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Exxon Mobil pipeline leaks 'a few thousand' barrels of crude oil in Arkansas

| Sunday, March 31, 2013, 7:57 p.m.
REUTERS
A man on Saturday removes belongings from a home in a subdivision in Mayflower, Ark., where an underground crude oil pipeline ruptured.

Exxon Mobil said that one of its pipelines leaked “a few thousand” barrels of crude oil near Mayflower, Ark., prompting the evacuation of 22 homes and reinforcing concerns many critics have raised about the Keystone XL pipeline that is still awaiting approval from the State Department.

The Exxon Mobil pipeline breach took place late Friday, the company said, in the 20-inch diameter, 95,000-barrel-a-day Pegasus pipeline, which originates in Patoka, Ill., and carries crude oil to the Texas gulf coast, the country's main refining center. Mayflower is about 25 miles north of Little Rock.

The pipeline, which was built in the 1940s and recently expanded, was carrying low-quality Wabasca Heavy crude oil from Alberta, said Exxon Mobil spokesman Alan T. Jeffers. According to the authoritative Crude Monitor website, Wabasca Heavy is a blend of oil produced in the Athabasca region where the oil sands are located.

An existing Keystone pipeline carries crude oil that comes from the oil sands deposits in Alberta to Patoka, though Exxon Mobil's Jeffers said he did not know if this batch of crude oil came from the Keystone line.

Many critics of the Keystone pipelines say that corrosion risks are greater in pipelines carrying low-quality, bitumen-laden crude from the oil sands.

“This latest pipeline incident is a troubling reminder that oil companies still have not proven that they can safely transport Canadian tar sands oil across the United States without creating risks to our citizens and our environment,” said Rep. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., who sits on the Natural Resources Committee.

TransCanada, owner of the Keystone pipeline system, has said that the new pipeline would be far safer than any other part of the nation's 2.6 million miles of oil, gas and chemical pipelines.

The Environmental Protection Agency declared the Arkansas leak a “major spill,” a label put on any spill of 250 barrels or more.

Exxon Mobil said it was preparing for a spill of up to 10,000 barrels, though it said that the spill estimate was likely to end up lower than that.

The company and other responders were battling to keep the crude oil, which leaked onto land in a Mayflower neighborhood, from leaking into the nearby Lake Conway, a popular game fishing spot.

Cleanup crews have deployed 3,600 feet of boom near the lake as a precaution, but as of Sunday afternoon no oil had reached the lake, Jeffers said.

Dikes had been built to prevent runoff into the lake, but heavy rains were making that difficult and runoff from storm drains into the lake were a concern, he added.

The company received phone calls from people in the area at the same time its pipeline monitors in Houston noticed a drop in pressure in the line, Jeffers said. The pipeline is buried about two feet deep in the Mayflower area, he said.

Exxon Mobil said responders were on the scene within a half hour.

The company said the cause of the spill was still under investigation.

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