Broken Trust: Victims of Pipeline Spills Tell Their Stories


Evaluating pipeline safety is the business of engineers and scientists, but evaluating the human cost of transporting hazardous materials near people’s homes is best left to those who’ve experienced the fallout.

Homeowners shared their experiences with industry insiders at the New Orleans Pipeline Safety Trust conference in New Orleans late last month.

On March 29, Exxon’s Pegasus pipeline burst in Mayflower, Arkansas, releasing up to 7,000 barrels of diluted bitumen. That’s where Ann Jarrell and her family lived, just outside the evacuation zone set by government officials — a zone she believes was too small because it didn’t reflect the fact the pipeline was carrying diluted bitumen, which is more toxic then crude oil.

Bitumen is diluted with a mixture of undisclosed toxic emulsifiers to help it flow through pipelines — a factor homeowners, government officials and first responders appear to often be left in the dark about.

On the day of the spill, Jarrell’s daughter Jennifer, who lived in her house with her infant son, suggested they leave because of the smell. She learned in school that in the case of a spill, if you can hear it, see it, smell it or touch it, you need to leave the area immediately. Jarrell called the local police and asked about evacuating. She was told if there wasn’t oil on her land, she didn’t need to leave her home. So Jarrell and her family stayed. But, she told the room full of industry insiders, “I should have listened to my daughter.”  

Ann Jarrell, Homeowner from Mayflower, Arkansas ©2013 Julie Dermansky

Jarrell and her family are suffering from health issues after breathing in toxins for weeks. On August 20th, Jarrell went to her doctor because she was having difficulty breathing. After examining her, her doctor told her not to return home. After a few days away, Jarrell began to feel better, but she says her doctor advised her not to return because she would quickly become ill again if she breathed in more of the same toxins. Now she lives away from her home, even though she must continue to pay for it. 

No one in Mayflower seemed to know they were dealing with diluted bitumen at the onset of the spill, Jarrell said. She told officials attending the conference that they should know what is in pipes before a spill and have instructions on how to deal with the toxins. “The standard radius around a spill site should have different circumferences depending on what is spilled,” she advised.

Not being given information is more stressful than knowing one needs to leave,” Jarrell said. It wasn’t until she went to a Faulkner County Citizens Advisory Group meeting, weeks after the spill, that she learned she had been breathing toxic chemicals.

“Many residents trusted information and guidance we received from government officials and industry representatives,” Jarrell said. “We believed them when they said breathing the air was safe and the level of chemicals detected not harmful. Well, I understand now what has become clear since the time of the pipeline rupture — the health of the community has been compromised. The information was inaccurate and incomplete and our trust was misplaced.”

Since the spill, Jarrell has made it her mission to help spread accurate information about what is going on in Mayflower. She started The Mayflower Oil Spill Diaries, a Facebook page where she compiles everything she finds about what is going on. 

Watch Ann Jarrell’s presentation beginning at 3:49. Video courtesy of the Pipeline Safety Trust.  

Ceresco, Michigan, homeowner David Gallagher showed conference attendees a video produced by Inside Climate News documenting the construction of Enbridge’s 6B line, just 14 feet from his home. Construction has gone on for months.

Gallagher challenged representatives from Enbridge at the conference to speak with him. “If the 6B line were to rupture so close to my bedroom, will my wife and I be safe?” he asked.

David Gallagher, homeowner from Ceresco, Michigan, ©2013 Julie Dermansky

Watch David Gallagher’s presentation. Video courtesy of the Pipeline Safety Trust.

Jennifer Baker from Monkton, Vermont, was the last homeowner to speak. Her community’s opposition to the Addison Rutland Gas Project has been so fierce the pipeline operators were forced to change the proposed route. “In Vermont, civic engagement is a pastime,” Baker said. She advised the handful of activists at the conference to “insert yourself into the process and be as annoying as possible.”  

Jennifer Baker, homeowner from Monkton, Vermont  ©2013 Julie Dermansky

Watch Jennifer Baker’s presentation. Video courtesy of the Pipeline Safety Trust. 

Carl Weimer, president of the Pipeline Safety Trust, said in an e-mail after the conference: “We continue to invite the affected public to our conference to tell their stories, because often their stories represent the disconnect between the fine words and intentions of industry executives and regulators and the reality of what happens on the ground in communities across the country.”

He continued: “We think it helps the affected public realize they are not alone, and it helps the industry realize there is still much more they need to do. Many within the industry attending our conference have said these are the most important sessions we have at the conference and why they keep coming back.”

Have previous disasters adequately informed current pipeline practices? It seems doubtful. Even the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration’s website does not differentiate between diluted bitumen and crude oil. The Enbridge diluted bitumen spill in Kalamazoo is being cleaned up for the third time. And in Mayflower, citizens such as Jarrell have become human guinea pigs, after experiencing long-term exposure to tar sands fumes.

Less than a week ago, TransCanada started filling the southern half of its Keystone XL pipeline with “oil” in Cushing, Oklahoma. When asked by DeSmogBlog fellow Steve Horn if the oil is conventional oil or diluted bitumen sourced from Canadian tar sands, TransCanada’s spokesman, Shawn Howard wrote, “oil is oil,” evading an answer. Contrary to Howard’s comments, diluted bitumen is not the same as crude oil.

Complicating matters, the chemical mixtures used to dilute bitumen are being treated as a trade secret, so they can’t be analyzed. According to Inside Climate News, “the mixture often includes benzene, a known human carcinogen.” Furthermore, when spilled in fresh water, bitumen sinks after the diluents evaporate, making it much more difficult to clean up than crude, which remains on the water’s surface.

In the coming weeks, TransCanada will inject about three million barrels of an undisclosed type of oil into the line. If something goes wrong, will local officials and first responders have the proper information on hand to deal with a diluted bitumen spill? Will the radius of any evacuation zone be larger than it was after the Mayflower spill? Or will the same mistakes be made again?  

Carl Weimer, president of the Pipeline Safety Trust ©2013 Julie Dermansky 

Julie Dermansky is a multimedia reporter and artist based in New Orleans. She is an affiliate scholar at Rutgers University’s Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights. Visit her website at

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