Ann Jarrell, a 54-year-old software trainer, received an urgent phone call at work from her 23-year-old daughter, Jennifer, in March of this year.
"It smells terrible out here, Mom," she said. "I don’t know what’s going on, but you need to get home."
What was going on was that the Pegasus pipeline, which carried Alabasca heavy crude oil (tar sands) from Illinois to Texas, had ruptured en route and the Jarrells' tiny town of Mayflower, Ark. had a river of oil flowing through its streets.
Jarrell has long blond hair and a voice hoarse from coughing. She told me last week that she'd been sharing her home with her daughter and four-month-old grandson, Logan, at the time of the spill. Their first concern was the child, but they couldn't decide what was best for him.
Her daughter wanted to pack up the baby and leave, but Ann wasn’t sure what they should do. Her first instinct was to call the police. She did so, only to find a frustrating lack of answers.
"I asked, 'Do we need to evacuate?' They said, 'Do you have oil on your property?'" Jarrell remembered. When she told them there wasn't, and reported the smell, she says the answering officer was unmoved. She says he told her not to evacuate, and that the smell was the result of some sort of police containment situation. "'The smell's just so we can tell when it breaks,'" he told her. "'Just like they do with the natural gas line."
This is not true. No such mechanism existed for the pipeline.
Though 22 houses were evacuated, the Jarrells' ultimately wasn't. They live adjacent to those houses, right next to the cove that Exxon claimed insists was not affected by the spill.
A Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by Greenpeace has found conclusive evidence from internal Exxon documents that they knew there was oil in the cove, and insisted the families did not need to be evacuated anyway. According to the documents, Exxon even hauled waste out of the cove right beside the Jarrells' home. Jarrell says Exxon workers were so close to her home that she could stand in her driveway and ask them if her family was safe. She says they assured her that her family was fine, and that the smell and the nausea would go away.
Ann says her family has been sick ever since. Within hours of the spill they suffered from migraines, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
"Medicine did not get rid of the headaches," she told me. Jarrell contacted Exxon about her migraines and trouble breathing. "If you mentioned it to Exxon they’d be like, 'Well, it's seasonal allergies,'" she said. She told them that she took 24-hour allergy pills daily. "This was not allergies," Jarrell told me, apologizing again for her hoarse voice.
Jarrell noticed that when she had to travel for work her symptoms would get better, but they would worsen again upon return. Once, returning from a trip to Fort Worth, she says her symptoms not only reappeared almost instantly, but worsened — so much she was afraid she was going to lose control of her car. "I couldn’t get my balance or think straight," she said.
Tired of the situation, when Jarrell caught wind that local activists from the Faulkner County Citizens Advisory Group were organizing a meeting in nearby Conway to talk about the spill, she knew she had to be there.
What she learned that day continues to haunt her.
Air quality tests by a Louisiana firm called the Subra Co. demonstrated dangerous levels of benzene and as well as octane, cyclohexane, heptane, and hexane, along with detectable levels of dozens of other industrial chemicals.
"I called my daughter immediately and told her she was right, we should have left, and to pack up herself and her baby and get out of the house and go live with her brother."
The Mayflower Unified Command, a joint response body made of Exxon representatives as well as state and federal officials, had chosen to evacuate some residents of Mayflower, but not those who were just a short distance away — in some cases, only a couple hundred feet. Those to the west of the rupture were not notified at all. Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniels has stated that he now believes evacuation should have been made mandatory, and that allowing anyone to stay behind was a mistake.
Ann Jarrell now lives with friends. Last week her doctor warned her not to go back to her home in Mayflower, which is about 300 feet from the Pegasus pipeline rupture site. She has a lung infection and just received her third inhaler.
For her part, she is more concerned about the baby then herself. Logan has struggled to breath and maintained a persistent cough. Initially, a local pediatrician dismissed it as a cold and a nervous mother but Ann says it only worsened.
"He started just screaming, screaming like he was hurting really bad," she said. "He was coughing and having trouble breathing, and that’s when I told my daughter to take him to Arkansas Children’s Hospital."
Jarrell was terrified that her grandson could barely breath, but she had another reason to be afraid. Rumors were circulating around Mayflower that Exxon was interfering with hospital protocol and that they may not receive proper care if they told the doctors where they were from (PolicyMic was unable to confirm these allegations). She warned her daughter not to mention Mayflower or Exxon for fear her grandson’s illness would be ignored.
Logan was eventually diagnosed with an upper respiratory infection and a sinus infection. He was put on two inhalers and an electronic suction machine to help him clear his throat. He must wear a monitor at all times so that Jennifer can suction him to keep him from choking.
"The doctor finally admitted that he doesn’t know what else to do. And we’ve been out of the area since April 22nd! This is all from what he breathed those first three weeks."
Exxon is refusing to pay claims to the Jarrell family, or anyone outside the 22 homes evacuated, despite evidence that these sudden health crises are linked to the oil spill. The symptoms of residents like the Jarrell family match classic symptoms of exposure to industrial chemical.
Wilma Subra, a former EPA employee, spent an extensive amount of time working with victims of the BP oil spill and has conducted studies in Mayflower. She has found that the chemicals in the air and water in Mayflower, and the symptoms of exposure, match the sickness the community is experiencing.
The State Department is currently weighing in on expanding the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport Alabasca heavy crude from Canada’s Boreal forest to the Gulf of Mexico. Some Mayflower residents have traveled to Washington in to protest the pipeline and raise awareness about their continued suffering since the spill.
Ann Jarrell continues to fight for her family and neighbors while dealing with her own medical crisis. And she knows exactly who to blame.
"They keep saying, 'The air quality is fine, you have nothing to worry about, we won’t pay anymore claims,'" Jarrell says. “Exxon stood there and lied to my face. They told me there is nothing to worry about and now we are all sick."