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REUTERS / Jacob Slaton

There’s one Exxon gas station in Mayflower, Ark.

Before last Friday, that’s likely as close as Mayflower residents got to the multinational oil and gas behemoth ExxonMobil. But after the Pegasus Pipeline burst last Friday, sending thousands of gallons of tar-sands oil into the Northwoods neighborhood, the company became omnipresent in this small town of 2,200 people.

The first thing you notice when driving into Mayflower is the stench. Travelers can smell the fumes from Interstate 40, which runs through the town. Within town limits, the smell is putrid: Imagine wet asphalt on a hot summer’s day — times 10,000. At the local Harp’s grocery, something less than half a mile from the spill, the stink makes your eyes water and your nose burn.

But the reek is only a hint at ExxonMobil’s presence here. Since thick black sludge first began oozing across backyards and into the streets, surprising many residents who say they didn’t even realize the pipeline was there, the company has instituted something like martial law.

Bank signs that once advertised interest rates and loan information now flash, “Thank you for your help and patience Mayflower,” along with a toll-free number residents can call to make financial claims to ExxonMobil. Company workers wearing logoed shirts roam throughout the town. Local police guard the entrance to the neighborhood where the spill happened. On Starlite Road, where oil flowed down the street last week, workers vacuum up oil in yards and steam-wash pavement.

The oil company has also taken over wildlife rescue from a local organization; independent rescuers report that they are being forced to leave private property by ExxonMobil enforcers. (Casualties so far include oil-covered ducks, snakes, and nutria.) Reporters who accompanied Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel on a tour of the spill on Wednesday were asked to leave by Exxon representatives. Even the state Department of Environmental Quality refers reporters to the Exxon downstream media line for information.

Earlier this week, ExxonMobil requested — and received — a temporary no-fly zone over the oil spill. A local newspaper reported that the only aircraft allowed in the area were those under the direction of Tom Suhrhoff, who according to LinkedIn is an aviation adviser at ExxonMobil. After a two-day prohibition, some media were allowed to fly over on Thursday.

Even the Mayflower High School’s cafeteria was ExxonMobil turf on Tuesday night when the company held a meeting for residents in the affected neighborhood, where 22 homes remain evacuated. Reporters were barred from that event, but an activist who slipped in said the Environmental Protection Agency, the state Department of Health, and the county judge all spoke along with ExxonMobil officials.

Mayflower residents should get used to their new reality, says Ernest DelBuono, a senior vice president and Crisis Practice Chair at LEVICK, a strategic communications firm in Washington, D.C. “Exxon is going to do what they have to do clean it up,” DelBuono says. “They will be judged in courts on how quickly and efficiently they cleaned it up.”

But DelBuono, a former Coast Guard official who was in charge of communications for the Exxon Valdez cleanup, says that usually there is a keen federal presence in such spills. During the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, he says, BP may have been running the show, but there was an orchestrated effort to keep the company out of public briefings. Those were handled by federal government officials from various agencies.

The BP disaster was a different beast because it involved various states and overlapping jurisdictions. And the Mayflower spill is much smaller. But DelBuono says that a prominent federal and state presence is still needed in these crises. And while Exxon spends its time reassuring residents that cleanup is going according to plan, it’s very clear that life is far from normal.

The 65-year-old Pegasus Pipeline ruptured in the Northwoods neighborhood, just off the town’s main highway, which is lined with dollar stores and a Sonic drive-in. The thick tar-sands oil ran into creeks and tributaries throughout the area. ExxonMobil officials have repeatedly said that they prevented any runoff into Lake Conway, a popular fishing and recreation spot. The company reports that it has placed barriers and 3,600 feet of boom around the lake. Aerial photos, however, show oil in marshes near the lake, and another photo shows dead vegetation in the lake.

And then there’s that stench. Exxon sent a mailer to Mayflower residents stating, in part, “Although you may smell an odor, current air quality readings are below levels likely to cause health effects with the exception of the clean-up areas where the emergency responders are directly working.”

It’s unclear what exactly is in these fumes, but previous tar-sands leaks include toxic natural gas liquids and other petrochemical diluents. And the fumes appear to be seriously affecting people.

Eight school children went home sick on Monday from Mayflower schools. Ed Barham, spokesman for the Arkansas Department of Health, said that air monitors are now in and around the school. “There were not levels of benzene that would be harmful,” Barham said of the children’s illnesses. “We don’t have evidence that they were sick because of the oil.”

Tracy Wilson, a resident of nearby Conway, Ark., says that her parents, who are in their 60s and have health issues, live about a mile away from the site. Both have been getting sicker since Sunday, she says, with upset stomachs, headaches, and burning noses. She spent all day Wednesday calling agencies, including the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, but continued to get “the runaround.”

“People who live outside that neighborhood [on the fringes of the evacuation zone] have no clue what is going on,” Wilson says. “I want to know from the health department what they should be treated for if they go to a doctor.”

Wilson also called the ExxonMobil claims office on Wednesday. She said a company representative returned her call on late Wednesday offering to put her parents in a hotel room and reimburse them for any medical expenses. But Wilson said she wondered what strings were attached to the offer. Still, on Thursday, her parents accepted a company-sponsored hotel room and food allowance.

ExxonMobil reported Thursday in its daily email release to reporters that 640 workers are responding to the cleanup along with local, state, and federal officials. The company reports that 12,000 barrels of oil and water were recovered in the first few days of the spill. More than half of the impacted soil has been removed from six yards. It’s unclear when the evacuated families will be able to return to their homes.

The spill comes at a critical moment. Environmental groups are pushing against the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would ferry oil from Canada’s tar sands to refineries in Texas, passing through Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma. The pipeline needs the Obama administration’s approval to finalize its permitting. Keystone Blockaders are currently in Mayflower documenting the oil spill.

They aren’t the only ones. Attorney General McDaniel has demanded that ExxonMobil produce investigative reports, inspection reports, and other information connected to pipeline rupture and oil spill by April 10.

“The people of Arkansas deserve a full explanation from Exxon about how this incident occurred and the extent of damages to private property and to our state’s natural resources,” McDaniel said. “My office is determined to get that explanation through our investigation because, at the moment, we still have many more questions than we do answers.”

UPDATE: McDaniel reported Friday morning that there is oil in Lake Conway despite ExxonMobil’s assurances to the contrary. “Great efforts have been taken to limit the spread of the oil to only one area of Lake Conway, which is referred to as the Cove, but the Cove and Lake Conway are hydrologically connected and are therefore one body of water,” Aaron Sadler, spokesman for McDaniel, told Grist. Meanwhile, access to the site continues to be tightly policed. According to InsideClimate, ExxonMobil threatened reporter Lisa Song with arrest on Wednesday when she entered the command center looking for government officials.