Ill-Prepared: How The Arkansas Department of Health Failed the Victims of the Mayflower Disaster

Dr. William Mason of the Arkansas Department of Health (ADH) faced a tough crowd at the Sixth Mayflower Town Hall Meeting on September 26. The meetings have been held monthly since early April of this year, shortly after Exxon spilled over 300,000 gallons of tar sands dilbit into a Mayflower neighborhood and the adjacent wetlands.

ADH has been criticized for only evacuating a tiny portion of the affected area. Many who were told that they could stay in their homes became very ill and continue to have health issues seven months later.

Six months after the spill, Mason’s twenty-five minute presentation was far more concerned with defending his own actions and the response of the Incident Unified Command (a joint effort between Exxon and local agencies) than with addressing the ongoing health crisis in Mayflower. He even said that “the physical effects of the spill will be minimal to zero – and that’s because of the rapid and effective evacuation of residents in the vicinity of the spill.”

As soon as Mason opened the floor for questions, Ann Jarrell, whose whole family became sick after officials told them that there was no need to evacuate, disagreed. Watch a clip of that exchange here:

Ann’s family lived only a few hundred feet from the rupture site. Her three month-old grandson developed a severe lung infection and requires special breathing apparatus to this day. Ann herself suffered from debilitating headaches and other symptoms for months following the spill, and only saw improvement when her doctor ordered her to leave her home and never return – not even for a few minutes.

Ann Jarrell's grandson

Ann Jarrell’s grandson

Ann’s story is similar to that of many residents outside the evacuation zone. Many still face health complications and cannot return to the affected area. These illnesses have been largely unreported by mainstream media, including the case of a 64-year old man whose cancer took a turn for the worse and who died two months after the spill.

Audience members also criticized the lack of services provided by ADH (Click here for video). According to residents, the poison control center was unhelpful following the spill, and it took nearly six months for ADH to set up a free health screening program. Many residents have complained that local doctors have never dealt with petrochemical exposure and need to be trained, but no such program is forthcoming.

Throughout his presentation, Mason insisted that ADH’s air quality monitoring had shown that a larger evacuation was not necessary. This seemed odd, given that Mason had just listened to Emily Harris, an expert in public health assessment, detailing the various flaws in ADH’s monitoring methods. A quick summary:
•ADH only monitored for some of the many hazardous chemicals released by the spill.
•The air monitors only detected in parts per million, even though many of the toxins are dangerous in the parts per billion range.
•ADH used occupational health standards, which are based on 8-hour exposure by healthy adult workers, not the 24-hour exposure suffered by children and elderly in the area.
•Monitoring was done at a height of several feet, which failed to measure the concentrations of heavier-than-air toxins being breathed in by children and pets.

When Genieve Long called out Mason on the faulty air monitoring, he brushed the concern aside by saying that the distinction between parts per million and parts per billion was too technical for him to address at the moment:

Mason also denied that Exxon had any part in the decision to only evacuate 22 homes and thereby minimize the perceived scope of the disaster. It should be noted that Exxon seemed to be in control of every other aspect of the spill response, directly paying the entire Faulkner County Sheriff Department to keep journalists away from the spill and even instituting a no-fly zone after local news captured damning aerial footage of the spill extent.

We may never know whether ADH’s botched evacuation was a result of willful collusion with Exxon or if it was a case of bad preparation and incompetence. We do know that Exxon intentionally hid the deadly distinction between conventional crude and tar sands dilbit from residents living near the Pegasus pipeline and continued to lie about the contents of the pipe after the spill. The chemicals used to dilute tar sands for pipeline transport are proprietary.

Exxon’s Mayflower disaster made it painfully clear that health officials are not being prepared to deal with tar sands spills. By refusing to acknowledge the differences between tar sands bitumen and crude oil, the oil industry and regulators such as the Pipeline & Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) are ensuring that these disasters will continue.

It should also be noted that even a perfectly executed spill response would not have avoided this health crisis. When Pegasus burst, it released a massive plume of benzene and other deadly gases (the journalist who captured the flyover footage of the spill got sick just flying through it); the worst exposure happened immediately. As pointed out by David Lincoln, an environmental consultant who presented after Dr. Mason, the speed with which a gaseous contaminant spreads and dissipates means that we will never know just how badly the people of Mayflower were poisoned; the first measurements were only taken hours after the spill.

Neither the EPA nor Exxon knows how to clean up tar sands. The cleanup effort has all but ceased; the absorbent booms in Lake Conway are replaced periodically, but such methods ignore the fact that tar sands sink into sediment and continue to off-gas toxins for months or years. Oil slicks are still evident in local waterways, and even shallow digging reveals oil beneath the surface.

As shown by a growing body of evidence from victims of exposures to similar chemicals during the first Gulf War and BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, hypersensitivity to petrochemical exposure can last for years; some victims of the BP Disaster can’t even pump their own gasoline. For some Mayflower residents like Ann Jarrell, this means that they may never be able to safely return home. With home values plummeting, nor do they have much chance of relocating.


For more information on the similarities between Gulf War Syndrome, BP Syndrome and the symptoms experienced by victims of tar sands spills, see Dr. Mike Robichaux’s talk about his experience treating petrochemical exposure.

To hear more from Ann Jarrell, Genieve Long and Emily Harris about the situation in Mayflower, watch this video!

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