LAKE HAMILTON, Ark. — Very quietly, the company now in charge of the oil pipeline that burst in Mayflower in 2013 is exploring turning it back on.
The disaster cost ExxonMobil millions and destroyed a neighborhood, but the oil giant has since launched a joint venture with Energy Transfer Partners, and that company has spent January testing the line's integrity in Garland County.
The presence of those technicians has alarmed local leaders.
"I mean, the oil business is booming," said Steve Arrison, the CEO of Visit Hot Springs. "Why are we going to reactivate a pipeline that has already proven that it can break?"
Arrison said he isn't planning on quitting his day job as the head of tourism for the state's most popular destination to become an environmental crusader, but he quickly started asking questions when notices went out about the pipeline testing.
"It's 70-plus years old. They haven't used this pipeline since March of 2013, so why is it necessary now when the oil business seems to be doing so well and the economy here is doing so well," he said.
March of 2013 is when a hook crack formed in the seam of the 850 mile pipeline between Nederland, Tex., and Patoka, Ill. It sent the equivalent of 17 tanker trucks of crude through the backyards and streets of a Mayflower subdivision.
It's been repaired and dormant while filled with an inert gas in the years since.
Late in 2019, Energy Transfer sent notices to property owners that they would send a device called a ILI or a "smart pig" to inspect the pipeline. Garland County judge Darryl Mahoney spread the word beyond the affected property owners, hoping to raise awareness.
"We need to be asking questions about these tests," he said.
Outside Hot Springs, the path of the pipeline isn't hidden, but hard to notice. Numbered markers with warning signs are spaced roughly every 250 yards. It goes underground from the southwest to the northeast, crossing US 270 in Royal, tracking under a fire break for several miles not far from Lake Hamilton, before crossing the recreational waterway below Blakely Mtn. Dam. From there, it heads toward Saline County under Jessieville and on the eastern edge of the Ouachita National Forest.
"You think about what those lakes and rivers would look like if hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude oil are spilled and covered the top," Arrison said. "You know we'd never recover from that."
Mahoney's concern rose after a large gas line ruptured outside Hot Springs Village last May. Inspectors said a shift in the ground caused the pipe to weaken and quick response by crews averted an explosion.
"We need to know what the ground looks like under that oil pipeline," he said. "Before they charge the line again, I really want to be able to ask them what my emergency response crews and even my roads department need to know."
Mahoney expects to hear more about plans for the pipeline when he and his fellow county executives meet next month. For now, he and Arrison feel like they should speak up now on behalf of everyone along the pipe's path.
"I'm not starting a campaign. I'm not anti-oil companies," Arrison said. "I'm just pro-Arkansas and very, very pro-Hot Springs. And I just think that everybody just needs ask some questions."
A spokesperson for the company said there are no immediate plans to restart oil through the line.
"Right now, our focus remains on performing the integrity testing of the pipeline," said Amanda Gorgueiro, a media specialist for Energy Transfer. "The results of these tests will be thoroughly analyzed to determine any appropriate next steps in securing the integrity of the pipeline."