The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!
Two Months Later, Arkansas Residents Still Hurting From ExxonMobil Tar Sands Spill
More than two months after ExxonMobil’s 65-year-old Pegasus pipeline burst and spewed a gusher of thick Canadian tar sands oil through Mayflower, AR, and into a marsh on Lake Conway—the state’s most popular fishing spot—residents are still complaining of health problems and are worried about poisonous impacts on wildlife and in the environment. Many locals and some scientists have little faith in the continuous rosy assurances from Exxon and the Unified Command that testing results show the environment is safe and that tar sands oil has not contaminated the lake.
These include Mayflower residents Christina and Michael Seville, who were looking forward to visits this summer from grandkids at their modest home on Lake Conway. Their lives were suddenly turned upside down by the release of an estimated 200,000 gallons of noxious Canadian tar sands crude, much of which ended up in the marshy cove portion of Lake Conway near their home. They complain of constant headaches and coughs that have persisted since the spill occurred just before Easter, ailments they blame on the jet black tar sands crude that snaked through culverts past a shopping center and under the Interstate into the marsh on Lake Conway.
“We can’t have our grandkids over to visit anymore,” Christina says. “They’re covering up what’s really going on. There are fewer squirrels, birds and ducks than we normally see around here. Fish are not jumping in the water and they’re not catching anything around here. It’s not like it used to be.”
State officials insist air and water testing shows toxic contamination levels near the lake are safe and that most of the oil has been cleaned up. But that’s cold comfort to many who live near there. Marianne Wyckoff, who lives on the lake near the crude-contaminated marsh, says many near her don’t buy into official statements that everything is just fine. She doubts they can remove the tarry oil that is buried in the wetlands and has washed into the lake waters with every major rain.
“It seems like a big cover-up and everyone is paid off,” she says. “It’s getting hot and the oil is bubbling up out of the cove after torrential rains. The smell seems to be getting worse at times when it gets hot. My headaches have been coming back.”
Independent water and air tests also have shown elevated levels of contaminants. Scott Smith of Opflex Solutions, which provides oil cleanup services, says he has detected tar sands oil contaminants in extended tests in the water column of the lake, toxic chemicals like benzene and toluene he says match the fingerprint of the Canadian crude that poured out of the ExxonMobil pipeline.
“Our test results show the chemicals we are finding in the lake are exactly the same ones we tested for in the tar sands oil that flowed through town after the oil spill,” Smith says. He also says his results match some of the internal documents that Greenpeace released last month that indicate elevated levels of chemicals were found in the lake.
Wilma Subra, a Louisiana chemist and toxic expert who has closely studied the health impacts of the BP gulf oil spill, has also visited Mayflower and studied air and water testing in the area. She’s concerned about the long term impacts from chemicals that can persist and bioaccumulate in the environment. She’s working with local groups like the Faulkner County Citizens Advisory Group that is following health problems of residents in the area.
“I’m concerned that people have continued to be exposed to the oil during the cleanup,” Subra says. “We can’t just let them say everything is OK. We’ve heard that story before.”
The official story doesn’t jibe with Mayflower residents like Genieve Long, who lives with her four kids near Lake Conway. Her family continues to complain about health problems and says she’s seen oil sheen in the lake near her property. Lane traveled to Washington, DC, earlier in May to voice concerns about the Mayflower cleanup and to deliver a letter to the State Department opposing construction of the massive Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.
“It’s devastating to see what they’ve done to the marsh here, they’ve completely raped it,” she says. “It makes me sad and angry that the health of my family has been impacted … I’m not sure I want my children to live here anymore.”
Others are also worried about lasting impacts to the wildlife in the area. Lynn Slater, executive director of the HAWK Center, a volunteer organization that rehabilitates Arkansas wildlife, helped clean oiled birds and wildlife in the initial days of the spill until Exxon contracted it to an out-of-state firm. According to official tallies, about 200 birds and animals died in cleanup operations connected to the oil spill.
