Stryk with Exxon characterizes their relationship as communicative and healthy.

Jacob Kauffman, KUAR News