The Faulkner County Citizens Advisory Group (FCCAG) has held a town hall meeting each month since the Pegasus pipeline ruptured at the end of March. The group’s meeting yesterday at Hendrix College was different from past meetings because of the presence of Dr. William Mason, the lead official from the state Department of Health (ADH) for the Mayflower response. The citizens’ group said it invited ADH officials to come to each of the four previous town halls but received no response until — according to FCCAG board member Emily Harris — community members publicly forced the issue with Mason at a recent ADH meeting. An audience of about 50 assembled in Hendrix’s wood-paneled Reeves Recital Hall to hear six hours of presentations by Mason and others. About half of those in attendance were Hendrix students who cleared out after a couple of hours, leaving behind Mayflower residents and other activists who have been pressing this issue for months.
Mayflower families said they continue to suffer alarming symptoms as a result of exposure to the gasses released from the hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil spilled in their community. They point to the presence of high ratios of volatile solvents in this particular petroleum blend, including toxic chemicals such as benzene that are known to cause respiratory ailments, neurological problems and cancer. Residents with the FCCAG allege ADH was grossly negligent in not evacuating the community from contact with the vapors released by the spill.
But Mason said that ADH did everything correctly, and that Mayflower’s atmospheric levels of benzene were always well within the exposure amounts one could expect to find in a polluted urban center. In his presentation, Mason said that an ADH team of epidemiologists were on site the morning after the rupture, performing air quality tests to determine whether a larger evacuation needed to happen. Such tests continued on a daily basis in multiple locations around town for days afterwards. The department also established and publicized a poison control hotline for Mayflower residents.
Mason offered an alternative explanation for the symptoms some are experiencing: post-traumatic stress disorder due to the physical, economic, and psychological toll of dealing with the disaster. When asked directly by a resident whether ADH would have ordered a larger evacuation knowing what is known now, Mason replied, “no.”
Residents were not satisfied. They insisted their symptoms are the direct result of exposure; many said that their headaches and nausea began hours after exposure to the oil fumes, which is long before they suspected they weren’t safe. A later speaker, environmental consultant David Lincoln, said that the majority of volatile chemicals may have evaporated in the first few of hours after the spill — before ADH’s air quality sampling equipment was on the scene. Emily Harris, the FCCAG organizer, says that ADH needs “a reality check.” The health screenings the state recently began conducting are inadequate, she said. She knows exactly what she wants to happen next: an independent, comprehensive county-wide study of health quality. What would a post-Pegasus study find, she asks?