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A worker carries absorbent material to pick up oil following a spill from Exxon's Pegasus pipeline near Mayflower, Arkansas, April 1, 2013.Karen E. Segrave/Greenpace/Reuters

Arkansas opened a probe Tuesday into the pipeline rupture that spewed thick Canadian oil sands crude across a lakeside community while anti-Keystone XL activists seized on the spill to assert that the Alberta crude was especially corrosive, posing extra risk of pipe failure and environmental damage.

"This spill is a reminder that the current rush to build out pipeline infrastructure is putting our resources at risk, people at risk, and wonderful communities at risk," said Jim Murphy of the National Wildlife Federation, one of several anti-Keystone groups that held a joint conference call Tuesday to denounce the controversial project intended to funnel Alberta oil sands crude to Texas refineries on the Gulf coast.

While Keystone XL advocates, including the Canadian government and the oil industry, contend pipelines remain the safest, cheapest, way to move large amounts of oil long distances, a series of high-profile spills have raised doubts. TransCanada Corp. says Keystone XL would be North America's safest pipeline. Keystone XL, already controversial and with massively greater capacity than the 65-year-old Pegasus line that ruptured last Friday in Mayflower, is again being targeted.

"At about a tenth of the full capacity of the Keystone XL tar sands pipelines, the Pegasus pipeline rupture offers us a small sample of the risk that tar sands pipelines pose to American communities," said Anthony Swift of the National Resources Defence Council, one of the groups spearheading the anti-Keystone effort that aims at convincing President Barack Obama to reject the long-delayed project. Mr. Swift rejected TransCanada's contention that modern technology and sophisticated sensor system make pipelines – even ones carrying diluted bitumen where the thick oil sands crude are mixed with chemicals and lighter hydrocarbons so they can be pumped – safer than ever.

""TransCanada's Bison and Keystone I pipelines had special conditions that were supposed to make them safer, they were described as state of the art pipelines that wouldn't have spills," Mr. Swift said, adding: "The Bison pipeline exploded in Montana. The Keystone I pipeline had to be shut down in its first year after having 14 spills."

Meanwhile, Mayflower was mostly a ghost town Tuesday save for clean-up crews in protective gear attempting to recover the oil before rain threatened to add to the risk of run-off into nearby Lake Conway, which supplies water to hundreds of thousands in the Little Rock area.

Glen Hooks, who said he fished in Lake Conway as a child while visiting his grandparents, said Mayflower was strangely different this week. "There's viscous tar sands oil coating yards," Mr. Hooks, now the Sierra Club's spokesman in Arkansas. What's "missing from the neighbourhoods was people," he said. "They've been evacuated because it's not safe to be in their homes."

Exxon Mobil, owner of the 1,200-kilometre Pegasus pipeline, said in in its daily update that plans to dig up and remove oil-soaked soil were under way. It also said the decision about whether to allow evacuated families to return to their homes was up to the state's health department.

"Approximately 12,000 barrels of water and oil were recovered in the first several days, representing most of the free standing oil," Exxon Mobil said. The cause of the rupture, first noticed by a resident who saw oil rather than being detected by any pipeline integrity system, remains under investigation.

Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel told Exxon to preserve all documents and information related to the Pegasus spill. It "damaged private property and Arkansas's natural resources (and) homeowners have been forced from their homes," he said in a statement that sets the stage for litigation to recover damages.

Oil-soaked wildlife, including about a dozen ducks, several turtles and a muskrat have been recovered and are being cleaned and treated. A few others have been found dead but the full extent of wildlife damage isn't known.

For Mayflower, the big issues of climate change and greenhouse gas emissions, energy security, the merits of oil sands and Canada-U.S. relations may all seem remote, even as big players on both sides of the controversy use the Pegasus spill as a lens to focus on those issues.

"I spoke with folks this morning whose lives have been upended by this," said Mr. Hooks. "They want to know when they can go home, and they want to know if there's going to be a home to come back to."

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