Jun 12, 2013 Heroic efforts
by Donna Lampkin Stephens
Looking back on his first five months as Faulkner County judge, Allen Dodson can see that much in his background led to one of the defining moments of his life.
Dodson, 46, became judge Feb. 1 after Preston Scroggin stepped down to accept an appointment as director of the Arkansas Livestock and Poultry Commission and the Faulkner County Quorum Court chose Dodson for the vacancy. Less than two months later — just two weeks after completing training in the Incident Command System — Dodson became the face of the local response to the Mayflower oil spill.
And although there has been criticism primarily aimed at Exxon and a politician or two, Dodson’s leadership as judge has been universally praised as heroic.
For those accolades, he demurs, but he is proud of Faulkner County’s actions in the wake of the Good Friday spill.
“It’s been a textbook response among people involved in these sorts of things,” he said. “That doesn’t make it any easier for people who are out of their homes or who’ve had oil in their cove or who are impacted in other ways.”
Dodson has deep roots in Faulkner County. According to faulknercounty.org, more than 250 members of his extended family — Starrs, Dodsons, Turners and Millers among them — are at home in the county. His biological father, Roger Dodson, was killed in a car accident when the boy was 6. His mother, Brenda (Turner) Lawson later married Greek Miller, a local developer; his stepmother, Polly Miller, is a Conway realtor.
Dodson said most people who knew him growing up knew him as Allen Miller.
“(Greek Miller) is dad to me and my two sisters (Candy Rhoades and Mandy Long),” he said. “And I couldn’t ask for a better mother or father. They set great examples for us.”
He has lived in Conway, Mayflower and Wooster. A 1985 graduate of Conway High School, he earned a marketing/transportation degree from the University of Arkansas in 1990 and served two years as a commissioned officer in the United States Navy afterward.
His training as a naval aviator would serve him well 20 years later.
“One of the things they do is put you under as much pressure as they can to prepare you to make decisions when something hits and you have to make command decisions,” he said. “In flight school, it’s life-or-death situations. If you don’t think clearly and act decisively in emergency situations, you or others may die. At first you experience simulated situations, and then you do it live. You learn to cope with the pressure.”
Following his discharge, he worked a variety of jobs, including selling cars and a stint at Virco in hard plastics before joining Acxiom.
But during his 11 1/2 year tenure there, he began to worry a bit about the future.
“We’d had several layoffs, and I knew that if I were ever laid off or downsized, I didn’t want to leave the area, so I decided to get a law degree on which to fall back,” he said.
He was accepted to law school at UALR, intending to go part-time. But during his first year, he was downsized, so he went full time, graduated in December 2006 and passed the bar in the spring of 2007.
He clerked for Turner and Associates in Sherwood, a national practice in product liability, but he aspired to a general trial practice, so he eventually found a position with Andrew V. Francis, P.A., a solo firm in Little Rock, before opening his own practice in Conway. Scroggin hired him as county attorney in July 2012. Six months later, the resignation of Scroggin, who was re-elected that November, was effective.
“I knew when Preston informed me that he was going to resign it was, in my opinion, best for the county for me to take the position if I were asked,” Dodson said. “It involved a pay cut, but I knew that it still paid a decent living. With all the people who work here, the business processes in place, the recent projects and upcoming projects and though I can’t run to succeed myself, I felt like things would work out.”
Dodson, who is single, said he had no interest in politics. He will serve through the end of 2014.
“I believe that things have happened how they were supposed to happen, which is encouraging,” he said. “I’m a person of faith, and I believe God has a direction and a plan for you.
“I believe this was His direction for me. It would be overwhelming without my faith.”
He is a “proud” member of Gold Creek Baptist Church, his mother’s family church and the church he grew up in.
That faith and his previous training would serve him well on Good Friday afternoon.
Heading into Easter weekend, Dodson was on his way to Mayflower to check out a few roads and drop by to visit his grandmother, Mildred Turner. At 3:05 p.m., he received a call from Shelia McGhee, director of the Faulkner County Office of Emergency Management.
“Her exact words were, ‘We have a pipeline incident in Mayflower,’” Dodson remembered. “I paused for a second and asked, ‘Are you serious?’ She said yes, and I said, ‘Where is it and how bad is it?’”
McGhee indicated the spill was in the Northwoods Subdivision, but at that point, its severity was unknown. She told Dodson the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management was awaiting his call to orally declare a disaster. Dodson contacted ADEM and Glen Willhite, Faulkner County road administrator, who called in his crews, who normally work four 10-hour days and are off on Fridays. They had loads of sand — but no gravel — stockpiled at the road shop, so crews loaded up and started rolling south.
