This past weekend, the tranquillity of a suburban housing development in Arkansas was brutally interrupted by a strange flood – one not of water, but of oil. A pipeline belonging to ExxonMobil ruptured, spilling thousands of barrels of crude oil into the town of Mayflower. Our Observer filmed this surreal scene before any emergency personnel had yet arrived.
The oil-flooded streets of Mayflower, just after the pipeline ruptured on Friday. Video filmed by Drew Barnes.
The state of Arkansas has launched an investigation into the cause of the disaster. The Pegasus pipeline, which is 65 years old and 848 miles (about 1,360 kilometres) long, remains shut. While it is unclear as of yet exactly how much oil has spilled, ExxonMobil said Tuesday that 12,000 barrels of oil – mixed with water used in the cleanup effort – had already been recovered.
Meanwhile, twenty-two homes have had to be evacuated. Several wild animals - including ducks, turtles, and muskrats - have been found covered in oil; ExxonMobil has announced that so far, two ducks have died.
The incident has launched a nationwide debate about the dangers of pumping increasingly large volumes of heavy crude oil from Canada to the United States. It has also given more ammunition to environmentalists who oppose the controversial Keystone XL pipeline project.

"I had no idea there was an oil pipeline just 100 yards or so from my house"

Drew Barnes is an engineer who lives in Mayflower, Arkansas.
On Friday, I was driving my daughter home from school. When we arrived in our neighbourhood, there was this overpowering smell, despite the car’s windows being closed. And then I saw a river of oil heading down our street. I wasn’t sure what it was at first – for a second I thought it might be dirty water, but of course it was much darker and thicker and smelled awful. It was surreal. I had no idea where it came from, since I had no idea there was an oil pipeline just 100 yards or so from my house.
After about an hour, the police came knocking on doors and we were told to evacuate. We’re now staying with friends, though ExxonMobil has told us they would pay for lodging costs if needed. I’m lucky, since the oil didn’t flow onto my property, but several of our neighbours’ houses have been flooded. We’ve been allowed back for brief visits, under escort, to retrieve belongings, but we have no idea when we’ll be able to return home for good.
"I'm very worried about what this might do to our environment"
I’ve lived in Mayflower for six years, and am concerned about the fact that it seems nobody in the neighbourhood knew that this pipeline carried crude oil – we all just assumed it carried natural gas. As far as I can remember, this wasn’t disclosed to me when I bought my house – and of course, I’m worried that this spill could cause my property’s value to plummet. I’m also very worried about what this might do to our environment, since the oil went through storm drains that empty into a local lake. The authorities have said they’ve been able to stop the spread, but the cleanup is going to take a long time, and it’s hard to tell right now just how bad the long-term impact of this spill might be.
A flooded house. Photo by Drew Barnes.
Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Gaelle Faure (@gjfaure).