Mayflower, AR, April 4 – We had hoped to interview some affected residents, but they were too sick to talk to us. They live on a street immediately adjacent to the ones which were evacuated. Some homes which were not evacuated are actually closer to the spill than those which were – they’re a couple minutes by car but they’re only separated by a small grove of trees. The residents had not been contacted by Exxon or warned in any way about the dangers of tar sands. Both canceled the interview because they were feeling too sick to meet. Vomiting, headaches, dizziness, burning throats and coughing: the exact same symptoms felt by Kalamazoo residents after the Enbridge tar sands spill there in 2010.
Evacuated residents are being housed in hotels. Exxon says it plans to rent homes for them. Non-evacuated residents who are actually closer to the spill site have been given nothing. No medical attention, no offers of alternate housing, no information.
Exxon finally admitted today that what spilled from the pipe was tar sands. Before that, they had admitted that it wasn’t crude but were coy with the semantics. One evacuee who had asked about the distinction in meetings with Exxon told us that he’d been asked “well what’s your definition of tar sands?”
We started the day at Lake Conway, trying to get more footage of the neighborhoods and ecosystems affected by the spill. We got permission from a woman in the neighborhood to go into her back yard and take pictures from her dock, which goes into the body of water, adjacent to Lake Conway but not technically part of it, which was most affected by the spill. It’s easier to see it in this aerial video, taken by a photojournalist who later become ill from exposure to the plume of toxins.
While we were taking pictures of the dead lake, two Mayflower police officers approached us. Once we explained that we had permission to be there, they left. Shortly afterward, two Faulkner County sheriffs approached us and told us to leave immediately or we would be arrested. At this point, the homeowners were outside and also explained that we were allowed to be there. The officer, Deputy Sweeney, said that we were “too close to the scene” and that we had to leave.
Out of earshot of the residents, Sweeney told us to leave. We reiterated that the landowner gave us permission. Sweeney said that we didn’t have his permission. We said that it was the landowner’s property. He responded “It’s my property now.”
We returned to our car. It seemed like it would be okay to get more footage from the public road running between Lake Conway and the smaller body of water. Two of us walked along the road with a camera and tripod. Officer Sweeney crossed the road and bodily grabbed one of us, telling us to leave immediately or be arrested. We said that it was a public road and that we weren’t trespassing or breaking any laws. Sweeney said that it was his road today. We started filming the encounter, but Sweeney grabbed us again and forced the camera down.
Afterward, we reentered the woods to access the lake from a different angle. We were able to get near where some of the tar sands-soaked booms were anchored to trees.
Suddenly, we scared up a duck completely covered in tar sands. It was totally black so there is no way we could guess at the species. It was clearly distressed, flapping and stumbling rather than walking. Having talked with some graduate student biologists helping with the cleanup, we knew that the duck would likely die without help. The volunteers had explained that tar sands cause more irritation that crude oil, and that ducks they had worked with were completely red and blistered underneath their feathers. The oil also goes through their whole digestive tract.
We immediately informed the HAWK Center (Helping Arkansas Wild “Kritters”) about the duck, but it fled into the water before we could catch it for cleaning and rehabilitation.
Next, we went down the road to another cleanup site at the edge of a plaza parking lot for a Subway, Dollar Tree and other businesses. A stream running behind the Subway was partially fenced off, and workers in yellow hazmat gear were milling around, occasionally doing something to adjust a pump or hose down a streambank. Subway and the rest were open for business. Neither Exxon nor local authorities have been warning shoppers about the dangers of tar sands exposure. There isn’t even a sign indicating what’s going on.
We decided to return to the wetland area because we heard that crews had begun digging. Driving past on the highway, we saw dozens of trucks, construction vehicles, and police vehicles along the frontage road. The crews were clearing trees and digging big pits. For tar sands, “remediation” means completely removing every living part of the ecosystem. Unlike crude, it sinks. Water is drained, forests are cleared, and soil and sediment are scraped off in a somewhat grisly reenactment of the clear-cutting, strip-mining excavation of the Athabasca tar sands on the other end of this pipeline system.
We wanted to see up close what was going on here. We turned down the frontage road to get closer. The road is public, and there were no signs indicating that it was closed to traffic. It became one-way for a few hundred meters because of the line of trucks, but traffic was being waved through by flaggers.
One of the sheriff cars pulled us over. A very large officer barked commands at us, checking identification and making the driver get out of the car for interrogation. At one point, the cop said to the driver, “If it were up to me. I wouldn’t mind y’all being out here, but I’m getting paid a lot of money to keep you out of here.”
The cop threatened the whole media crew with trespassing and interfering with a government operation. This seemed strange, considering that Exxon and its contractors are overseeing every aspect of the spill and no government agencies are at the scene. It’s not surprising to us after seeing TransCanada hire local police officers as high-paid private security to guard our sustained 90-day tree sit against the Keystone XL pipeline.
This was our sixth encounter with the police in two days of filming and trying to talk to residents. We had even been kicked out of the adjacent neighborhood which was never evacuated. In four of them, the officers stressed (as police often do) that they understood what we were doing or didn’t have a problem with it, that they were following orders. Remarkably, they were unapologetic and open about the fact that those orders came directly from Exxon.
This is all standard practice when the dirty energy barons accidentally kill or sicken large numbers of people and eradicate whole ecosystems. Limit media coverage at all costs and deny everything. Once it becomes impossible to deny something, admit it and continue to deny everything else. We saw the same thing after over a million gallons of tar sands spilled in Kalamazoo, Michigan and Enbridge initially denied that the pipeline was carrying tar sands and continues to insist that peoples’ symptoms are not caused by the spill.
No one knows how to clean up tar sands, and no ones knows the extent of their health impacts. Mayflower, Arkansas is never going to be the same. One evacuee told us that several people don’t want to move back. He says he’s worried it’s broken the community. Stay tuned for more updates as we have them.
Check out the rest of our coverage:
Day 1 – Dispatches from Exxon’s Spill Zone
Days 3 & 4 – Dispatches from Exxon’s Spill Zone
Day 5 – The Cover-up Continues
Day 6 – In Storms Aftermath, Contaminants Continue To Spread; Local Workers Uninformed, Unprotected