But residents worry there are many more that were never found—and many more animals and migratory birds that have yet to be impacted as a result of extensive tar sands contamination in the marsh. Slater says she will never forget what it was like handling some of the oil soaked birds that were coated in the viscous, black foul-smelling petroleum, a form of oil she had never seen before. And she worries what this heavy crude will do to sensitive lakeshore environments over the long term.
“In my 22 years as a wildlife rehabilitator, I have seen oiled animals, and this was not like any of those animals. This was tarry, it really felt like roofing tar… I have no doubt that this contamination will get into the environment fully. It takes a very long time for this kind of accident to heal itself.”
Many locals who moved here because of Mayflowers' natural beauty agree. Now, more than two months after 5,000 barrels of toxic Canadian tar sands crude poured through this bucolic lakeshore community, the impacts are still being widely felt. Residents have not moved back into their homes in the Northwoods subdivision—ground zero for the flood of tar sands oil that poured into the community. At a recent community meeting in Mayflower this week, many residents expressed their frustration with the cleanup and worried about lingering health impacts many share in the area.
As residents hire lawyers and discuss future legal action, the cause of the accident remains a mystery. The ExxonMobil Pegasus pipeline remains shut down, but the damage has been done. Chuck Johnson, who runs the Hi-Way Landing boathouse on Lake Conway near the oil contaminated marsh, says boat rentals are down this year after the spill because many people don’t want to fish in this part of the lake anymore. And he says he can’t in good conscience tell his customers it’s completely safe. “The sad part of it is we’ve got a lot of kids here who go fishing around here… I tell everybody here that they just have to make up their own minds about fishing because we just don’t really know.”
For now, locals watch and wait as the cleanup in Mayflower continues. Authorities say they have removed most of the tar sands oil in the dozens of acres of marshland impacted by the spill, and they are moving into a remedial cleanup phase to restore the neighborhoods and marshy environment to their pre-spill state. But that seems like a tall order for those still complaining of health problems and contamination in the area more than two months later. They worry about the long term impacts of the toxic tar sands oil, a particularly toxic kind of crude that still plagues Michigan communities along the Kalamazoo River, site of the record-setting Enbridge tar sands pipeline spill nearly three years ago.
Until recently, that was a world away for residents of this small Arkansas town. But it's up close and personal for them now. And it’s raised new concerns about Canadian tar sands projects like the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, a massive 800,000 barrel a day TransCanada proposal to pipe tar sands oil all the way through America's heartland to refineries in the Gulf of Mexico. For many Mayflower locals who just want to fish and enjoy the outdoors, it will be a long hot summer full of anxiety about the health of their treasured lakeside paradise, wondering if it will ever be the same.
Visit EcoWatch’s KEYSTONE XL page for more related news on this topic.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Tara Smith
Fires in the Brazilian Amazon have jumped 84 percent during President Jair Bolsonaro's first year in office and in July 2019 alone, an area of rainforest the size of Manhattan was lost every day. The Amazon fires may seem beyond human control, but they're not beyond human culpability.
Bolsonaro ran for president promising to "integrate the Amazon into the Brazilian economy". Once elected, he slashed the Brazilian environmental protection agency budget by 95 percent and relaxed safeguards for mining projects on indigenous lands. Farmers cited their support for Bolsonaro's approach as they set fires to clear rainforest for cattle grazing.
Bolsonaro's vandalism will be most painful for the indigenous people who call the Amazon home. But destruction of the world's largest rainforest may accelerate climate change and so cause further suffering worldwide. For that reason, Brazil's former environment minister, Marina Silva, called the Amazon fires a crime against humanity.
From a legal perspective, this might be a helpful way of prosecuting environmental destruction. Crimes against humanity are international crimes, like genocide and war crimes, which are considered to harm both the immediate victims and humanity as a whole. As such, all of humankind has an interest in their punishment and deterrence.
Crimes against humanity were first classified as an international crime during the Nuremberg trials that followed World War II. Two German Generals, Alfred Jodl and Lothar Rendulic, were charged with war crimes for implementing scorched earth policies in Finland and Norway. No one was charged with crimes against humanity for causing the unprecedented environmental damage that scarred the post-war landscapes though.
