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oil sands

A worker with an oil cleanup crews siphons off oil on floating on the top along the drainage toward Lake Conway in Conway, Ark., Sunday, March 31, 2013. Residents affected by an oil spill in central Arkansas could be displaced for weeks, officials said, as crews continued to clean up the thousands of barrels of oil and water that leaked from a pipeline.Alan English/The Associated Press

As clean-up crews scraped up the gooey Alberta heavy crude that fouled a small Arkansas town after a pipeline rupture, anti-Keystone XL groups said the spill underscores the dangers posed by the controversial project to get Canadian oil to refineries on the Texas coast.

"This latest toxic mess is just another reminder that oil companies cannot be trusted to transport toxic tar sands crude through Americans' backyards, farmlands and watersheds," Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club said in a statement.

ExxonMobil, owner of the 60-year-old Pegasus pipeline that has roughly one-tenth the capacity of the proposed Keystone XL, promised it would compensate families whose properties were damaged by the Mayflower spill. The cause of the rupture has yet to be determined and the line remained shut down Monday.

"If you have been harmed by this spill then we're going to look at how to make that right," ExxonMobil Pipeline Co. President Gary Pruessing, told Mayflower residents evacuated from about two dozen homes in the lakeside community just north of Little Rock, Arkansas.

In its late-afternoon Monday update, ExxonMobil said Mayflower residents had already filed more than 50 claims for compensation and damages and that the families in 22 evacuated homes were being told to stay away. Police escorted some of them back home briefly to pick up personal belongings.

ExxonMobil also confirmed that the spill had been contained before the oil reached Conway Lake.

The Environmental Protection Agency classifies as "major" all spills of greater than 250 barrels. ExxonMobil says it's clean-up crews have recovered about 12,000 barrels of oil and water Mayflower, roughly equivalent to 15 rail tank cars. The company said the cause of the pipeline rupture remains under investigation.

A few oil-soaked birds pulled from the crude that flooded backyards, pooled in ditches and flowed down suburban gutters, were being cleaned in a round-the-clock effort by volunteers at HAWK, an animal rescue centre, about 60 kilometres from Mayflower. "We're doing the best we can, it's really, really busy" said Lynne Slater, who runs HAWK.

The Mayflower spill is "one more sad warning, like the spills in Kalamazoo and the Yellowstone River," said Bill McKibben, founder of, one of the leading environmental groups opposed to importing carbon-heavy Alberta crude which, they contend, isn't needed in the United States and which poses special risks. "What the people of Arkansas are enduring today is a reminder of why approving Keystone XL, a pipeline ten times as large and running across the Oglalla Aquifer, defines a bad idea," Mr. McKibben said in a statement.

Asked Monday about the Arkansas spill, White House spokesman Jay Carney said he hadn't discussed it with President Barack Obama, but added: "We obviously take the safety of our many pipelines in this country very seriously … and, in cases like these that – investigations are undertaken and steps taken to both mitigate the damage and hopefully avoid them in the future."

Mr. Carney said nothing had changed in the Keystone decision timeline. Mr. Obama is expected to approve or reject this summer.

While Keystone advocates claim pipeline remains the safest, most reliable and cheapest means to move large quantities of oil long distances, activists pressing Mr. Obama to block the project point to a series of accidents involving Alberta's oil sands.

"In 2010, a similar tar sands diluted bitumen spill into Michigan's Kalamazoo River watershed demonstrated that diluted bitumen spills were significantly more challenging to clean up and damaging to the environment, particularly water bodies, than conventional crude," Anthony Swift, an analyst at the of Natural Resources Defense Council, which opposes Keystone XL.

The ruptured Pegasus line was built in the 1940s. Newer lines have additional safeguards and are built to higher standards.

The Arkansas spill "doesn't change the case for Keystone," Shawn Howard, a spokesman with TransCanada Pipelines, the project's sponsor said Sunday.

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