Arkansas Oil Spill Sheds Light On Aging Pipeline System More than half of the nation's pipelines were built before 1970. In fact, ExxonMobil's Pegasus pipeline, which burst Friday in Mayflower, Ark., is 65 years old. According to federal statistics, pipelines have on average 280 significant spills a year. Most aren't big enough to make headlines.

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Arkansas Oil Spill Sheds Light On Aging Pipeline System

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And let's move next door now to Arkansas, where an upscale subdivision is the scene of a big cleanup after an oil pipeline burst last Friday. It turns out there are hundreds of pipeline accidents in the United States every year.

Here's NPR's Elizabeth Shogren.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN, BYLINE: Amber Bartlett was waiting for her kids to come home from school on Friday. One of them called from the entrance to their subdivision to tell her the community was being evacuated because of an oil spill. She was amazed by what she saw out her front door.

AMBER BARTLETT: I mean, just rolling oil. I mean, it was like a river. It had little waves in it.

SHOGREN: ExxonMobil, the company that runs the pipeline, says it's collected hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil and water from Bartlett's neighborhood. Bartlett says things could have been much worse. Her children's babysitter lives in the house closest to where the pipeline burst.

BARTLETT: They play right there every day where it busted. We are fortunate our babies were not out there during that time.

SHOGREN: Bartlett says ExxonMobil has paid hotel bills, fed families and even given children Easter baskets.

BARTLETT: I'm upset, but accidents happen.

SHOGREN: It's not yet clear what caused the accident. Exxon's Pegasus pipeline is 65 years old. It runs 858 miles, from Illinois to Texas. It was adapted a few years ago to increase its capacity by 50 percent. Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel is investigating the spill, and visited the subdivision Wednesday.

ATTORNEY GENERAL DUSTIN MCDANIEL: I have been reminded by Exxon's representatives that this is a relatively small spill, and cleanup is going just great. I hope that they realize that to the homeowners in this area, it is not small. It is catastrophic.

SHOGREN: McDaniel said he knows underground pipelines are essential to keeping the country's economy going. They carry fuel for cars, airplanes and home furnaces.

MCDANIEL: We've got to have that, but it has to be maintained. It has to be inspected.

SHOGREN: McDaniel said Exxon has repeatedly told him that inspections were up to date and showed no cause for concern. McDaniel says the accident raises questions about whether the inspection process for aging pipelines is adequate. In fact, more than half of the nation's pipelines were built before 1970. More than two-and-a-half million miles of pipelines run underground throughout the country. According to federal statistics, they have, on average, 280 significant spills a year. Most of these accidents aren't big enough to make headlines.

Debbie Hersman chairs the National Transportation Safety Board. Her agency has investigated 20 pipeline accidents since 2000. She says, by and large, the system is safe.

DEBBIE HERSMAN: But that still doesn't mean that we should accept these accidents when they occur, particularly if you can demonstrate that they're preventable. And I will tell you, 100 percent of the accidents that we've investigated were completely preventable.

SHOGREN: Hersman says her investigators find the same problems again and again - for example, cracks and corrosion that were discovered by inspections, but never fixed.

HERSMAN: If companies invest in safety, we can get to zero accidents in the pipeline industry.

SHOGREN: John Stoody represents the Association of Oil Pipe Lines. He stresses that pipelines' safety record is getting better.

JOHN STOODY: We spend over a billion dollars every year inspecting the pipelines, checking them for any issues, performing maintenance on them as they're needed. And it's something we care a lot about. We certainly want to have as few incidents as possible.

SHOGREN: Stoody says pipelines are the safest way to transport the fuel we need for our daily lives.

STOODY: 99.995 percent of our petroleum barrels reach their destination safely.

SHOGREN: Anthony Swift is an attorney for the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Counsel.

ANTHONY SWIFT: It's not a particularly comforting statistic if you look at the sheer amount of crude oil spilled.

SHOGREN: Federal data shows, on average over the past decade, nearly three-and-a-half million gallons of oil spilled from pipelines each year. Swift says the spill in Arkansas sends a wakeup call. It's a reminder of the real risks of an aging pipeline system. Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News.

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