Several experts talked Wednesday about the ecological, economical and environmental impacts of the thick, tar-like oil that leaked from a ruptured ExxonMobil pipeline in Mayflower March 29 and dumped about 5,000 barrels near Lake Conway.
Sensitive marshes were coated in oil. Hundreds of crews have descended on the town to clean up oil. Volunteers have tried to save birds, animals and even snakes. Meanwhile, some schoolchildren went home at least one day, and residents question how safe it is to return to homes.
The roundtable-forum, hosted by the Log Cabin Democrat, concentrated on the environmental repercussions to an oil spill that may have lasting health and environmental consequences for years.
Experts attending were:
• Associate Professor Vickie McDonald — McDonald and her students have been involved with searching for birds impacted by the spill. She has seen the oil spill close up and can speak about the impact to wildlife. Students under McDonald located several live birds, a deceased nutria and a deceased bird. McDonald is an expert in Vertebrate Zoology and teaches at the University of Central Arkansas.
• Associate Professor Matthew D. Moran — Moran is an associate professor in the Biology Department at Hendrix College. He teaches Ecology and Evolution, Zoology, Field Ecology and Natural History. Moran has led field trips to study the natural environment including experiences in Costa Rica, Ecuador, Kenya, Tanzania and the American Southwest. He coedited the book "Tropical Deforestation: Exploring Environmental Challenges," which was published in the spring of 2006.
• Chad Rozanski — Rozanski is a local environmentalist and veteran who is a volunteer representative for Opflex Solutions, a controversial company that has taken unauthorized water samples around Lake Conway and says those samples find oil residue. Exxon representatives and state and federal agencies maintain their tests show no oil in the lake.
• Assistant Professor Arijit Mukherjee — Mukherjee is an assistant professor of Biology at the University of Central Arkansas. He explained the oil spill’s impact on plants and soil.
• Professor Ben Cash — Cash is a UCA professor who led the effort to save snakes caught in the oil spill. He is the chair of the Biology Department.
The Log Cabin also reached out to ExxonMobil representatives. The company said it had no officials immediately available for the roundtable or via teleconference but is considering responding to a list of questions that were also presented to experts during the forum.
Experts agreed the oil — what Exxon has called "Wabasca Heavy crude from Western Canada" — is heavy enough to sink into the water. That means traditional methods of using vacuums to remove the oil from the surface of water or using booms to contain the oil might be inadequate, panelists said.
Oil can also travel in the water, said Mukherjee.
Potentially, Lake Conway could become contaminated via moving oil in the water, fish moving up stream or other factors, if it hasn’t been compromised already, professors said.
Rozanski said unauthorized samples show oil is already in the lake. One of those samples was taken about about 13 feet deep.
A release distributed Tuesday by the Mayflower Unified Command, comprised of ExxonMobil, Faulkner County, Environmental Protection Agency, the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality and the City of Mayflower representatives, said samples from the main body of Lake Conway and Palarm Creek remain oil-free. Exxon also said "more than 78,000 feet of boom have been deployed to contain and recover the oil, along with a combination of pumps, backhoes and absorbent pads."
But photographs Rozanski brought to the forum seemed to show oil not absorbing into boom.
The majority of freestanding oil has been contained or cleaned up, according to an Exxon release.
The Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality is monitoring water conditions, according to the government agency’s website.
"ADEQ is closely reviewing the cleanup and has had inspectors conducting sampling at a number of locations in a cove of Lake Conway and the main body of the lake," according to the website. "The Department will continue to monitor the surface water in the impacted areas and post regular updates."
Even if no oil has made its way into Lake Conway, that doesn’t mean the oil won’t eventually get there, panelists said.
Soil can absorb the oil, which is expected to leach back to the surface during summer months, Cash and Mukherjee said.
That puts the entire ecosystem at risk for years to come, professors said.
Visit the Log Cabin online at theacabin.net on Sunday to see videos of the roundtable forum.