Our understanding of the Earth's ecology has matured since then, yet so has our capacity to pollute and destroy. It's now clear that the consequences of environmental destruction don't stop at national borders. All humanity is placed in jeopardy when burning rainforests flood the atmosphere with CO₂ and exacerbate climate change.
Holding someone like Bolsonaro to account for this by charging him with crimes against humanity would be a world first. If successful, it could set a precedent which might stimulate more aggressive legal action against environmental crimes. But do the Amazon fires fit the criteria?
Prosecuting crimes against humanity requires proof of widespread and systematic attacks against a civilian population. If a specific part of the global population is persecuted, this is an affront to the global conscience. In the same way, domestic crimes are an affront to the population of the state in which they occur.
When prosecuting prominent Nazis in Nuremberg, the US chief prosecutor, Robert Jackson, argued that crimes against humanity are committed by individuals, not abstract entities. Only by holding individuals accountable for their actions can widespread atrocities be deterred in future.
The International Criminal Court's Chief Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, has promised to apply the approach first developed in Nuremberg to prosecute individuals for international crimes that result in significant environmental damage. Her recommendations don't create new environmental crimes, such as "ecocide", which would punish severe environmental damage as a crime in itself. They do signal, however, a growing appreciation of the role that environmental damage plays in causing harm and suffering to people.
The International Criminal Court was asked in 2014 to open an investigation into allegations of land-grabbing by the Cambodian government. In Cambodia, large corporations and investment firms were being given prime agricultural land by the government, displacing up to 770,000 Cambodians from 4m hectares of land. Prosecuting these actions as crimes against humanity would be a positive first step towards holding individuals like Bolsonaro accountable.
But given the global consequences of the Amazon fires, could environmental destruction of this nature be legally considered a crime against all humanity? Defining it as such would be unprecedented. The same charge could apply to many politicians and business people. It's been argued that oil and gas executives who've funded disinformation about climate change for decades should be chief among them.
Charging individuals for environmental crimes against humanity could be an effective deterrent. But whether the law will develop in time to prosecute people like Bolsonaro is, as yet, uncertain. Until the International Criminal Court prosecutes individuals for crimes against humanity based on their environmental damage, holding individuals criminally accountable for climate change remains unlikely.
This story originally appeared in The Conversation. It is republished here as part of EcoWatch's partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.
By Natalie Hanman
Why are you publishing this book now?
I still feel that the way that we talk about climate change is too compartmentalised, too siloed from the other crises we face. A really strong theme running through the book is the links between it and the crisis of rising white supremacy, the various forms of nationalism and the fact that so many people are being forced from their homelands, and the war that is waged on our attention spans. These are intersecting and interconnecting crises and so the solutions have to be as well.
The book collects essays from the last decade, have you changed your mind about anything?
When I look back, I don't think I placed enough emphasis on the challenge climate change poses to the left. It's more obvious the way the climate crisis challenges a rightwing dominant worldview, and the cult of serious centrism that never wants to do anything big, that's always looking to split the difference. But this is also a challenge to a left worldview that is essentially only interested in redistributing the spoils of extractivism [the process of extracting natural resources from the earth] and not reckoning with the limits of endless consumption.
What's stopping the left doing this?
In a North American context, it's the greatest taboo of all to actually admit that there are going to be limits. You see that in the way Fox News has gone after the Green New Deal – they are coming after your hamburgers! It cuts to the heart of the American dream – every generation gets more than the last, there is always a new frontier to expand to, the whole idea of settler colonial nations like ours. When somebody comes along and says, actually, there are limits, we've got some tough decisions, we need to figure out how to manage what's left, we've got to share equitably – it is a psychic attack. And so the response [on the left] has been to avoid, and say no, no, we're not coming to take away your stuff, there are going to be all kinds of benefits. And there aregoing to be benefits: we'll have more livable cities, we'll have less polluted air, we'll spend less time stuck in traffic, we can design happier, richer lives in so many ways. But we are going to have to contract on the endless, disposable consumption side.
Do you feel encouraged by talk of the Green New Deal?
