MAYFLOWER, Ark. (KTHV) – Every catastrophe has its unsung heroes. In the moments after the 2013 ExxonMobil oil spill in the small Arkansas town of Mayflower, many in the community will tell you, the quick actions of a street department worker helped save Lake Conway from contamination.
On the afternoon of March 29, Mayflower Street Department Supervisor Jimmy Joe Johnson was at home when he got the call that oil was spilling into the streets of his hometown. As a street department supervisor for 15 years, Johnson knew the lay of the land and what it would take to keep oil out of Lake Conway.
"I never dreamed of seeing oil running down the street," Johnson recollects. "Let alone through my ditches."
Johnson, along with a crew of locals, used dump trucks and back hoes to construct a barricade that kept oily water from surging into the 6,700 acre lake.
"I knew that one ditch that it was in was going to bring it straight to this cove. It wasn't going to spread out. It was going to come straight into this cove."
The first job Johnson and his crew tackled was plugging a pair of 48-inch metal pipes connecting the cove and the main lake. That quick thinking helped isolate the oil to a 30-acre cove beside Lake Conway.
"If we wouldn't have got it stopped right here it would have went right into the lake."
Next, Johnson and his crew created a man-made dike the length of a football field with gravel and large pipes, causing the oil to rise and pool where it could be sucked up with vacuums and skimmers.
"It wasn't just me or the city. It was the county, it was our fire department, water department. We was all in this trying to stop it."
By the time the rains began that Friday night. The Mayflower Street Department had exhausted 75-tons of gravel.
"It wasn't something I had expected, ever anticipated happening here in this town," Johnson said. "It was just something that popped up, it was an emergency everybody had to go into mode."
A year later, the lake which is renowned for its catfish, crappie, bluegill, and bass has yet to show any signs of tar sands oil in the water or aquatic life.
Johnson said he just did what anyone else would have done; but to the residents of this small town, he's considered a hero.
"That's what I wanted to try and do is keep it out of Lake Conway and we did that."
Johnson said that if the pipeline had to burst, it's fortunate to have happened where it did. If it had happened any farther north, the oil would have had a more direct route to the main body of Lake Conway.
WEB EXTRA: Hear Jimmy Joe Johnson go into detail about what he did the afternoon and evening of March 29, 2013 to keep oil from reaching Lake Conway: