ExxonMobil’s Mayflower Mess

Tar sands crude is both more toxic and much harder to clean than ordinary oil.

By Michael Brune

Michael Brune

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.

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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.


Michael Brune is the executive director of the Sierra Club, the largest grassroots environmental organization in the United States. www.sierraclub.org  Distributed via OtherWords (OtherWords.org)

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2012-11-24: What I’ve Been Reading

Ten Numbers the Rich Would Like Fudged — by Paul Buchheit

The numbers reveal the deadening effects of inequality in our country, and confirm that tax avoidance, rather than a lack of middle-class initiative, is the cause.

Only 3.6 percent of taxpayers in the top .1% were classified as entrepreneurs based on 2004 tax returns. A 2009 Kauffman Foundation study found that the great majority of entrepreneurs come from middle-class backgrounds, with less than 1 percent of all entrepreneurs coming from very rich or very poor backgrounds.

Elites Will Make Gazans of Us All — by Chris Hedges

In the new global landscape, as in Israel’s occupied territories and the United States’ own imperial projects in Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and Afghanistan, massacres of thousands of defenseless innocents are labeled wars. Resistance is called a provocation, terrorism or a crime against humanity. The rule of law, as well as respect for the most basic civil liberties and the right of self-determination, is a public relations fiction used to placate the consciences of those who live in the zones of privilege. Prisoners are routinely tortured and “disappeared.” The severance of food and medical supplies is an accepted tactic of control. Lies permeate the airwaves. Religious, racial and ethnic groups are demonized. Missiles rain down on concrete hovels, mechanized units fire on unarmed villagers, gunboats pound refugee camps with heavy shells, and the dead, including children, line the corridors of hospitals that lack electricity and medicine.

Stop pretending the US is an uninvolved, helpless party in the Israeli assault on Gaza — by Glenn Greewald

A Palestinian man carries a wounded child in GazaLiterally each day since the latest attacks began, the Obama administration has expressed its unqualified support for Israel’s behavior. Just two days before the latest Israeli air attacks began, Obama told Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmud Abbas "that his administration opposes a Palestinian bid for non-state membership of the UN". Both the US Senate and House have already passed resolutions unequivocally supporting Israel, thus earning the ultimate DC reward: the head-pat from Aipac, which "praised the extraordinary show of support by the Senate for Israel’s struggle against terrorist attacks on its citizens". More bipartisan Congressional cheerleading is certain to come as the attacks continue, no matter how much more brutal they become.

World Bank Report Warns ‘Catastrophic Consequences’ of Global Warming — by Common Dreams Staff

The World Bank is the latest organization to raise alarm against the undeniable threat of climate change. Launched Monday, ‘Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4°C Warmer World Must be Avoided‘ (pdf) details the catastrophic consequences, specifically within developing nations, of ignoring the global warming crisis.  The analysis, conducted by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, focuses on a revised point-of-no-return temperature rise of 4°C (7.24°F) by the end of the century, a threshold, according to the report, that will likely "trigger widespread crop failures and malnutrition and dislocate large numbers of people from land inundated by rising seas."

Thousands Surround Obama’s White House: ‘Stop Keystone XL!’ — by Common Dreams Staff

Last Sunday afternoon, thousands of people began a planned march around the White House on Sunday afternoon calling on the Obama Administration to reject the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline and keep tar sands crude out of the US.  The demonstration, organized by 350.org, the Sierra Club, and other public interest and environmental groups, followed a “Do the Math” climate event at Washington, DC’s historic Warner Theater earlier in the day.

New Report Ranks States in Efforts to Reduce Oil Addiction — by Common Dreams Staff

There is much work to be done, state by state, in order to wean American off of its fossil fuel addiction; however, there is a noticeable difference in fossil fuel dependence between states that actively produce clean energy initiatives versus states who don’t, according to a new report by Natural Resources Defense Council.  Fighting Oil Addiction: Ranking States’ Gasoline Price Vulnerability and Solutions for Change shows a "wide gulf" between states that promote public transit (bus, shuttles, trains or light rail), smart growth, and fuel efficiency, compared to states that do "little or nothing to expand less oil dependent forms of transportation."

The Endangered Repairman — by Shannon Hayes, Op-Ed

Any electronics: televisions, radios, VCRs, electric fence chargers. Eventually, the repair business fell away. “Factories don’t authorize repair people anymore,” Mr. Kleinberger explained to me over the phone. “It used to be that we’d get trained by the manufacturers to repair and maintain their equipment. Nobody does that anymore. They wanna sell you the next new thing. I can look at your stereo,” he said, “but I can’t make any promises.”

Africa: Calling for a GMO-Free Continent — Busani Bafana

“It is all about market colonization,” Bassey told IPS. “GM crops would neither produce food security nor meet nutrition deficits. The way forward is food sovereignty – Africans must determine what crops are suitable culturally and environmentally. Up to 80 percent of our food needs are met by smallholder farmers. These people need support and inputs for integrated agro-ecological crop management. Africa should ideally be a GMO-free continent.

Run, Jeb, Run! Another Bush, Another Target-Rich Presidential Campaign — by Joe Conason

The Jeb Bush boomlet that fascinated gullible pundits — and tantalized Republicans —  during the dark days of last winter’s presidential primary is undergoing a swift revival. Less than three weeks after the defeat of Mitt Romney, a candidate who proved repellent to minority voters, Republicans are said to be yearning for Jeb, who speaks fluent Spanish and whose wife is from Mexico.  Aside from his need to “restore” his depleted wealth, Jeb’s business dealings may well prove an insurmountable obstacle to a national candidacy, just as Romney’s business career became excess baggage for his presidential campaign. Known today only as another Bush brother, Jeb must be introduced to American voters. And among the first things they are likely to learn about him is the string of borderline business deals that built his original fortune in Florida real estate, which began three decades ago.

“Putting The Nails In The Coffin”: Has Grover Norquist And His Anti-Tax Pledge Reached The End Of The Road?

Yet another prominent Republican has added his name to the list of those for whom the allure of the Grover Norquist “Taxpayer Protection Pledge” has lost its luster.

Senator Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) has announced that he will no longer honor his commitment to the Norquist pledge wherein he promised not to raise taxes under any circumstances whatsoever. Appearing on a local Georgia television program, Chambliss said, “I care more about my country than I do about a 20-year-old pledge. If we do it his way then we’ll continue in debt, and I just have a disagreement with him about that.”

“Opportunity And Equality”: What The “Takers” Really Want — by “my” Keystrokes

The Republican far right has concluded that Mitt Romney’s loss was due in part to his excess moderation, but Romney and the right agree that the blame also rests with the 47 percent of Americans who are “takers,” whom the Democrats wooed with governmental largess. America is no longer dominated by “traditional” small-government Americans, as Bill O’Reilly put it on a glum election night at Fox News. In behind-closed-doors talks to his donors that were recorded (and are likely to remain the only talks of his entire campaign that anyone remembers), Romney concurred.