I feel a tremendous excitement and a sense of relief, that we are finally talking about solutions on the scale of the crisis we face. That we're not talking about a little carbon tax or a cap and trade scheme as a silver bullet. We're talking about transforming our economy. This system is failing the majority of people anyway, which is why we're in this period of such profound political destabilisation – that is giving us the Trumps and the Brexits, and all of these strongman leaders – so why don't we figure out how to change everything from bottom to top, and do it in a way that addresses all of these other crises at the same time? There is every chance we will miss the mark, but every fraction of a degree warming that we are able to hold off is a victory and every policy that we are able to win that makes our societies more humane, the more we will weather the inevitable shocks and storms to come without slipping into barbarism. Because what really terrifies me is what we are seeing at our borders in Europe and North America and Australia – I don't think it's coincidental that the settler colonial states and the countries that are the engines of that colonialism are at the forefront of this. We are seeing the beginnings of the era of climate barbarism. We saw it in Christchurch, we saw it in El Paso, where you have this marrying of white supremacist violence with vicious anti-immigrant racism.
That is one of the most chilling sections of your book: I think that's a link a lot of people haven't made.
This pattern has been clear for a while. White supremacy emerged not just because people felt like thinking up ideas that were going to get a lot of people killed but because it was useful to protect barbaric but highly profitable actions. The age of scientific racism begins alongside the transatlantic slave trade, it is a rationale for that brutality. If we are going to respond to climate change by fortressing our borders, then of course the theories that would justify that, that create these hierarchies of humanity, will come surging back. There have been signs of that for years, but it is getting harder to deny because you have killers who are screaming it from the rooftops.
One criticism you hear about the environment movement is that it is dominated by white people. How do you address that?
When you have a movement that is overwhelmingly representative of the most privileged sector of society then the approach is going to be much more fearful of change, because people who have a lot to lose tend to be more fearful of change, whereas people who have a lot to gain will tend to fight harder for it. That's the big benefit of having an approach to climate change that links it to those so called bread and butter issues: how are we going to get better paid jobs, affordable housing, a way for people to take care of their families?
I have had many conversations with environmentalists over the years where they seem really to believe that by linking fighting climate change with fighting poverty, or fighting for racial justice, it's going to make the fight harder. We have to get out of this "my crisis is bigger than your crisis: first we save the planet and then we fight poverty and racism, and violence against women". That doesn't work. That alienates the people who would fight hardest for change.
This debate has shifted a huge amount in the U.S. because of the leadership of the climate justice movement and because it is congresswomen of colour who are championing the Green New Deal. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaibcome from communities that have gotten such a raw deal under the years of neoliberalism and longer, and are determined to represent, truly represent, the interests of those communities. They're not afraid of deep change because their communities desperately need it.
In the book, you write: "The hard truth is that the answer to the question 'What can I, as an individual, do to stop climate change?' is: nothing." Do you still believe that?
In terms of the carbon, the individual decisions that we make are not going to add up to anything like the kind of scale of change that we need. And I do believe that the fact that for so many people it's so much more comfortable to talk about our own personal consumption, than to talk about systemic change, is a product of neoliberalism, that we have been trained to see ourselves as consumers first. To me that's the benefit of bringing up these historical analogies, like the New Deal or the Marshall Plan – it brings our minds back to a time when we were able to think of change on that scale. Because we've been trained to think very small. It is incredibly significant that Greta Thunberg has turned her life into a living emergency.
Yes, she set sail for the UN climate summit in New York on a zero carbon yacht ...
Exactly. But this isn't about what Greta is doing as an individual. It's about what Greta is broadcasting in the choices that she makes as an activist, and I absolutely respect that. I think it's magnificent. She is using the power that she has to broadcast that this is an emergency, and trying to inspire politicians to treat it as an emergency. I don't think anybody is exempt from scrutinising their own decisions and behaviours but I think it is possible to overemphasise the individual choices. I have made a choice – and this has been true since I wrote No Logo, and I started getting these "what should I buy, where should I shop, what are the ethical clothes?" questions. My answer continues to be that I am not a lifestyle adviser, I am not anyone's shopping guru, and I make these decisions in my own life but I'm under no illusion that these decisions are going to make the difference.
