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State, feds seek cash penalty over Ark. oil spill

Chuck Bartels, Associated Press

U.S. Attorney Chris Thyer, left, speaks during a news conference at Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality headquarters in North Little Rock, Ark., as Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel listens Thursday, June13, 2013. The two prosecutors announced they are seeking civil penalties from ExxonMobil Pipeline Co. over the company's oil spill in a central Arkansas neighborhood. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)

NORTH LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) -- State and federal authorities want a judge to find ExxonMobil broke the law when a pipeline failed at Mayflower and spilled an estimated 150,000 gallons of crude oil in a neighborhood and adjacent waterway, authorities announced Thursday.

Christopher Thyer, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas, and state Attorney General Dustin McDaniel jointly filed a federal lawsuit seeking $45,000 per day for violations since the March 29 spill plus other penalties.

An ExxonMobil spokesman said in an email that the company hadn't been served the lawsuit and had no specific comment.

"That said, we will continue to cooperate with all federal, state and local agencies," spokesman Aaron Stryk said.

Stryk said the company has recovered about 63,000 gallons of the spilled oil and the cleanup is continuing.

After the ExxonMobil Pipeline Co.'s Pegasus pipeline ruptured, 22 homes were evacuated and McDaniel said Thursday that those families still have not been able to return.

"Our investigations continue and there are still a number of outstanding issues that will be addressed, however this much is very clear: This oil spill disrupted lives. This oil spill harmed the environment and this oil spill was in violation of both state and federal law," McDaniel said.

McDaniel said the "future of many homeowners remains uncertain" and that the spill damaged aquatic life by causing levels of dissolved oxygen to drop.

"This spill has caused a significant and lasting impact upon our state's environment and Exxon, as the responsible party for the incident, should be penalized for those impacts," McDaniel said.

The company said sampling has shown that the spill was restricted to a cove within Lake Conway and that the oil did not reach the main body of the lake, a popular area for fishing and boating.

McDaniel said there is no distinction between the cove and the lake, though he credited Arkansas Game and Fish Commission crews for quickly using heavy equipment to seal off the spill area before the mess could drift.

The lawsuit seeks penalties of $1,100 per barrel of spilled oil under the federal Clean Water Act. A barrel is equal to 31.5 gallons. That amount would grow to $4,300 per barrel if ExxonMobil is found to have engaged in "gross negligence or willful misconduct."

Thyer stopped short of saying the company was negligent or willful in any misconduct.

"We don't have those facts yet," Thyer said.

The lawsuit accuses the company of violating the state Hazardous Waste Management Act, which carries a daily penalty of $25,000. It also seeks penalties for violating two separate sections of the state Water and Air Pollution Control Act, which each carry penalties of $10,000 per day.

Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality Director Teresa Marks said the company has been storing waste illegally at a company that uses hydraulic fracturing to drill for natural gas.

In a May 1 letter, Marks ordered ExxonMobil to remove waste that it stored at an ExxonMobil pump station in Conway and complained that the company hadn't responded to requests that it transport recovered oil and water to an approved disposal facility. The letter threatened enforcement action if the company didn't get rid of the waste.

On Thursday, Marks said the oil and water mix was being stored in "frack tanks," which are used by natural gas drillers who use high-pressure hydraulic fracturing to extract the fuel from underground rock formations. She said that a tornado or other severe event could cause the mixture to spill from the tanks.

Solids, such as oily soils, wood chips, asphalt and other materials were also covered under the order.

Stryk said at the spill site, crews have removed all "visible freestanding oil from the environment."

He said the emergency cleanup process will take months to complete and it will be followed by an effort to remediate the contaminated areas.

"We will remain until the job is done and will continue to work to restore Mayflower as quickly and as safely as possible," Stryk said in his email.

Mayflower is about 25 miles northwest of Little Rock.