Large Exxon oil spill in Arkansas draws attention to Keystone XL

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MAYFLOWER, ARKANSAS (CNN) — Heavy crude oil is flowing like a river through a central Arkansas neighborhood.

People living in the area have been evacuated and it could be several days before crews have the mess cleaned up.

While the cause of the breach is unknown, it’s raising questions about whether the White House should move forward with a new pipeline.

Crude oil, spewed out of the Exxon Mobile pipeline has coiled its way through a suburban neighborhood in Mayflower, Arkansas — some of it ending up at a nearby creek. Crews were able to stop the oil from reaching Lake Conway — a popular fishing spot.

Even after an around-the-clock cleanup effort, a thick tar remained on residential streets. Twenty-two homes were evacuated.

“When I got home you could have canoed down the street. So much oil, even after there was still a lot oil flowing down the street,” resident Chris Harrell said.

The EPA has categorized this breach as a major spill. The Pegasus pipeline can carry more than 90,000 barrels of heavy crude oil per day from Illinois to Texas.

Exxon did not put a hard estimate on the number of barrels of oil that spilled — except to say it was “a few thousand.”

The cause of the pipeline rupture remains under investigation.

“We are working as rapidly as possible to get people back to normal. We will allow when it’s safe and appropriate for people to come back and occupy their homes again,” Karen Tyrone with Exxon Mobil Pipeline Company said.

There are 160,000 miles of oil pipeline criss-crossing the United States. The Arkansas oil spill comes as President Obama is weighing whether to approve a new Keystone XL pipeline: 1,700 miles of pipeline, carrying 500,000 to 700,000 barrels of crude a day, stretching through the country’s heartland.

The Keystone pipeline carries a dense Canadian tar sands oil. Critics say this lower quality oil can corrode over time.

“Keystone XL is a dirty and dangerous pipeline. It’s literally going to cut our country in half —  carrying a very dangerous fuel and it will cause runaway climate change,” Maura Cowley with the Energy Action Coalition said.

Keystone’s proponents say it would lessen U.S. dependence on oil from the Middle East and they argue transporting oil by pipeline is far safer than by road or rail.

“It would be equipped with sixteen thousand sensors that would monitor the flow of the oil abnormal activity it would shut down quickly. Not to mention, they studied all the other risks to wildlife and vegetation and concluded this pipeline would be safe,” Nick Loris with the Heritage Foundation said.

For the families in Arkansas, that debate might seem like a million miles away. The most immediate question on their minds is when they can return home.

The Environmental Protection Agency is also on the scene. Exxon is putting residents up in hotel and boarding their pets until they can return home.