Some people are choosing to go on birth strikes. What do you think about that?
I'm happy these discussions are coming into the public domain as opposed to being furtive issues we're afraid to talk about. It's been very isolating for people. It certainly was for me. One of the reasons I waited as long as I did to try and get pregnant, and I would say this to my partner all the time – what, you want to have a Mad Max water warrior fighting with their friends for food and water? It wasn't until I was part of the climate justice movement and I could see a path forward that I could even imagine having a kid. But I would never tell anybody how to answer this most intimate of questions. As a feminist who knows the brutal history of forced sterilisation and the ways in which women's bodies become battle zones when policymakers decide that they are going to try and control population, I think that the idea that there are regulatory solutions when it comes to whether or not to have kids is catastrophically ahistorical. We need to be struggling with our climate grief together and our climate fears together, through whatever decision we decide to make, but the discussion we need to have is how do we build a world so that those kids can have thriving, zero-carbon lives?
Over the summer, you encouraged people to read Richard Powers's novel, The Overstory. Why?
It's been incredibly important to me and I'm happy that so many people have written to me since. What Powers is writing about trees: that trees live in communities and are in communication, and plan and react together, and we've been completely wrong in the way we conceptualise them. It's the same conversation we're having about whether we are going to solve this as individuals or whether we are going to save the collective organism. It's also rare, in good fiction, to valorise activism, to treat it with real respect, failures and all, to acknowledge the heroism of the people who put their bodies on the line. I thought Powers did that in a really extraordinary way.
What are you views on what Extinction Rebellion has achieved?
One thing they have done so well is break us out of this classic campaign model we have been in for a long time, where you tell someone something scary, you ask them to click on something to do something about it, you skip out the whole phase where we need to grieve together and feel together and process what it is that we just saw. Because what I hear a lot from people is, ok, maybe those people back in the 1930s or 40s could organise neighbourhood by neighbourhood or workplace by workplace but we can't. We believe we've been so downgraded as a species that we are incapable of that. The only thing that is going to change that belief is getting face to face, in community, having experiences, off our screens, with one another on the streets and in nature, and winning some things and feeling that power.
You talk about stamina in the book. How do you keep going? Do you feel hopeful?
I have complicated feelings about the hope question. Not a day goes by that I don't have a moment of sheer panic, raw terror, complete conviction that we are doomed, and then I do pull myself out of it. I'm renewed by this new generation that is so determined, so forceful. I'm inspired by the willingness to engage in electoral politics, because my generation, when we were in our 20s and 30s, there was so much suspicion around getting our hands dirty with electoral politics that we lost a lot of opportunities. What gives me the most hope right now is that we've finally got the vision for what we want instead, or at least the first rough draft of it. This is the first time this has happened in my lifetime. And also, I did decide to have kids. I have a seven year old who is so completely obsessed and in love with the natural world. When I think about him, after we've spent an entire summer talking about the role of salmon in feeding the forests where he was born in British Columbia, and how they are linked to the health of the trees and the soil and the bears and the orcas and this entire magnificent ecosystem, and I think about what it would be like to have to tell him that there are no more salmon, it kills me. So that motivates me. And slays me.
- 'The Battle for Paradise': Naomi Klein on Disaster Capitalism & the ... ›
- Naomi Klein: No Is Not Enough - EcoWatch ›
As the climate crisis takes on more urgency, psychologists around the world are seeing an increase in the number of children sitting in their offices suffering from 'eco-anxiety,' which the American Psychological Association described as a "chronic fear of environmental doom," as EcoWatch reported.
By Ben Jervey
Drivers of electric cars are being unfairly punished by punitive fees in several states, according to a newly published analysis by Consumer Reports. Legislators in 26 states have enacted or proposed special registration fees for electric vehicles (EVs) that the consumer advocacy group found to be more expensive than the gas taxes paid by the driver of an average new gasoline vehicle.
By Oliver Milman
Two-thirds of Americans believe climate change is either a crisis or a serious problem, with a majority wanting immediate action to address global heating and its damaging consequences, major new polling has found.