There are a handful of places in this world that feel like home, places that blindfolded I would still be able to identify my location by touch, taste, sound, and smell. They are places with pine trees, sloping hills, screen doors that swell and squeak in the summer, air that hangs thick and wet after a rainstorm. The people in these places offer clues about locale in their voices, in phrases like "bless her heart," in opinions about pork vs. beef Bar-B-Q. Central Arkansas is one of those places. My skin, voice, and laughter feel different here -- it is home.
You do a double take when bad things happen at home -- have to check twice before you believe that it is true. On Friday evening I reread the headline several times, "ExxonMobil pipeline ruptured today about 20 miles northwest of Little Rock, Arkansas," unable to wrap my mind around the words. Part of me wanted to pretend it wasn't true, to turn off my phone and computer and ignore what I had seen. This part of Arkansas is home, however, and so instead I read every article I could find, made phone calls, and held my breath waiting for more information.
The pipeline transported heavy Canadian tar sands oil like what would flow through the KXL pipeline. As of Sunday, the city of Mayflower confirmed that 120,000 barrels of water and oil had been retrieved in the clean up so far. Images from news outlets and pictures posted by my friends made me feel sick. Ducks sticky with oil, suburban streets painted black, rainwater flowing with heavy tar. The fact that the Pegasus pipeline carried a form of Canadian tar sands is significant. The spill would have been significant, however, regardless of what type of oil it had spilled because it reminds us that all pipelines spill. Canadian tar sands, Texas sweet crude, Arkansan natural gas -- a spill of any of these products has a substantial social, environmental, and economic impact.
The word that sticks out in my mind from Exxon's press release about the spill is "inconvenience." The Exxon representative I spoke with on Sunday morning used this word again, saying that Exxon regrets the "inconvenience it (the spill) is causing." The idea of inconvenience seems so temporary, like a stubbed toe or persistent weed, something that eventually fades away. If this spill were merely an inconvenience, the 22 families who were forced to evacuate their homes and the others who have voluntarily chosen to leave would be able to come back and forget what has happened. They would be able to return to their homes without wondering if it is safe.
They will wonder, though. When their child has a nosebleed, when their neighbor is diagnosed with cancer, when the flowers in their garden won't grow -- they will wonder. They will wonder if they smell chemicals in the air, they will wonder if rainwater always ran this dark, they will wonder if there aren't fewer fish and birds than there used to be.
I know they will wonder, because I wonder. I grew up in one of the largest oil and gas fields in Texas and my father has leukemia, a blood cancer with known connections to petroleum byproducts. I have been forced to evacuate my home due to chemical smells and the threat of exposure -- I know about wondering. Company representatives will tell you that your worries aren't true, they will tell you that they would live here, that it is safe, that you are imagining things. They will tell you a lot of things. You will still wonder. To say the Pegasus spill is an "inconvenience" cheapens the reality that residents of Mayflower will live for years to come.
From 1,800 miles away I can imagine what it would feel like to stand outside in central Arkansas tonight. The air would be moist and cool and it would smell green. Grasses, trees, and sidewalks would all be damp with dew and the first spring crickets and frogs would blur the silence with their song.
That's what I imagine it would feel like. Seeing pictures and reading testimony about the Pegasus spill, however, I don't know what I would find. The places we call home are precious and as we wear away at our homes we wear away at ourselves, becoming tired in ways we don't fully understand. We pity those who are homeless but we rarely question what has happened to their homes. Twenty-two families were homeless on Easter and an entire community holds it's breath as clean up continues. If we do not learn how to better move and live with our earth we will all become homeless. This will not be merely an "inconvenience" -- this will be everything.