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Mayflower oil spill hits home for student

Submitted by Liz Fox on April 18, 2013 – 12:07 pm2 Comments

Mayflower residents, including one UALR commuter, are still experiencing illness and distress after last month’s pipeline rupture, according to reports.

The Exxon Mobil-owned Pegasus pipeline burst March 29 in a yard between homes in the Northwood subdivision of Mayflower. A total of 22 residents were evacuated from the area before a large clean-up crew arrived to prevent oil from soaking into Lake Conway, located close to the spill’s origin. The 22-foot tear has been classified as “major” by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency with more than 250 barrels of crude oil making its way into neighboring areas and affecting the city’s ecosystem.

According to Exxon officials, more than 19,000 barrels of the oil-and-water blend were collected at the site as of April 4.

Kimla Lemmons, a mass communications student and mother of two, lives in the neighborhood adjacent to the site of the rupture, located approximately 350 feet from the spill site. While she left for Little Rock minutes before the pipeline burst, Lemmons said she began to experience side effects from fumes radiating from crude oil that nearly flooded her property.

“I’ve taken myself [to the emergency room] because my airway was cut off,” Lemmons said. “My voice is just now coming back to the point of being audible. … I was totally not able to talk and that happened immediately.”

Lemmons also said her children complained of various flu-like symptoms following the spill, including nausea and headaches. Upon returning to their home over the weekend to collect essential belongings, her young daughter experienced vomiting and stomach pain, which cleared up hours after returning to their temporary home: a hotel in downtown Little Rock.

According to marine toxicologist Riki Ott, the symptoms of exposure to oil spills often include respiratory problems and central nervous system complications. However, these ailments often imitate those associated with the common cold as well as those linked to more serious illnesses like pneumonia, bronchitis or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. So while several symptoms can arise from exposure to crude oil, many of them cannot be explicitly coupled with the spill.

However, Ott also claims certain individuals may be affected more than the average person.

“Diluents are industrial solvents and degreasers, like dispersants, that act as an oil delivery mechanism,” Ott said in a recent Huffington Post story. “Some people are more vulnerable [to oil] than others, especially children, pregnant women, elderly, African-Americans and those with pre-existing illnesses.”

Among others, it is these factors that have led Lemmons, who also goes by Kimla Greene, and her neighbor, Kathryn Jane Roachell Chunn, to file an extensive lawsuit against Exxon Mobil. The 16-page suit, filed April 5 with the Little Rock-based Duncan and Thrash law firms, seeks compensatory and punitive damages for lessened property value — a concern shared by many residents, including Ryan Senia, who lives a few houses away from where the tear occurred.

“Even if not a single drop of oil got on my property, because my address is on that street, I just think no one is going to buy that house now,” Senia told the Arkansas Times last week. “Even if I’m not personally scared of contamination, a buyer might be unless there is someone to document the clean-up process, and know that everything was removed.”

Exxon Mobil is currently devising a plan to address property value concerns that may involve home-purchasing options. According to Karen Tyrone, vice president of operations for Exxon Mobil Pipeline Co., the company has a team that’s planning to meet with residents after working out some details.

“[The homes would need] some sort of clean bill of health before they were really … marketable at all,” Conway appraiser Tommy Nabholz told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. “There’s probably still going to be some sort of negative reaction from potential buyers who might think that if the pipeline ruptured there once, it could happen again.”

Although a small number of the 22 affected residents have been allowed to return to their homes after an air-quality assessment, Tyrone also noted the interest in re-entering the affected properties has been slim, considering all of the permitted families have yet to go back.

“Some might not want to return because of so much heavy equipment [that’s] still in the neighborhood,” Tyrone said in a news conference last week.

While different tests are set to be overseen and conducted in the following weeks, the section of the pipeline where the original rupture occurred was removed April 15. The highly-visible gash was seen after the section was removed from a large hole shortly after 12:30 p.m.

Faulkner County Judge Allen Dodson said the section of pipeline will be independently tested to help uncover the cause of the rupture, which has so far been owed to age and reverse of flow.

“It’s a milestone, I think,” Dodson told the Democrat-Gazette Monday. “But … it really doesn’t impact our clean-up at all.”

While officials believe the removal may convince admitted residents to return to their homes, Lemmons believes going back will only worsen the problem, especially since a local elementary school — separated from the site by a pair of worn railroad tracks — has been allowed to stay in session despite potentially-troublesome conditions.

“They have allowed school to go on, downplaying the fact that they’ve had kids go home sick from the fumes,” Lemmons said. “The only precautions they’ve taken is to spray the air vents with disinfectant and to keep the kids inside. How much good they thought that was going to do, I have no idea.”

With Mayflower homeowners still displaced and a swarm of investigations surrounding the spill, many factors have yet to be determined. But one thing is certain: many are unhappy with how the incident was handled and wish the confusion surrounding the March 29 rupture would have been managed differently.

“I don’t think they handled this oil spill correctly at all,” Lemmons said. “They should have evacuated everybody within a mile radius of where it happened. … The mayor has said nothing about the spill, and I’m disappointed about that.”

Originally constructed in 1948 to transport oil to Midwest refineries, the 20-inch Pegasus pipeline extends from Patoka, Ill. to Nedarland, Texas, creating an 850-mile underground stretch that can move up to 95,000 barrels — or 4,000 gallons — of tar crude per day. Though it has not been proven, officials and researchers speculate the cause of the abrasion is the result of age and a period of construction from 2002 to 2006, when the flow of the oil was reversed.