Congressman: ExxonMobil slow to shut pipeline valves during Mayflower spill

As thousands of barrels of oil leaked into a Mayflower neighborhood on March 29th, was ExxonMobil too slow to respond?
MAYFLOWER, AR -- As thousands of barrels of oil leaked into a Mayflower neighborhood on March 29th, was ExxonMobil too slow to respond?
That is the question raised by new documents released by a Congressman Ed Markey(D-Massachusetts) who as a ranking member of the Natural Resources Committee is investigating the spill.

ExxonMobil has said it took about 16 minutes from the time an alarm went off -- alerting workers to the ruptured Pegasus pipeline -- to the time valves were closed.

ExxonMobil estimates 3,500 barrels of oil leaked out during that time.

In a May 28th a letter to Congressman Markey, an ExxonMobil official said the 16-minute response is two minutes under their "Worst Case Discharge" scenario for the section of the pipeline that runs through Mayflower.

But in a scathing response letter sent out Friday, Congressman Markey points out the 18-minute response time ExxonMobil cites comes from a revised plan given to regulators just two weeks before the spill.

Markey said the Department of Transportation had not approved the new plan, meaning the previous plan ExxonMobil had submitted was still in place.  It only gave 12 minutes to shut valves during a "Worst Case Discharge."

"Minutes are very, very critical in being able to shut down the pipeline, because pressure is the driving force on how fast the oil comes out during the leak," said Don Deaver a former Exxon employee of 33 years who now testifies as an expert witness in court cases that involve pipelines.

Deaver said pipeline companies are often hesitant to quickly shut pumps and valves out of fear that a false alarm could result in a costly disruption of oil flow.

"[An employee] will not normally start shutting down a pipeline until he has verification or his boss says it's okay to shut it down," he said.

Deaver also faults government regulators who he said have been lax on spill response plans.

"The US DOT has not been enforcing this rigorously," Deaver said.  "They allow the companies to decide, more or less, what is approved."

If ExxonMobil did exceed the response time, Deaver said it could be a factor in pending litigation or possible government fines.
ExxonMobil did not respond to a request for comment Saturday, but Congressman Markey has set a July 1st deadline for the company to explain. 
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