The March 29 ExxonMobil oil spill in Mayflower, Arkansas might not come close to being the worst environmental disaster in recent American history, but it does, nonetheless, warrant significant media attention.

The spilled substance, after all, is diluted bitumen (“dilbit”) from Alberta’s tar sands: the same gunk that will grace the Keystone XL Pipeline if its construction is approved by the State Department. Dilbit presents a unique challenge to clean up crews when efforts to transport it go pear-shaped. Unlike conventional oil, which floats to the surface when excreted into a body of water, dilbit is a peanut butter-like substance that sinks. It’s like a high maintenance partner – stubborn, clingy, and around long after you’re desperate to be left alone. A 2010 dilbit spill in the Kalamazoo River near Marshall, Michigan, for example, is taking years, not months, to clean and might have irreparably harmed the locals. Mayflower homeowners might, therefore, want to consider cutting their losses and skipping town indefinitely (they should end up adequately compensated after the class action lawsuit they just filed). And Americans, in the wake of the Mayflower spill, might want to reconsider building another digestive tract for this toxic death sludge – especially considering that alternatives to fossil fuels and the internal combustion engine are more viable than ever.

Yet if ExxonMobil has its way, the story, which has received a decent amount of coverage thus far, will die like baby fish in the post Deepwater Horizon Gulf of Mexico. The energy concern is actively seeking to quash reporting on its snafu and is enlisting the help of state and federal officials to do it:

Local media in Mayflower have been hampered in their reporting by a pliant county sheriff’s office who has been taking orders from ExxonMobil about who can enter the site of the spill. A no-fly zone was set up by the FAA after ExxonMobil requested it, and now news organizations must ask for the oil giants’ permission before flying over the site.

[ht Gawker]

ExxonMobil has also been strong-arming Little Rock TV stations into refusing to run “a satirical but cutting advertisement critical of their business practices” entitled Exxon Hates Your Children


It’s fitting, in a profoundly depressing way, that a company slinging an opaque and corrosive product is proverbially spilling oil all over the narrative surrounding its unsolicited contribution to Central Arkansas.

But they aren’t the only ones who want Americans to view the oil industry through rose-tinted glasses. Arkansas Attorney General McDaniel contracted an “independent” investigation of the spill to a firm called Witt O’Brien’s. And as Steve Horn of DeSmogBlog reported today, it has close ties to the industry and “a history of oil spill cover-ups.”

Witt O’Brien’s describes itself a “global leader in preparedness, crisis management and disaster response and recovery with the depth of experience and capability to provide services across the crisis and disaster life cycle.”

But the firm’s actual performance record isn’t quite so glowing. O’Brien’s has had its hands in the botched clean-up efforts of almost every high-profile oil spill disaster in recent U.S. history, including the Exxon Valdez spill, the BP Deepwater Horizon spill, the Enbridge tar sands pipeline spill into the Kalamazoo River, and Hurricane Sandy.

Most troubling of all, Witt O’Brien’s won a “$300k+ contract to develop a Canadian-US compliant Oil Spill Emergency Response Plan for TransCanada’s Keystone Oil Pipeline Project” in Aug. 2008.

This sort of “nothing to see here” mentality has serious consequences in the policy arena.

Earlier this week, for example, Arkansas Senators John Boozman and Mark Pryor were both guests on Arkansas State University radio (an NPR affiliate) carrying the dilbit for the industry by downplaying risks posed by Keystone XL.

“There’s many, many pipes throughout the United States,” Boozman said. “The safety record up to now has been very, very good.”

It hasn’t. Last year alone, according to the Department of Transportation, there were 364 spills that spewed about 54,000 barrels of oil and refined products into these United States (any leak of more than five gallons is classified as a spill).

“Planes crash from time to time, you don’t want to totally say no one should be flying anymore,” Pryor said, constructing an absurd straw man — as if either Keystone XL or horse-drawn buggies were the only ways forward for energy policymakers.

“Right now, you can’t run your car on wind or solar or things like that,” Boozman added, as if Tesla Motors didn’t just report its first ever quarterly profit.

“We’re really in a kind of a situation where we’re dependent on oil to power our vehicles,” he commented.

So why nurture that dependency with a potentially irreversibly harmful pipeline (without even accounting for spills)?

These two lawmakers should be asking those sorts of questions. One can’t help but think that they might be if the industry didn’t strain itself to conceal the true cost of oil. Perhaps close-up photography, and more independent reports and studies by local journalists and academics would goad Arkansas residents into pressuring their Senators into fighting ExxonMobil on this issue.

It’s hard to argue that evidence of the spill’s harm isn’t rather compelling


But the industry giant is currently winning the PR battle by refusing to let the full story get out there.

Samuel Knight

Samuel Knight is a freelance journalist living in DC and a former intern at the Washington Monthly.