Little Rock Stations Grapple with Covering Local Oil Spill

By Kevin Eck 

As Central Arkansas news stations continue to report on an oil spill in Mayflower, just north of Little Rock, there are concerns ExxonMobil, which owns the burst Pegasus pipeline, is controlling the storyline.

Mother Jones reports on the difficulties some reporters are facing — including threats of arrest — while covering the spill. On March 29, a 20-inch buried pipeline burst in the town, releasing oil into local backyards and streets and, as one local station discovered, a nearby lake.

TVSpy checked in with several Little Rock stations to find out how they’re covering the story. We reached out to FOX and NBC affiliates KLRT and KARK, ABC affiliate KATV and CBS affiliate KTHV.

KATV news director Nick Genty says none of his reporters have been threatened with arrest, but says reporting the story has been a challenge. “Some of the issues that we have run into are that Exxon is running the show at the site.  When we try to get information from local law enforcement, they direct us to the PR from Exxon.”

“We have found other ways to obtain video,” Genty says, “mostly from viewers that have sent in cell phone video from inside the neighborhood.”

“I wouldn’t say they’re controlling the county officials,” KLRT-KARK news director Austin Kellerman says. “I think the county officials are deferring to Exxon because of their experience handling events of this nature.”

Kellerman adds that guided tours of the area add to the notion that Exxon is controlling the narrative.

“I think it’s unfortunate Exxon has only allowed media in the impacted neighborhood for guided tours during times of their choosing,” he says. “However, I understand there are safety concerns with a situation like this. There have been times we’ve asked to go into the neighborhood and been told by Exxon we could not. County officials supported that decision.”

Genty’s team has taken those guided tours adding that aerial coverage is another issue. “There were some questions about the ‘no fly’ zone, but when we pushed the issue, they (the FAA) reduced the level and allowed KATV to fly over the site.”

“When we put in a request for an interview, tour of homes, etc., they’ve replied,” says Kellerman. “It hasn’t always been the response we’ve wanted, but they’re responding.”

“Getting the information out and not just being a mouthpiece for Exxon is a delicate dance,” says Genty. “We need Exxon for info. However, we can and still question what they release. Exxon said there is no oil in Lake Conway, we brought the Attorney General on to our morning show and for the first time, an official went on record to say ‘yes, there is oil in the lake.'”

“This is a story that will be going on for a long time,” says Genty. “It’s compelling, relevant and the people of Mayflower and the state of Arkansas have the right to know.”

Kellerman has invited an Exxon representative on to KLRT-KARK, “At this point, they haven’t made anyone available.”