Feds: Exxon Ignored Safety Risks in Lead-up to 210,000 Gallon Oil Spill

<a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/51035555243@N01/5356105400/">Thomas Hawk</a>/Flickr

Facts matter: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter. Support our nonprofit reporting. Subscribe to our print magazine.


Federal regulators investigating a crude oil spill in Arkansas have concluded that in the years before the accident, pipeline owner ExxonMobil dragged its feet on critical repairs and inspections, ignored evidence that the pipeline was disposed to failure, and cherry-picked data to downplay the risk of an accident.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, the federal agency that summarized these findings in a 12-page letter to Exxon last week, proposed fining the company $2.66 million for the spill, which coated an Arkansas neighborhood in some 210,000 gallons of crude oil this March. PHMSA ordered Exxon to rewrite its emergency plan for safeguarding the pipeline, called Pegasus, which spans from Illinois to Texas, from future spills.

Exxon has 30 days to pay or contest the fine. Inside Climate News, which posted PHMSA’s letter online, reports that Exxon has not officially responded to PHMSA. Exxon released a statement to the press saying that regulators “made some fundamental errors” in their assessment of the disaster.

The chief PHMSA finding was that Exxon knew it was using a poorly-manufactured pipeline prone to it bursting at its seams, but did not factor this risk into its formal risk assessments of the pipe. Federal law, the agency’s investigators noted, compels companies to build risk assessment plans that account for the physical characteristics of the pipeline in question. These same design flaws caused a break in Pegasus in the years before the Arkansas spill, meaning that Exxon had “more than adequate information for the pipe to be considered susceptible to seam failure,” the agency’s experts wrote.

“Not acknowledging manufacturing seam threats—for a company as large as Exxon, that’s just embarrassing,” Richard Kuprewicz, a pipeline safety consultant, told Inside Climate News.

The pipeline agency also accused Exxon of being slow to disclose serious risks to the pipeline to regulators, which allowed it to push back the deadline for repairs. Exxon also manipulated its internal data in order to assign the pipeline a lower risk score, the agency said.

The disclosure of these flaws to Pegasus is sure to worry those who live and work near the pipeline. A 13-mile section of Pegasus crosses over a sensitive watershed that supplies water to 400,000 Little Rock area residents. In May, a coalition of government officials, including Arkansas Senator Mark Pryor (D), cited this as a reason regulators should delay Exxon from bringing Pegasus back online before the company completed crucial safety measures.

The proposed $2.66 million fine is tiny not only compared to Exxon’s $44.9 billion in profits last year, but also compared to the $70 million Exxon has spent so far on clean-up in Arkansas. “The penalty is far too small to be a serious deterrent to the conduct leading to the Mayflower tar sands spill,” Glenn Hooks, a spokesman for Sierra Club of Arkansas, said last week. “The company earns that amount in about 30 minutes.”

We've never been very good at being conservative.

And usually, that serves us well in doing the ambitious, hard-hitting journalism that you turn to Mother Jones for. But it also means we can't afford to come up short when it comes to scratching together the funds it takes to keep our team firing on all cylinders, and the truth is, we finished our budgeting cycle on June 30 about $100,000 short of our online goal.

This is no time to come up short. It's time to fight like hell, as our namesake would tell us to do, for a democracy where minority rule cannot impose an extreme agenda, where facts matter, and where accountability has a chance at the polls and in the press. If you value our reporting and you can right now, please help us dig out of the $100,000 hole we're starting our new budgeting cycle in with an always-needed and always-appreciated donation today.

payment methods

We've never been very good at being conservative.

And usually, that serves us well in doing the ambitious, hard-hitting journalism that you turn to Mother Jones for. But it also means we can't afford to come up short when it comes to scratching together the funds it takes to keep our team firing on all cylinders, and the truth is, we finished our budgeting cycle on June 30 about $100,000 short of our online goal.

This is no time to come up short. It's time to fight like hell, as our namesake would tell us to do, for a democracy where minority rule cannot impose an extreme agenda, where facts matter, and where accountability has a chance at the polls and in the press. If you value our reporting and you can right now, please help us dig out of the $100,000 hole we're starting our new budgeting cycle in with an always-needed and always-appreciated donation today.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate