LITTLE ROCK — An exhaustive federal investigation into the cause of an ExxonMobil pipeline rupture in a Mayflower subdivision is delaying the release of information about the spill, the head of the pipeline company told Arkansas officials who requested it.
Gary W. Prussing, president of ExxonMobil Pipeline Co., also made clear that the investigation took priority over any discussion about the officials’ request to move the pipeline, which also runs through the Lake Maumelle Watershed, a major water source in Central Arkansas.
Prussing’s comments in a letter to Arkansas officials apparently were the first by a high-ranking company executive in response to local officials’ concerns about the potential threat to the watershed.
ExxonMobil’s Pegasus pipeline ruptured March 29, spewing hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude into a Mayflower subdivision and forcing dozens of residents from their homes. The company has since said a manufacturing defect caused the rupture.
In a letter to ExxonMobil on July 19, some Central Arkansas officials and members of Arkansas’ congressional delegation complained that the company had not been forthcoming with information they requested about previous inspections of the pipeline that runs underneath Lake Maumelle.
The letter was signed by the U.S. Sens. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., and John Boozman, R-Ark.; U.S. Rep. Tim Griffin, R-Little Rock; Marie-Bernarde Miller, board chairman of Central Arkansas Water; the mayors of Little Rock and North Little Rock; and the Pulaski County judge.
In his response dated Friday, Prussing said the company understood and shared the officials’ concern for the watershed. He said the company was complying with all applicable regulations and requirements as part of the investigation into the pipeline rupture and was committed to identifying all steps necessary to prevent a repeat of the spill.
Prussing noted the pipeline is regulated by the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration and said the company is working to provide the agency with available data and results from supplemental testing and evaluations on the section of the line that failed in Mayflower to understand the original defect.
Such a comprehensive review is necessary to verify the integrity of the entire pipeline, he said.
"We recognize this process is not as expedient as some would like, but taking the time to get to the full root cause is essential for determining the correct path forward," Prussing wrote. "While the investigation is ongoing, it is PHMSA that defines the timing, type and amount of investigative information to share with appropriate stakeholders and the general public."
Pulaski County Judge Buddy Villines said Monday that ExxonMobil’s explanation for not providing information conflicted with a response he received from the federal agency.
"We have a letter from PHMSA that said they were not releasing information at the request of ExxonMobil. I just question (the company) by what the agency has already told us," Villines said.
In email responses, members of Congress pressed their demands for removal of the pipeline from the watershed.
Pryor accused the company of "dodging our question."
"It’s time for them to take action and move the pipeline out of the Maumelle watershed as we requested. The pipeline belongs to Exxon and the question of moving it requires a yes or no answer," he said.
"The Pegasus pipeline that runs through a portion of the Lake Maumelle watershed should be relocated and the Obama administration and ExxonMobil should move faster in addressing our concerns," Griffin said. "Community leaders and the public are entitled to know the facts so that we can do everything in our power to make sure the drinking water for more than 400,000 Arkansans remains safe."
Villines said he was satisfied ExxonMobil and environmental officials are conducting a vigorous investigation.
"We’ve always known that the single most calamitous danger was that pipeline. Everything else we’re doing is to protect the watershed from as much incremental damage as we can," the county judge said. "Now that we have got this pause, I want to make sure they do everything possible to ensure that that watershed is protected."
Villines said he did not know whether he could accept something short of relocating the pipeline, although he acknowledged the difficulty of that solution because the Ouachita National Forest lies to the west of the watershed and Chenal Valley residential neighborhood to the east.
"You can’t even say you’re for moving it until you know where they’re moving it to," he said.