MAYFLOWER, Ark. — On warm spring evenings, North Starlite Drive buzzed with children. They cycled around the cul-de-sac at the end of the wide, block-long road, shot baskets in driveways and inevitably wound up on the swing set and trampoline behind the Bartletts' large brick house.
These days, there are no children. Yellow police tape stretches across the turns from the main road onto the street. All 22 families who lived there are gone.
About 2:45 p.m. on March 29, an underground ExxonMobil oil pipeline ruptured in the woods behind the cul-de-sac. An estimated 5,000 barrels — or 210,000 gallons — of oil splashed down North Starlite into a drainage ditch, snaking into a cove off Lake Conway.
The families on the street evacuated immediately. Overwhelmed by the oil's burning-tire smell, other subdivision residents left too. People came back for an hour here and there to collect their belongings. "For Sale" signs popped up on lawns like a strange bloom.
The ExxonMobil Pegasus pipeline split open just as the Obama administration entered the final phases of review for the far bigger, controversial Keystone XL pipeline, handing ammunition to opponents who say that Keystone's path through major rivers like the Platte and the Missouri and over the Ogallala aquifer, the main freshwater source of the Great Plains, could lead to a catastrophe.
The Pegasus pipeline carried about 95,000 barrels a day, but Keystone XL would carry more than 800,000, making the consequences of a spill potentially far greater.
The project's supporters point out that while the Pegasus pipeline is more than 60 years old, Keystone XL would be outfitted with state-of-the-art spill prevention and alert technology.
But in April, the Environmental Protection Agency faulted the State Department, which is responsible for issuing the federal permit, for not demanding more spill safeguards in the Keystone XL project. A 2011 study of potential spills from Keystone XL by John Stansbury, a University of Nebraska professor of environmental and water resources engineering, concluded that TransCanada, which would build and operate the pipeline, underestimated the size of potential spills.
"I don't agree with people who say a spill into the aquifer will ruin the whole aquifer. It would ruin a very small piece, but it's important if that's your small piece," Stansbury said. "But if it got into a major river, it could create a plume hundreds of miles long."
Thousands of miles of pipeline in the U.S. carry millions of barrels of oil and refined products daily. Most don't spill. But after a 20-year decline in pipeline accidents, there's been a slight uptick in the last eight or nine years, said Carl Weimer, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, a Bellingham, Wash., watchdog group. New rules aimed at bolstering pipeline safety were rolled out in 2002 and 2006. But so far, the rules have not helped reduce the failure rate, Weimer said.
"We have looked long and hard and have not found any one particular problem," Weimer said. There are "lots of different causes, but it all seems to point to the fact that the industry is not paying enough attention," he said.
From May 2010 to May 2011, a new TransCanada pipeline from Alberta in Canada to Midwest refineries, Keystone I, spilled a dozen times, the largest about 21,000 gallons in North Dakota. In 2011, an ExxonMobil pipeline in Montana ruptured and spilled about 63,000 gallons of oil into the Yellowstone River.
The Assn. of Oil Pipe Lines, which recommends the swift approval of Keystone XL, said the data over the last several years represent a "short snapshot" of industry trends.
The association's spokesman, John Stoody, said that over the last 10 years, the number of spills has fallen 59% and the volume of oil released by 43%. He noted that in 2011, the industry spent $1.1 billion on safety measures.
The Arkansas spill on March 29 came to light when an ExxonMobil employee in a control room in Houston saw a sudden drop in pressure on the Pegasus line in Mayflower, a small town just north of Little Rock. Deciding it was not a false reading, ExxonMobil shut down the 850-mile pipeline from Illinois to Texas in 15 minutes.
The spill upended families, killed wildlife, polluted the air, water and wetlands, and raised fears about long-term health effects. Cleanup will continue for several months, monitoring of air and water probably longer.
Officials recently told some families they could return to their homes. So far, none have.
"I don't want to go back and then in five years something horrible would happen to one of my kids, like leukemia, or one of my children can't have kids," said Amber Bartlett, 35, a mother of four. "I would always think it was because we moved back, and I'd never be able to forgive myself."
Since the spill, Arkansas officials and residents have petitioned ExxonMobil to reroute a 13-mile portion of the Pegasus pipeline out of the watershed for Little Rock's drinking water source, Lake Maumelle.
"The big picture right now is that for the first time, the community is interested in the security of its water," said Dr. William Mason, branch chief of the Arkansas Department of Health, among those pushing for a change in the route. "A spill into surface water is one thing, but if it sinks below the surface, you can't clean that up."
ExxonMobil has made no decision so far about moving the pipeline. It has apologized to the community for the spill, and is paying for the emergency response, spill cleanup, temporary housing and other expenses of residents. A group of homeowners has filed a class-action suit against the company. The Arkansas attorney general is exploring litigation, and the company may face federal charges and fines.
"I recognize this happened and we need to make it right for people," said Karen Tyrone, vice president of operations for ExxonMobil Pipeline Co. "We are not finished in Mayflower, and we're not going anywhere."
Work crews are replacing the storm drains the oil raced through on North Starlite, leaving trenches in front of the tidy yards. White fabric booms for soaking up the oil zigzag across ditches, past a strip mall and into a marsh. The marsh itself has been scraped of vegetation and trees, so that oil-soaked soil can be dug away. For workers to clear the marsh, water from it is being pumped into Lake Conway, where families fish on sunny afternoons. Of the estimated 5,000 barrels spilled, about 2,500 have so far been recovered.
In an adjacent neighborhood, Linda Linch and other residents stayed put, but now several complain of persistent coughs and nausea. Families that have returned have complained of headaches if they stayed longer than an hour. But the smell has abated, and air monitoring by the Environmental Protection Agency and ExxonMobil does not show high levels of pollutants.
Despite official reassurances, fears linger about potential health effects. "I don't think the authorities know that it's totally safe," Bartlett said. "And honestly, if they were to put themselves or their families in our position, they wouldn't want to go back either."