*Note to the reader: names have been changed or omitted to protect the identities of some individuals. Police officers real names appear here.
“Oil will spill, it’s just a matter of when.”
-Chief Jackie Thomas of the First Nations, British Columbia.
I quietly took a knee and set down my clipboard at the water’s edge, trying to eavesdrop on the interview filming only yards away. I’d later learn that the interviewee was Lynn Slater from the Hawk Center, the animal care facility that initially handled oiled animals-that is until Exxon took over and confiscated dozens of her patients. I’m straining to hear what she’s saying when I hear a voice. “Are y’all testin’ the water?” I turn to see a man in shades walking up to me. “I guess you could say we’re testing the waters” I say with a smile, for a moment recalling the past week. The man in shades introduces himself with a strong handshake. His name is *Tom, a local Mayflower resident with a list of concerns including Lake Conway. He’s a chatty guy-eager to share everything he knows about the town, the lay of the land, and his personal story. He would soon become one of our closest allies in Mayflower and a dear friend. That is how the week had been-synchronicity everywhere, each providing another, all somehow working as if conspiring for us, whereby guiding the telling of this quiet town’s story. This time I had my “official-looking” clipboard (a gift from another Arkansas ally) to thank for it.
We first heard about the spill at base camp. “Pegasus pipeline ruptures in Northwoods Subdivision…” It came in through someone’s device, our window to the rest of the world, and so began the swirling conversation around me as to what to do. “We should go there” was all it took, uttered without hesitation from Jak. I quickly agreed as my mind joined the others in a logistical brainstorm, the creative chaotic energy lifting my spirits high. We were going to the front lines again…this time to confront Exxon Mobil-an all too familiar beast.
Jak and I had just arrived in Texas that weekend but already, like some adventures had been, we would be off as quickly as we landed. I was anxious as our carload left a couple days later. On the road my mind never stopped swirling. “Am I ready for this? Do I know enough to do this story justice?” Our goals as a team was to investigate/report the spill, document testimonies and aid this small town being dragged into the national spotlight by another tar-sands disaster. We were about to take on a lot. But, considering that the root of the Tar-sands Resistance is to save and protect communities like Mayflower from these events, this was an opportunity to experience one of our fears first hand: tar-sands oil flowing down residential streets, seeping into delicate marshlands and diluting down elusive waterways. It`s yet another live display of what so many across this continent are desperately trying to stop; the inevitable by-product of an unaccountable industry`s greed. The campaign was now counting on us-Mayflower, potentially, was counting on us. Realizing my selfishness, I cast out my self-doubt at the Texas border.
Our team was armed with one borrowed video camera, 4 cell phones, a few external batteries, a wireless hotspot, 2 tripods, a nook and another borrowed lap-top. Not too shabby for a band of broke radical activists that live in tents. We would need intuition, a little impulse, and mostly to let the universe do the rest. We knew the mainstream media was locked out. It was our job to break in.
April 3rd, 2013 DAY 4 OF SPILL
“Our First Encounter”
We rode into Mayflower mid-day and were all eager to get a glimpse of the rupture site; perhaps too eager. We decided to split up-3 of us would take the car around to the exiled media corner near the Exxon command center. (This is where concerned residents and media were encouraged to go and be subsequently threatened with arrest) Jak and I went on foot. We were dropped off at a church on Snugg Circle, a road that curves directly behind the fence of the Northwoods subdivision and rupture location. Jak and I walked through the parking lot, livestream in hand, trying to stay invisible among the thickets. There were workers only twenty feet from us, huddling in groups and surveying certain areas. We would find out later that they were picking future dig sites, a “look and see” operation where they would dig without a land owner`s knowledge or consent. It was another half-assed attempt of Exxon`s to see how far back from the pipe the oil had spread, then quickly fill the holes back in if they seemed okay. I was tense as we moved-we knew better than to assume these workers were nothing more than an extension of the state. The payroll was full of extra eyes and ears to keep people like us away. Acting as a police dispatcher, the second a phone came out we knew we`d probably been spotted. We went as far as the tree line and crouched, taking in the scene among the evacuated homes.
The sounds of machines was deafening, sprinkled with the beeping of trucks parking. The smell was overwhelming, instantly stinging my nose and eyes. My heart beat fast as I watched hoses spraying, claws digging, some workers even idling like the engines. The chaos was evident. With all of their billions in profit, Exxon hadn’t gained much insight. Many lessons should have been learned from their previous blunders at Port Valdez and the Niger Delta. It might as well have been 1989 as I watched this frantic operation and methods being used that had proven ineffective in the past. I felt sick to my stomach as we headed back to meet back up with the others.
As we got back into the car we noticed a cop car coming up the road towards us. “Well, looks like we’ve been spotted” I thought to myself. We drove along Snugg Circle, the cop tailing close behind. He flashes his lights. We pull over and sit in silence. The Mayflower Police officer walks up and politely greets us and without hesitation gives us our first warning. “Now, we know who you are, we know why you’re here, if you try anything stupid or go anywhere you’re not supposed to go you won’t be given a warning. You’ll be taken straight to county jail. Understood?” We nod. He goes on to briefly say that he understands our cause and tells us to have a nice day, ending with a “Welcome to Arkansas.” A warm welcome indeed.
This would be one of several encounters with the Mayflower P.D., the Faulkner County Sheriff’ls Dept. and the Game and Fish Commission, all we suspected to be on the Exxon payroll. These folks were clearly acting as Exxon’s first line of defense against us. A question that I never dared to ask them was, “Who did they THINK we were?” It made me feel good, in a strange way, that our team was a potential threat. It is a position I have become accustomed to being in.
You will always be a threat when you not only attempt to find the truth, but also share it with those who need it most.
We got a lead that a several people on Snugg Circle wanted to be interviewed. After coordinating sit-downs with any of them proved difficult, (because these residents, none evacuated, were literally too sick from the fumes to even talk with us) we shifted our focus to Dam Road, a residential street that snakes along Lake Conway. No one from these lake-front properties had been evacuated either (even though some had tarsands right in their backyards) so there were quite a few residents there willing and eager to talk with us. (My experience with these residents will appear under “testimonies” in a later section)
All along the cove, which is the southern tip of Lake Conway, there were signs of activity; boom checkers, crews in airboats scanning the water for signs of life and scattered groups on foot inspecting the shore. We visited the shoreline several times. The first visit we saw some student volunteers helping an Exxon worker collect animals, both dead and alive. We got a glimpse of oil-covered nutria, dead. It’s just one of countless animals that didn’t make it. The Exxon worker quickly came and took it away.
To be honest, considering that roughly 500,000 gallons of tarsands oil had just leaked in the town, Dam Road was quiet. It was an eerie ‘Twilight Zone’ feeling as the only signs of disaster were these scattered men in yellow suits and an air monitoring truck, slowly circling from time to time.
To Be Continued…
In Solidarity Forever,