After a burst oil pipeline spilt into the streets of a US town, Dateline looks at the controversy over the country's huge pipeline network.
One of Barack Obama's pledges in his second term has been to renew America's ageing infrastructure. He would do well to focus on 2.5 million miles of pipeline is that criss-cross the US, carrying gas, crude oil and petrol. Over half of these pipelines are more than 50 years old, you don't have to be Einstein to figure out at around about now they will begin to crack with dire consequences. Here's David O'Shea
REPORTER: David O'Shea
WOMAN: We have oil everywhere. There is an oil pipeline that runs through our yard and it has ruptured and it is spilling oil throughout the neighbourhood.
In March this year, this quiet backstreet in Mayflower, Arkansas became a torrent of foul smelling crude oil. It flowed like a river down the gutters and into the drainage ditches. The stench enveloped the whole town.
GENEIVE LONG: It would take your breath away, you would have a metallic taste in your mouth, your eyes would burn, your throat would burn, your lungs would burn. It was awful.
JENNIFER: I was having a full blown panic attack. I was telling my mom we gotta go we have to load up right now she like where are we going to go? I'm like you have hotel points go to a hotel, I don't care, just get out of here.
It turned out that an oil pipeline ran under the town. It had ruptured and the locals were exposed to a toxic mixture of chemicals. The burst Pegasus pipeline was carrying crude oil for Exxon on a 1,400-kilometre journey from Illinois to Texas. So, it became Exxon's responsibility to respond.
JASON THOMPSON: First they said it was crude oil and they had their clean-up crew here walking out in the stuff wearing muck boots and no masks to help protect them from the chemicals, no gloves, nothing - then this full HAZMAT team comes in wearing the face masks and the goggles and the gloves.
Ruptured oil pipelines are by no means a rare event in the United States. In 2010 the Kalamazoo River in Michigan was flooded with over three million litres of crude oil. It took the company responsible seventeen hours to discover the break in the pipeline before they shut it down. US federal records show there are more than a hundred significant oil spills every year.
GENEIVE LONG: This is Ground Zero. They have made some people move back into their homes, they have taken some of the fencing down. See that fencing they have put up so we can't see all the work that they are doing behind there.
Mayflower Residents want Exxon to explain what happened to the pipeline. Geneive Long took me on a tour of the town she's lived in her whole life.
GENEIVE LONG: These homes were the homes that were evacuated. The initial rupture happened in between these two homes here where you see the green fencing.
The rupture in the highly pressurised pipeline was over 6.5m long. For some time Exxon refused to explain the cause of the break.
GENEIVE LONG: No information, they are not forthcoming with that.
And they declined Dateline's request for an interview, but they did respond to our written questions.
EXXONMOBIL: The root cause of the failure can be attributed to original manufacturing defects - namely hook cracks near the seam. There are no findings that indicate internal or external corrosion contributed to the failure.
Exxon told Dateline the pipeline that burst in Mayflower was inspected one month before the rupture - but the results of that test are not yet available. Like many Mayflower residents, Anne Jarrell is seriously concerned about her health. Her house is just 300m from the spill. Local police advised her to stay put because no oil touched her property. But then her daughter and grandson got sick and she was told by her doctor not to go back home.
ANNE JARRELL: We've got major health problems in Mayflower and no-one is doing anything about it. My daughter has accused me of becoming obsessed with it and it's, like, well, I am worried about my grandson and I worry about you and I worry about me and nobody is doing anything.
Her daughter, Jennifer, has moved away from the home too, but she checks in once a week to make sure everything is OK. But there's no way she's letting her son Logan play outside.
JENNIFER: He doesn't ever go outside. I mean if he is outside we are carrying him because I don't want him to get any of the grass or anything because everything that he touches goes straight into his mouth. Then mom found her bees were dead. She tried to show the Exxon people that but they didn't really want to hear it.
REPORTER: That's terrible.
JENNIFER: They were, like, oh, well it happens. Her bees were very important to her and I didn't realise how important they were until she realised they were dead and she was very upset about it.
