The largest Kansas Creek oil spill in the history of the Keystone Pipeline

The largest Kansas Creek oil spill in the history of the Keystone Pipeline

  • US News
  • December 10, 2022
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TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) – A ruptured pipe this week released enough oil into a northeastern Kansas creek to nearly fill an Olympic-size swimming pool. That made it the largest onshore oil spill in nine years, surpassing all previous pipeline systems combined, according to the federal government.

The Keystone pipeline’s leak in a creek that flows through rural ranch land in Washington County, Kansas, about 150 miles (240 kilometers) northwest of Kansas City, was also the largest in the system’s history, according to data from the U.S. Department of Transportation. The operator, Canada-based TC Energy, said the pipeline, which runs from Canada to Oklahoma, lost about 14,000 barrels or 588,000 gallons.

The oil spill raised questions from environmentalists and safety advocates about whether TC Energy should retain a federal permit that has allowed pressures in parts of its Keystone system — including the route through Kansas — to exceed typical maximum allowable levels. As Congress faces a possible debate over reauthorizing regulatory programs, the chairman of a House pipeline safety subcommittee took note of the spill on Friday.

A US Government Accountability Office report last year said there had been 22 previous leaks along the Keystone system since operations began in 2010, most of them on TC Energy’s property and less than 20 barrels. The total of those 22 events was a little less than 12,000 barrels, the report said.

“I am closely monitoring this situation to learn more about this latest oil spill and to provide information on ways to prevent future releases and protect public safety and the environment,” said Democratic US Rep. Donald Payne Jr. of New Jersey. tweeted.

TC Energy and the US Environmental Protection Agency said the spill has been contained. The EPA said the company built an earthen dam across the creek about 4 miles downstream from the pipeline rupture to prevent the oil from flowing into major waterways.

Randy Hubbard, the county’s emergency management director, said the oil only flowed about a quarter of a mile and there appeared to be no wildlife deaths.

The company said it conducts 24-hour air quality checks and other environmental monitoring. Several trucks, akin to giant wet vacuums, were also used to suck up the oil.

Spilled keystones in the past have caused outages that have lasted about two weeks, and the company said it is still evaluating when it can reopen the system.

The EPA said no drinking water wells were affected and oil removal efforts would continue through next week. No one was evacuated, but the Kansas Department of Health and Environment warned people not to walk in the creek or allow animals to wade in.

“At the time of the incident, the pipeline was operating within its design and regulatory permitting requirements,” the company said in a statement.

The nearly 2,700-mile (4,345-kilometer) Keystone Pipeline carries thick Canadian tar sands oil to refineries in Illinois, Oklahoma and Texas, transporting approximately 600,000 barrels per day from Canada to Cushing, Oklahoma. Concerns about water spills helped spur opposition to a new 1,200-mile Keystone XL pipeline, and the company pulled the plug last year after President Joe Biden revoked a permit for it.

Environmentalists said the heavier tar sands oil is not only more toxic than lighter crude oil, but it can sink in the water instead of floating on top. Bill Caram, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust advocacy group, said cleaning up can sometimes even involve scrubbing individual rocks in a creek bed.

“It will be months, maybe even years, before we can fully control this disaster, understand the extent of the damage, and clean it all up,” said Zack Pistora, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club at the Kansas Statehouse.

Pipelines are often considered safer than transporting oil by railcar or truck, but large spills can cause significant environmental damage. The American Petroleum Institute said Friday that companies have robust surveillance in place to detect leaks, cracks, corrosion and other problems, not just through inspection centers but also through workers walking alongside pipelines.

However, in September 2013, a Tesoro Corp. pipeline collapsed. in North Dakota and spilled 20,600 barrels, according to data from the US Department of Transportation.

A more expensive oil spill occurred in July 2010 when an Enbridge Inc. pipeline in Michigan ruptured and more than 20,000 barrels spilled into Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River. Hundreds of homes and businesses were evacuated.

The Keystone pipeline’s largest leak to date occurred in 2017, when more than 6,500 barrels spilled near Amherst, South Dakota, according to a report released last year by the US Government Accountability Office. The second largest, 4,515 barrels, was near Edinburgh, North Dakota in 2019.

The Petroleum Institute said pipelines undergo tests before opening, using pressures in excess of the company’s projected values ​​and designed to take into account what they will carry and changes in the soil they cover. A US Department of Transportation oversees pipeline safety and allowed TC Energy to put more pressure on the Keystone system because the company was using better steel pipes.

But Caram said: “When we see multiple failures like this of such a large scale and in a relatively short period of time, after that pressure has increased, I think it’s time to question that.”

In last year’s report to Congress, GAO said Keystone’s accident history was similar to that of other oil pipelines, but leaks had increased in recent years. Investigations ordered by regulators found that the four worst spills were caused by deficiencies in design or pipe manufacture during construction.

TC Energy’s permit contained more than 50 special conditions, primarily for design, construction and operation, the GAO report said. The company said in response to the 2021 report that in recent years it has taken “decisive action” to improve safety, including the development of new crack detection technology and an independent review of its pipeline integrity program.

The company said Friday it would conduct a full investigation into the causes of the spill.

The oil spill caused a brief spike in crude oil prices on Thursday. Benchmark US oil rose a little more modestly — about 1% — on Friday morning as fears of a supply disruption were overshadowed by broader worries about an economic slowdown in the US and other major countries that would reduce demand for oil.

The pipeline runs through Chris and Bill Pannbacker’s family farm. Bill Pannbacker, a farmer and cattle dealer, said the company told him problems with the pipeline there likely won’t be resolved until after the Christmas and New Year holidays.

The hill where the breach occurred was a landmark for locals and used to be a popular hay cart destination, Pannbacker said.

Hollingsworth reported from Mission, Kansas and Foley reported from Iowa City, Iowa. David Koenig contributed coverage from Dallas.

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