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'They have devastated Mayflower'

Ecological disasters like the ones which occurred in West Virginia and Arkansas can haunt communities for years, or even decades.
Spilt oil from Exxon pipeline run through North Woods Subdivision in Mayflower, Arkansas, March 29, 2013.
Spilt oil from Exxon pipeline run through North Woods Subdivision in Mayflower, Arkansas, March 29, 2013.

For her entire life, 28-year old Genieve Long has called Mayflower home. But ever since an Exxon pipeline ruptured in late March 2013, dumping thousands of barrels worth of toxic crude oil onto the Arkansas town, Mayflower has come to feel more like a prison.

"I live next door to the house that I was raised in," Long told msnbc. "This was a place I wanted to raise my kids in. And I'm afraid to raise them in it now, because of their health, because of what can happen to them."

Like many Mayflower residents, Long and her four children continue to suffer from chronic respiratory issues, even nine months after Exxon officially wound down its emergency response. The symptoms show no signs of letting up, and many of Long's former neighbors have abandoned the town. Nobody can say for sure whether Mayflower will ever fully recover.

"It's going to be very difficult to clean up the soil and the area so that it is completely safe to reoccupy," said Dave Lincoln, an environmental consultant and board member for the Arkansas Sierra Club. "How long that bitumen will stay in the soil, we don't really have any examples of that getting cleaned up entirely."

Mayflower is now coming to grips with the real legacy of ecological disasters: long after the initial state of emergency ends and the national media stops paying attention, the blight remains. The same fate could well await much of West Virginia, where a major chemical spill left 300,000 residents without usable running water last week. That particular spill released an indeterminate amount of the chemical MCHM into the state's Elk River, and experts are unsure of the long-term consequences for public health. In Mayflower, the consequences of consistent exposure to crude shale oil are still developing.

"They start with chronic lung problems, nausea and headaches, and they just don't get better," said Lincoln. "In the case of Exxon Valdez, they call it 'the Crud.' It's like the flu, except it doesn't go away."

Several Mayflower residents complained to msnbc that Exxon representatives and government officials had failed to adequately warn them of potential health risks. Local officials evacuated 22 houses in the aftermath of the rupture because oil had physically touched the homeowners' property, but the surrounding area was left untouched.

"As far as everyone who was breathing the fumes, they could give two [expletive] about it," said Mayflower resident Scott Allen Crow. When he attended an informational event featuring representatives from Exxox and the Arkansas Health department, he says they answered most questions by repeating the phone number Mayflower citizens could call in order to file their health and property claims. Because the meeting took place around Easter, Exxon representatives sent attendees home with colorful gift baskets for their children.

Mayflower resident Ann Jarrell claims it took until three weeks after the incident before anyone told her the surrounding area was potentially unsafe. She says she learned of the danger on April 22, when a community group called the Faulkner County Citizens Advisory Group hosted a town hall to discuss disaster preparedness.

"My grandson and my daughters had been breathing this air for three weeks, and no one told us it was toxic," Jarrell told msnbc, her voice breaking. Her grandson, who was three months old at the time of the rupture, now relies on two separate inhalers to deal with chronic respiratory issues. After four months of pounding headaches and other symptoms, Jarrell moved out of her house just outside of the evacuated area, and she has been living with a friend ever since.

The Arkansas Health Department did not respond to a request for comment, but a spokesperson for Exxon said over email that the company was engaged in an "ongoing dialogue with residents in Mayflower" regarding health issues.

"The Arkansas Department of Health was and is responsible for making a determination on health issues related to the spill," wrote the spokesperson. "Their guidance was for residents experiencing any symptoms to consult their personal physicians. We have likewise advised residents that they could file a claim for their health issues."

Jarrell says she filed a claim with the company, and that it was rejected. Since then, she has filed one of the 17 different lawsuits seeking damages from Exxon. Genieve Long is also suing the company over what she says was a wrongfully rejected health claim.

"Two of my children had been sick, and I had been sick," she said. "And whenever I got ahold of someone and said what was going on, they said that because the air quality was okay and the oil wasn't physically touching my land, it wasn't a valid claim."

Regardless of the outcome of that lawsuit, she doesn't think her hometown will ever return to the way it was before.

"They have devastated Mayflower," she said.

Not everyone in the town is quite so angry, according to Scott Allen Crow. Many of the remaining townspeople are just trying to move on, and attendance to monthly town hall meetings has dropped off.

"I think it's half and half," he said. "Half the people want it to just be swept under the rug, and to not deal with it."

But evidence of the disaster remains. Many of the town's streets are now peppered with "For Sale" signs, and residents say the environmental effects are still plainly visible in some areas.

"We're still here, and so is the oil," Ann Jarrell told msnbc. "There's still people sick."