The March 29, 2013, spill from ExxonMobil's Pegasus Pipeline near Mayflower, Arkansas is a big deal for several reasons. It's a spill of the same kind of "dilbit" oil that will go through the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. Thus, it's a symbol for contenders in the Keystone debate. It's also a symptom of an aging, often unsafe, and poorly regulated US pipeline system. It may also pose hazards to human health, the environment, and people's property.
But the most important thing about the Mayflower spill may be that ExxonMobil and the federal agencies involved seem to be trying to keep news media from getting close enough to see what is going on. Despite their efforts to keep media at a distance, the pictures that have emerged are not pretty. And they do little to build confidence in claims that Keystone would be environmentally benign.
InsideClimate News reporter Lisa Song was threatened with arrest April 3, 2013, unless she left the Mayflower incident "command center." A guard had waved her into the center, and she was at a table marked "public affairs" when an Exxon spokeswoman told her to leave, and a second person told her she would be arrested if she did not leave.
"The stakes are high and Exxon is running the show here," Song wrote April 2, "with federal agencies so far publicly invisible. The phone number of the command center in Mayflower goes to an ExxonMobil answering service based in Texas, and each day it is Exxon that distributes a unified command press release — which contains the logos of Exxon, Faulkner County and the city of Mayflower — with official updates on the progress of the cleanup."
The Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) has protested the media treatment by Exxon, EPA, and PHMSA in the incident. The full text of the letter, sent April 9, follows:
"The Society of Environmental Journalists strongly objects to the threatened arrest last Friday of a reporter at the ExxonMobil oil pipeline spill in Mayflower, Ark., and the failure of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration and the U.S. Department of Transportation to take legally mandated leadership positions in dealing with reporters, establish an accessible command center that was not on oil company property, and implement a coherent information policy.
"SEJ believes the EPA and the other federal agencies made a big mistake by allowing the command center to be set up on Exxon property, especially without establishing ground rules for journalist access to the center and spill area. With Exxon officials in control, journalists were not permitted access to the command center, its parking lot or the areas affected by the spill. Exxon’s primary duty should have been the management of its oil flow, not the flow of information to the public.
"We also object to the no-fly zone above the spill site which further restricted reporting of this incident that had broad public health and environmental interest.
SEJ is requesting that the agencies involved provide a written explanation of their actions regarding the threatened arrest, who was responsible for the media information policy driven by the company and the imposition of the no-fly zone. SEJ is also requesting that the agencies meet with its representatives to work out a more open and fair information policy for use in future emergency response situations."
The letter was e-mailed to:
Bob Perciasepe, EPA Acting Administrator
Alisha Johnson, EPA Press Secretary
Julia Valentine, PIO, EPA HQ
Ron Curry, Regional Administrator (EPA Region 6)
David Gray, Public Affairs, EPA Region 6
Austin Vela, PIO, EPA Region 6
Cynthia L. Quarterman, Administrator, PHMSA
Jeannie Layson, Public Affairs Director, PHMSA
Randy Holland, Mayor, Mayflower
Andy Shock, Sheriff, Faulkner County
- "InsideClimate News Reporter Threatened with Arrest at Ark. Oil Spill Site," InsideClimate News, April 5, 2013, by Susan White. Addendum (last paragraph of story): "On Thursday afternoon, Vela met Song and gave her a tour of the command center parking lot. He also allowed her to take photos at the edge of a nearby cleanup site. They were accompanied by an ExxonMobil spokesman." However, they would not permit Song to visit the site of the rupture, or the subdivision where it occurred.
- "At Oil Spill Cleanup in Arkansas, Exxon Running the Show, Not Federal Agencies," InsideClimate News, April 2, 2013, by Lisa Song.
- Text of April 9, 2013, SEJ letter to EPA, PHMSA, local officials. Text of SEJ's response from the U.S. EPA, April 12, 2013.
- More on media access at SEJ's The Daily Glob.
This is one of the stories in the April 10, 2013 issue of SEJ's biweekly WatchDog. Find the rest of the stories and past issues here.