It’s been almost a year since the Pegasus pipeline spilled an estimated 210,000 gallons of oil in Mayflower. After months of back-and-forth, a final environmental report from ExxonMobil to state regulators appears to be complete. But though the science behind the report is sound, Arkansas Game and Fish Commission Deputy Director Ricky Chastain said its overarching conclusions about ongoing ecological risk are flawed.
Along with the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ), the Game and Fish Commission is one of two agencies charged with ensuring Exxon lives up to its obligations to clean up the Pegasus spill. Part of the company’s responsibility was to test the soil, water and lakebed sediment post-cleanup for continued contamination and develop a plan for further remediation, if needed.
Exxon’s report says, essentially: Everything looks fine to us. “There are no unacceptable ecological risks in the drainage ways, Dawson Cove, and Lake Conway,” concludes the company. “Therefore, no action is necessary to mitigate [oil] constituent levels in the soil and sediment in the drainage ways, Dawson Cove, or Lake Conway.”
Chastain disagrees. “When we send our final comments to ExxonMobil, there will be a disclaimer on that letter that says, ‘We’re basically approving your report…but we do not necessarily agree with all your findings,’” he said. “We don’t dispute any of the data, but what we dispute is some of their conclusions to the data. They make some pretty broad, sweeping comments in there about ‘there’s no ecological risk’, ‘there’s no threat to benthic organisms’ – I mean, some pretty definitive statements…The bottom line is we would not say definitively across the board that there is absolutely no risk, no contamination, that would cause problems environmentally down the road.”
The danger shouldn’t be overstated. “There is nothing in the collected data that indicates there is any kind of significant threat” to humans or large animal life, said Chastain. But as the Times reported last year, even small amounts of oil can degrade the health of an aquatic ecosystem. Petroleum sheen and oil spotting continues to surface on a regular basis in the water of Dawson Cove, which absorbed the bulk of the spilled oil, as documented by weekly reports from Exxon’s own contractor. As for next steps, ADEQ and Game and Fish are currently considering what further remediation action they will require of Exxon.
Bottom line: There’s still oil in the ground near Dawson Cove. It’s still showing up in the water. It still has the potential to affect aquatic life in Lake Conway. It’s no longer anywhere near crisis levels, thankfully, but it isn’t gone, either. Fully restoring the environment will require more time, more money — and, judging by Exxon’s conclusions in this report, more prodding from state authorities.
This story is part of a joint investigative project by Arkansas Times and Pulitzer Prize winning InsideClimate News. Funding for the project comes from readers who donated to an ioby.org crowdfunding campaign that raised nearly $27,000 and from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.