Several weeks after ExxonMobil’s Pegasus pipeline gushed at least 500,000 gallons of tar sands crude and water into the Arkansas community of Mayflower, many of the evacuated families still can’t return to their homes.
Sierra Club organizer Glen Hooks, who grew up about 20 miles southeast of this disaster site, recently attended a meeting for the displaced families at Mayflower High School. “I had to really stare down some ExxonMobil goons who told me to leave because it was a private meeting,” he said. “I politely explained that it was a meeting in a public building about a public subject with numerous public officials in attendance, and that I was planning to stay.”
During the Mayflower meeting, Hooks listened as an ExxonMobil executive apologized to the families and said that the focus was on safety and helping the homeowners. “The meeting then moved into a phase where ExxonMobil met with individual family members about their claims in a side room guarded by no fewer than six uniformed police officers.”
Here’s something that the Big Oil leader probably didn’t tell those homeowners: In 2010, it was fined $26,200 by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration for failing to regularly inspect each point where the Pegasus line crosses under a navigable waterway.
This is a pipeline that crosses under the Mississippi River — just one of the places ExxonMobil failed to do inspections. It’s hard to say which is more shocking: that “safety first” ExxonMobil has been so cavalier about pipeline inspections or that it was fined such a pittance for its irresponsibility. By my calculation, $26,200 comes out to less than 0.0001 percent of the $30.5 billion in net income that ExxonMobil’s raked in over the course of 2010.
Let’s put that in perspective. If ExxonMobil’s income were the same as the median family income in Faulkner County, Arkansas, where its pipeline leaked, then ExxonMobil’s fine for endangering the Mississippi River would have been about four cents.
No matter how much ExxonMobil ends up spending to clean up the mess in Mayflower, the impact on its profit statement will be miniscule. Unfortunately, no amount of cash can buy peace of mind for the families whose homes were violated by tar sands.
Tar sands crude is both more toxic and much harder to clean than ordinary oil. Just ask Enbridge, which has now spent almost $1 billion and two years trying to clean up the Kalamazoo River after the largest onshore oil spill in U.S. history.
No wonder ExxonMobil is doing everything it can to keep reporters and everyone else as far away from the Mayflower disaster as possible. The more the American public learns about the real cost of tar sands crude, the more opposition to the Keystone XL and other tar sands pipelines will grow.
If the Keystone XL pipeline is built, it’s not a question of whether it will fail, but of when and where. The first disaster will be far worse than what happened in Mayflower, since TransCanada’s pipeline will pump 10 times as much tar sands crude as the Pegasus does.
I hope we heed this disaster’s two biggest lessons: No. 1: How oil companies talk about safety has no connection to how they act, and. No. 2: The last thing you want to wake up and find in your backyard is a tar sands spill.