Arkansas Oil Spill Sheds Light On Aging Pipeline System

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Amber Bartlett was waiting last Friday for her kids to come home from school. One of them called from the entrance to the upscale subdivision near Little Rock, Ark., to tell her the community was being evacuated because of an oil spill. Bartlett was amazed by what she saw out her front door.

"I mean, just rolling oil. I mean, it was like a river," she says. "It had little waves in it."

ExxonMobil, the company that runs the pipeline, says it has collected hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil and water from Bartlett's neighborhood.

Bartlett says things could have been much worse. Her children's baby-sitter lives in the house closest to where the pipeline burst.

"They play right there every day where it busted," she says. "We are fortunate our babies were not out there during that time."

Bartlett says ExxonMobil has paid hotel bills, fed families and even given children Easter baskets.

"I'm upset," she says. "But accidents happen."

'It Is Catastrophic'

It's not yet clear what caused the spill. Exxon's Pegasus pipeline is 65 years old. It runs 858 miles from Illinois to Texas. It was adapted a few years ago to increase its capacity by 50 percent.

Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, who is investigating the spill, visited the subdivision Wednesday.

"I have been reminded by Exxon's representatives that this is a relatively small spill and cleanup is going just great," he said. "I hope that they realize that to the homeowners in this area, it is not small — it is catastrophic."

McDaniel said he knows underground pipelines are essential to keeping the country's economy going. They carry fuel for cars, airplanes and home furnaces.

"We got to have that, but it has to be maintained," he said. "It has to be inspected."

McDaniel said Exxon has repeatedly told him that inspections were up to date and showed no cause for concern. He said the spill raises questions about whether the inspection process for aging pipelines is adequate.

In fact, more than half of the nation's pipelines were built before 1970. More than 2.5 million miles of pipelines run underground throughout the country. According to federal statistics, they have on average 280 significant spills a year. Most of these accidents aren't big enough to make headlines.

Accidents Preventable?

The National Transportation Safety Board has investigated 20 pipeline accidents since 2000. Debbie Hersman, who heads the agency, says by and large the system is safe.

"But that still doesn't mean that we should accept these accidents when they occur," she says. "Particularly if you can demonstrate that they are preventable. And I will tell you, 100 percent of the accidents that we've investigated were completely preventable."

Hersman says her investigators repeatedly find the same problems — for example, cracks and corrosion that were discovered by inspections but never fixed.

"If companies invest in safety, we can get to zero accidents in the pipeline industry," she says.

John Stoody, director for government and public relations at the Association of Oil Pipe Lines, stresses that pipelines' safety record is getting better.

"We spend over a billion dollars every year inspecting the pipelines, checking them for any issues, performing maintenance on them as they're needed," he says. "And it's something we care a lot about. We certainly want to have as few incidents as possible."

Stoody says pipelines are the safest way to transport the fuel people need for their daily lives. He notes that 99.995 percent of petroleum barrels reach their destination safely.

But Anthony Swift, an attorney for the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Counsel, says that's "not a particularly comforting statistic if you look at the sheer amount of crude oil spilled."

Federal data show that on average over the past decade, nearly 3.5 million gallons of oil spilled from pipelines each year.

Swift says the spill in Arkansas sends a wake-up call: It's a reminder of the real risks of an aging pipeline system.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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