By then, Dodson was in Mayflower, where he found city employees, police and the fire department on the scene at one of the ditches.
“Continuing to the source of the oil, I went around to the subdivision, and as I was turning in I saw (oil) crossing the road,” he said. “You couldn’t miss it. I went on to the rupture site, and there was a sheet of oil. A Mayflower Police Department car was there with the door open, and I knew they were knocking on doors.”
The rest of the afternoon was a blur for Dodson, but it included working with McGhee and Dean VanDerhoff of the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality throwing out absorbent boom to dam the throat of the culvert near the site of the rupture and speaking with Mayflower employees about using backhoes to stop the advance of the oil near the railroad tracks.
“It was apparent there was more oil than we could contain at that location with what we had,” Dodson remembered. “I’m standing halfway down the embankment and dread washed over me as I looked toward (Lake Conway) and asked, ‘Is that a straight shot to the lake?’ I was hoping beyond hope it didn’t go straight to the lake.”
But it did.
“There’s this sinking feeling of futility,” Dodson said. “You’re seeing this oil, and I’d seen it upstream back at the neighborhood, and there’s that moment . . . I was so thankful for my military training because it’s recognizing that you’re at a critical juncture and you have to grab as much information as you can and act decisively and trust other people to buy in and take on responsibility.”
He recalled that although he thought to himself it might be impossible to stop the oil, he knew there were plenty of “talented can-do” people who were eager to work toward that end.
“You can block those easier than a bridge structure,” he explained, adding that he directed the county road crews and asked Mayflower city employees to unload any available gravel to block the culverts, build underflow weirs and dikes. He asked others to bring plywood to help with the floodgate structure.
In that situation, he said, you’re asking questions quickly, giving instructions and taking advice.
“Conversations are brief, and people are focused,” he said. “Goal No. 1 was to block those culverts as a worst-case line of defense to prevent any oil from getting into the greater part of t
“Randy Holland, the Mayflower mayor, and Carl Rossini, Mayflower fire chief, were directing their folks at various points along the flow of oil, and by then there were many agencies and responders showing up,” he said. “Exxon was there within probably an hour; Pulaski County Hazmat, Conway Hazmat, Faulkner County Sheriff’s Department, Arkansas State Trooper Greg Dycus. I am forever indebted to Rick Kelly and Chris Foreman from ADEM who had just finished training me with the Incident Command System. Mike Winter, Conway Fire Department Hazmat response team was an invaluable voice of experience as well.”
After moving to Highway 89 to check on the progress of blocking the culverts between the cove and the rest of the lake, he moved to the head of the cove beside Interstate 40. That was where crews worked to create underflow dams and used floating booms to contain the oil.
“That was Goal No. 2 — to get containment at the head of the cove in the marsh,” he said. “Shelia McGhee and Chief Rossini had gone to city hall to establish a temporary Incident Command Post, and they had that established by the time I left the cove after working with Glen Willhite, Mark Ledbetter, Faulkner County road foreman, Dirk Sutterfield, deputy director of Faulkner County OEM, local excavator Danny Rogers and many others to contain the oil there,” he said.
A full Incident Command System was created under the authority of a Unified Command, and the number of workers grew rapidly from there. Dodson got an hour’s sleep that night and two the next. By Easter, he managed four.
Two months after the spill, he said Faulkner County was gradually moving away from emergency response to long-term remediation and restoration. He starts every day at the site for 7 a.m. briefings, spends the middle part of the day in his office and then heads back to the site in the afternoon.
He is nothing but proud of Faulkner County’s response.
“We had so many people working desperately that day who are heroes,” he said. “Sometimes the word hero is overused, but in terms of protecting Faulkner County people, property and the environment, these people were heroes.
“Also, there were a number of people around me who were familiar with events and emergency response who assisted me and others. We’d never had a pipeline burst, but there were people around me who were familiar with situations of that scale. Arkansas, Faulkner County and Mayflower really showed their true colors and how people pull together. You’ve seen it unfold over in Oklahoma (in the aftermath of the May tornados) as well, and it’s no different right here.
“When bad things happen, people pull together. I’m also thankful to our elected officials, locally and on the state and national level, who have called me to let me know if I need them, they’re here.”
He said although he believed nothing major went wrong, much could have.
“A lot was in our control, and a lot wasn’t,” Dodson said. “When you look at topography, resources available and expertise on hand, there were things we could use to our advantage. But if we’d had one less person there, or if we’d had just a little bit of indecisiveness, I’m not sure we could’ve pulled it off. I thank the Lord all those things came together.
“What was obvious about our response was this: there were qualified people who were prepared to take responsibility and accept that and needed no further direction.”
Including Dodson himself.