LITTLE ROCK — ExxonMobil officials on Monday defended the safety of pipelines as a means of transporting oil and said it is too soon to say why a pipeline that had passed inspections as recently as 2010 ruptured in Mayflower earlier this year.
"If you look at our country, we have a large infrastructure of pipelines and we enjoy a standard of living and affordable energy as a population in America," ExxonMobil Pipeline Co. Vice President Karen Tyrone said in an informal meeting with reporters at the state Capitol.
"The fact of the matter is, for that to continue, I think hydrocarbons are going to be part of our foreseeable future, and the safest way to move hydrocarbons around the country is in pipelines," she said. "That being said, we are not happy that this occurred — no pipeline operator is happy that this occurred — and we’re committed to understanding it and acting on it and sharing those learnings so that although the history is good, it can be even better."
The meeting with reporters came in between private meetings by ExxonMobil officials with state legislators, city officials and Central Arkansas Water officials. The company officials said the meetings were intended to answer stakeholders’ questions about recently released inspection reports.
The reports show that a hydrostatic pressure test that included the Mayflower portion of the Pegasus pipeline in 2006 resulted in 12 ruptures, and that after the ruptures were repaired the pipeline met or exceeded federal safety regulations.
Inspections in 2010 that included the Mayflower portion of the pipeline found five seam weld imperfections, but no cracks. Again, after repairs the pipeline met or exceeded federal regulations, according to the reports.
The stretch of pipeline between Conway and Corsicana, Texas, was inspected in February. Johnita Jones, pipeline risk and integrity manager for ExxonMobil, told reporters that full results of that inspection are not yet available, but preliminary indications are that metal loss and dents near the point where the rupture occurred were not serious enough to require repairs.
Metallurgical analysis of the piece of pipe that ruptured show that "hook cracks," or separations at the edges of metal plates near the seam, were the root cause of the breach, Jones said. She was not able to explain why the pipeline passed inspection in 2010 but ruptured three years later.
"The metallurgical report shows us what happened, but we have not gotten to the point of saying why it happened," she said. "That’s part of the additional evaluation that’s going on with our experts."
Asked if she was confident that future problems could be detected before a rupture, despite the failure of the 2010 inspections to prevent a rupture, Jones said, "I think I’ll be in a lot better position to answer that when the root cause team tells me exactly what happened."
Regarding the pipeline’s future, Jones said, "We’re not going to restart it until we know we can do it safely. We plan to work with (the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration). At some point we believe and are confident that we’ll be able to get their concurrence, but not until they are comfortable and we are comfortable will we bring that line back into its normal operation."
Asked if permanently closing the pipeline was a possibility, Nicolas Medina, public and government affairs manager for the company, said, "Every option is on the table."
Glen Hooks, senior campaign representative for the Sierra Club, sat in on Monday’s meeting with reporters and said afterward that he believed results from the February inspection should have been completed by now.
"They started the inspection a month before the rupture happened. I would think that that would really push Exxon to expedite their report and share that data with everybody, but it hasn’t happened so far," he said.
The rupture in Mayflower released an estimated 210,000 gallons of oil and resulted in the evacuation of 22 homes. Some of the homeowners are in the process of selling their homes to ExxonMobil, which has offered to buy them at pre-spill appraisal prices.
Several area residents have sued the company over the spill, as have the state attorney general and the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas.