Court Lets Exxon Off Hook For Pipeline Spill In Arkansas Neighborhood

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Above Photo: A break in Exxon’s Pegasus Pipeline sent more than 200,000 gallons of heavy tar sands crude oil spilling into a neighborhood of Mayflower, Arkansas, in 2013. Credit: U.S. EPA

‘Despite adherence to safety guidelines and regulations, oil spills still do occur,’ the court said in overturning several violations against the oil giant.

A federal appeals court has let ExxonMobil largely off the hook for a 2013 pipeline spill that deluged a neighborhood in Mayflower, Arkansas, with more than 200,000 gallons of heavy tar sands crude oil, sickening residents and forcing them from their homes.

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday overturned federal findings of violations and the better part of a $2.6 million fine imposed on Exxon’s pipeline unit in 2015 by the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA). The regulator had accused the company of failing to maintain the decades-old Pegasus Pipeline and to prioritize testing of a segment of older, high-risk pipe where a 22-foot gash eventually opened along a metal seam.

Exxon challenged the violation and fine, arguing there was no proof its actions contributed to the spill and saying it had conducted adequate testing of the pipeline as required by law. The appeals court agreed, saying the company met its legal obligation when it “conducted a lengthy, repeated and in-depth analysis” of the pipeline and its risks.

“The unfortunate fact of the matter is that, despite adherence to safety guidelines and regulations, oil spills still do occur,” the court concluded. It called PHMSA’s determination that the company failed to consider risks “arbitrary and capricious.”

In October 2015, PHMSA sent the company a 46-page order, citing nine violations. Ultimately, Exxon challenged six of those violations. The court sided with Exxon on five of them, saying the company took sufficient steps to analyze risks along the pipeline. On one violation—accusing Exxon of saying it had run a certain test on the pipeline when it had not—the court agreed with PHMSA, but it noted the company’s misrepresentation was not a “causal factor in the Mayflower Accident,” as the agency asserted. The court said it would ask the agency to reevaluate an appropriate penalty for that violation. Exxon has also reached separate settlements with homeowners and governments related to the pipeline spill.

The pipeline consists of three separate sections—built in 1947, 1954 and 1973—that were joined as one system in 2005 and 2006 to carry oil along an 859-mile stretch, southward from from Pakota, Illinois, to Nederland, Texas. The segment that burst is in the oldest section of the pipeline and is made of “low-frequency electric-resistance welded” (LF-ERW) steel pipe, made before 1970 and known to have a higher risk of rupturing along its lengthwise seams because of a manufacturing defect.

The Pipeline Safety Act requires pipeline operators to create “Integrity Management Programs,” which include a written plan to assess pipelines and prioritize certain sections for testing based on risks. The regulations spell out the methods pipeline operators can use to perform these “integrity assessments.” If the pipe is LF-ERW pipe that’s susceptible to “longitudinal seam failure,” the assessment methods have to be capable of detecting corrosion and assessing the strength of the seams. But the law isn’t clear how operators should determine if pipelines are likely to suffer “longitudinal seam failure” in the first place.

The court said that the “pipeline integrity regulations themselves did not provide ExxonMobil notice that the pipeline’s leak history compelled it to label the LF-ERW pipe susceptible to longitudinal seam failure.”

But Exxon’s own testing in the years before the Mayflower spill revealed more than 10 leaks or ruptures—a fact that critics say should speak for itself.

“The fact that it had been leaking and that it was ERW pipe should have been enough to clue Exxon in that it was susceptible to a higher risk of seam failure,” said Rebecca Craven, program director for the Pipeline Safety Trust.

In essence, Craven said, Exxon successfully argued—and the court agreed—that its pipeline failed without violating any safety regulations.

“They have an obligation to prevent damage to high-consequence areas—period,” Craven said. “So that argument that you can have a failure without a violation of the rules doesn’t track.”

Exxon had conducted in-line tests on the pipeline before the spill, concluding that the pipeline was not susceptible to “longitudinal seam failure,” based on those tests and previous assessments. Exxon also determined that the pipeline was not susceptible to seam failure because past leaks were not caused by a certain type of fatigue or seam corrosion—specific factors pointing to possible failure. As a third-party vendor was analyzing the results of in-line tests conducted in 2013, the Mayflower rupture occurred, yet the analysis could not identify a defect where the rupture happened.

“In-line tests are not capable of assessing that threat—that’s been known for decades,” said Richard Kuprewicz, president of the pipeline safety consulting firm Accufacts Inc. “That may have won the legal case, but just running the in-line inspection doesn’t get you off the hook for evaluating a type of threat that in-line inspection can not ascertain.”

Critics of the pipeline safety law and regulations point out that they were crafted around industry consensus.

“It’s very much by design because the operators were successful in arguing that the risk to each system is so different, that if you want to design a regulatory system that reduces the most risk to the most people, then you need to be flexible,” Craven said. “There are a lot of words like ‘may’ and ‘should’ and ‘consider’ that give the operators a lot of flexibility. It’s very difficult to enforce.”



  • TecumsehUnfaced

    This is so absurd. If leaks are a natural consequence of pipelines, then any organization building or operating a pipeline is automatically responsible for all the spills coming from it.

  • countup333

    Regulations “crafted around industry consensus” says it all . . .

    And the ability to buy off plaintiffs behind the scenes is prolonging this corruption.

  • Paul Purcell

    Let’s help the workers of the dirty energy industry transition into great career’s in the clean energy society of tomorrow!..
    Complete and comprehensive training for the workers to enter into the clean energy generation sector..
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    The public wins with socialist policies..

  • Paul Purcell

    The real enemy of Venezuela at this time is not the National Assembly or any other state power; it is the USA, Big oil, its allies in other governments and corporations that covet the country’s great oil and mineral wealth.


    Some simple legislation that stipulates that all new cars must be able to run on hydrogen as well as gas would instantly start the hydrogen economy and start moving us towards a pollution free society..

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    BMW blast off happens 1:55 minutes in to the video…


    The use of desert territory to grow some crops is a measure that needs to be done in this day of deforestation and climate change.. We have desalinization technologies to utilize and the price of solar to power the processing plant is falling every day!
    Diverting fresh water that is otherwise washing out to sea is another option we should look into.. The vast quantities of water that falls upon our lands that drains back out to sea could be redirected to area’s of great need.. A publicly owned and run project that moved water from abundance to where it is scarce to grow a crop for the benefit of the public..
    The world is changing.. Though the economic game that constrains the actions of society is not changing with the pace.. We need to be looking at different models.. Ones that marshal the resources of the land to serve the people of the land.. By imposing such artificial limitations on ourselves like the lack of this mythical paper that makes all things possible and without it we cannot do anything, this thinking is not going to get us to where we need to be.. If we need to house people then we build housing.. We don’t need to accumulate this fictitious paper in order to make that possible.. We need the building materials which we have.. Payment to persons can take on other forms than currency.. Payment can be the housing unit, or food, or products that are needed for a high quality of life..
    We have to change the way we phrase the challenge.. We don’t need to create jobs to increase the quality of life for society.. We need to be making the material needs and providing the needed services to society.. We don’t need everyone running around doing busy work so they can get a pay check to buy food.. We need to be producing food for the populace… We don’t need to create industry to provide jobs so people can afford decent housing.. We need to create more decent social housing..
    Keeping privatization out of our public utilities and institutions is key to providing the highest returns to the public.. These corporations are analogous to middle men.. They step between the producer and the customer to take from both.. The customer pays more money for the product or service and the provider gets less compensation for the efforts.. There are too many policies that function as tools to concentrate wealth to the 0.1%.. The place where we start is free education.. Free education that is easily accessible to everyone.. An understanding of how the processes are supposed to work and how they actually work is the first step to a Utopian society..


    Desalination that is power with clean renewable energy such as wind, wave, solar and biofuels could make a very positive contribution to a nations water supply.. I would of course direct your attention to the fact that in North America record rainfalls are happening in the East while drought assaults the West.. Moving water from where it is abundant to where it is scarce might be a more effective plan.. A constant year round effort to move water from abundance and/or washing out to sea to fill up reservoirs for when it is needed.. Water that runs down the St. Lawrence River and out to the ocean might be better put to use watering fields in California.. This is a prime example of a very worthy infrastructure project to build North American food security and wealth.. Coupling this project like some other intelligent measures for the time that we live in might very well change the slide downwards of living standards and set a upward trajectory for a brighter future.. When marshaling the resources for a continental irrigation system the build of several other projects might prove practical.. Clean energy generating equipment installed the entire length of the project.. Wind, solar, biofuel electrical generating equipment to power the project.. High voltage direct current lines to efficiently move the electrical power to where it is needed.. A high speed mass transit system to connect the peoples across the lands.. A freight moving rail system to move goods in and out of the land.. These projects coupled together could make better use of the construction equipment and personal… Lets build a better future with clean energy and other well thought out civil projects..