GENEIVE LONG: Most of the residents that I have spoken to have specifically stated that they do not want to live back in these homes because there is no way to physically guarantee that their family won't get sick later on. My two youngest have had the most health issues, from wheezing, nausea, vomiting, migraine, headaches, joint pain. She has documented lung function which has dropped from the beginning of the year.
We asked Exxon whether the chemicals that the people of Mayflower were exposed to posed a risk to their health.
EXXONMOBIL: Monitoring data have shown; levels that are either non detect or below action levels established by the Arkansas Department of Health.
And we asked what were those chemicals?
EXXONMOBIL: Benzene, H2S [Hydrogen Sulfide], SO2 [Sulphur Dioxide], and other vapors.
Quite a heavy mix, hydrogen sulphide is a poisonous, corrosive, flammable and explosive gas and benzene is a known carcinogen. Mayflower's pipeline problem began here hundreds of kilometres away in Alberta, Canada. These are the tar sands of the Wabasca oil fields. It's from here the oil begins its underground journey through Mayflower and hundreds of other American towns to the refineries on the Gulf coast. The oil extracted here is so thick it needs to be diluted with toxic chemicals to make it flow smoothly through the pressurized pipeline.
GENEIVE LONG: There might be markers where they want to do sediment testing.
Geneive and others here accuse Exxon of never really taking the clean-up seriously. They go out regularly to take their own samples and have them tested.
GENEIVE LONG: See it? All over, these are all tar balls. You can visibly see the lines of oil running through these slicks automatically attached to my hands.
Six months since the spill Geneive is still finding plenty of oil in the water;. But the problem is not what's on top - it's what might be on the bottom.
EXXONMOBIL: In this incident, the Wabasca Heavy that was spilled at Mayflower floated because it had a specific gravity less than that of water.
JOHN BOLENBAUGH: This is an important video everybody and the reason why it's so important is because it's about proving that tar sand oil is in the mud underneath the water.
John Bolenbaugh calls himself an environmental whistleblower with a special interest in tar sands oil. His pictures clearly raise questions about Exxon's claims that the oil spilled in Mayflower floats.
JOHN BOLENBAUGH: That's proof that it's under the water; And it goes into there. I don't see booms. They are done cleaning.
From the air you can see the cove that leads to Lake Conway, next to residential Mayflower. Exxon claims its clean-up team contained the oil spill here but locals say that's simply not true.
JASON THOMPSON: The oil spill happened here in the neighbourhood.
Jason Thompson knows this area intimately.
JASON THOMPSON: And it crosses underneath the old highway, under the interstate and into this cove and this cove is where it all stopped, supposedly, where all the oil ended right here.
He says heavy rain after the spill pushed both water and oil from the cove into the lake. Exxon says the booms it put in place in the cove were successful in stopping that.
EXXONMOBIL: Water sampling confirms the main body of Lake Conway remains oil free.
Perhaps Exxon needs to take samples from the bottom of the lake. Shortly after the spill Jason was fishing well past the cove and his lure told the story.
JASON THOMPSON: I had white spinner bait and it was just caked in oil, all of the skirt on my spinner bait was all stuck together and it was just a real nasty smell. I don't have friends over for fish fries anymore and if we do we go buy the fish from somewhere or they bring it with them from previous catches somewhere else.
Thousands of pipelines criss-cross the United States. In theory, their safety is monitored by a Federal Government agency but it struggles to deal with its workload.
ED HIRS, UNIVERSITY OF HOUSTON: Well, the nation's pipeline network has been subject to benign neglect over most of its last 20 to 30 years.
Ed Hirs is a lecturer on energy economics at the University of Houston.
ED HIRS: The academic research, the economic research shows that these pipeline owners are not given enough return to have an economic incentive to maintain maintenance to maintain capital investment in these pipelines and so there is a disincentive if you will for them to keep the pipelines up until a disaster occurs.
Well, I've now left Mayflower and I'm heading through Texas following the route of the Pegasus pipeline where just up ahead here it meets up with the biggest pipeline of them all, Keystone XL. Just outside Winnsboro I'm dropping in at a farm where the huge new pipeline is already in the ground.
JERRY HIGHTOWER: Glad you made it safely.
JERRY HIGHTOWER: Let's go and check out some pipelines. Let's go see what we are up against. This property came into my family back in the wagon train days. My grandfather's grandfather first bought this piece of land.
Jerry Hightower now believes his grandmother didn't make a great deal when she granted permission to lay the pipeline on this land.
JERRY HIGHTOWER: They have placed these wonderful markers right on top of where the pipe is.
It's a short drive to where the Keystone XL crosses the Pegasus pipeline that burst in Mayflower.
REPORTER: So, we're now walking on top of the pipeline?
JERRY HIGHTOWER: We are now walking on top of it Keystone XL pipeline.
REPORTER: And when was it buried?
JERRY HIGHTOWER: They have been working on this stretch of pipeline for a little over a year. This creek is running parallel with the Pegasus pipeline and crosses the Keystone XL so to envisage a rupture of the Keystone XL right here. Then it's just gonna pick up straight with the flow.
TOM STEYER: I'm Tom Steyer. I evaluate investments and help companies grow.
Billionaire investor and hedge fund manager Tom Steyer says Keystone doesn't make economic sense.
TOM STEYER: Here's the truth. Keystone oil will travel through America not to America. Foreign oil companies will make more than $4 billion off Keystone. You don't have to dig deep on Keystone to see it's a bad deal for America.
In the fossil fuel processing capital of the world, Houston, activists are taking their protest to the company building Keystone XL - TransCanada
SUSAN, PROTESTER: My name is Susan and I am an American concerned about our environment.
Much of the protest is based on the huge carbon footprint of tar sands oil extraction. It's widely understood the process of cleaning the oil from the sand is too energy intensive. It's now something protestors are prepared to go to jail for.
ED HIRS: It seems to me that the national discussion on the Keystone pipeline has outstripped its importance.
Ed Hirs wonders why there's so much fuss about this particular pipeline.
ED HIRS: We have thousands of miles of crude oil pipeline and thousands of miles of refined products pipeline, hundreds of thousands of miles of natural gas pipelines including the ones going to everyone's home and we don't see a lot of opposition to these. These are economic necessities for all of us.
JERRY HIGHTOWER: For the people up north who think the TransCanada pipeline is still a dream, that this thing may one day exist, it exists, it exists right here in my yard. They've got a big steel sign right over the top of a three foot diameter pipe in my yard.
In Houston last week Jerry took his message directly to the director of the Keystone pipeline project at a demonstration outside his house.
JERRY HIGHTOWER: I'm here to have my voice heard and let you know this is not OK.
ED HIRS: There's nothing the United States can do to prevent the Canadians from harvesting this natural resource. That oil is going to be produced and the Canadians, if they're shut out of bringing to the US by pipeline will build pipelines either to either the west or the east to export that oil. That oil may very well come back to the US by tanker around California or down the east coast.
In the end the argument really isn't about pipelines - but about our insatiable thirst for oil. While that lasts there will be more disasters like Mayflower and Kalamazoo. For some, they're the least worst alternative.
ED HIRS: With a pipeline rupturing as we saw in Arkansas with an Exxon pipeline. Sure it's a mess and it's all there for the television cameras to see but it's relatively easier to clean up than a spill that's going across the Gulf of Mexico or across the Atlantic. The impact is contained and it's localized.
That's not an argument that consoles Jerry Hightower.
JERRY HIGHTOWER: There's no technology to clean up the spills of this stuff. It's released into the air, it's released into the ground, it's released into the water, it goes everywhere and there is no technology to clean it.
ANJALI RAO: David O'Shea and the tar sands debate. Our website has Exxon's full response to Dateline's questions about the Mayflower spill.
Original Music Composed by VICKI HANSEN
Additional footage courtesy of John Bolenbaugh, Rocky Kistner & Natural Resources Defence Council, Eric Moll & Tar Sands Blockade, KARK-TV, Clearwater Documentaries, and Next Generation.
Audio courtesy of Faulkner County Sheriff's Office.
Stills courtesy of Duncan Firm and the United States Environmental Protection Agency.
1st October 2013