Federal data: Kansas oil spill biggest in Keystone history

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TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — A ruptured pipe this week dumped enough oil into a creek in northeastern Kansas to nearly fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool. pipeline system combined, according to federal data.

The Keystone Pipeline leaks into a creek which passed through rural pasture in Washington County, Kansas, about 150 miles 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 running from Canada to Oklahoma has lost about 14,000 barrels, or 588,000 gallons.

The spill raised questions among environmentalists and safety advocates about whether TC Energy should maintain a federal government permit that allowed pressure in parts of its Keystone system — including the stretch through Kansas — to exceed typical maximum allowable levels. With Congress facing a possible debate over re-approving regulatory programs, the chair of a House subcommittee on pipeline safety took note of the spill on Friday.

A report from the US Government Accountability Office last year said there had been 22 previous spills along the Keystone system since it was commissioned in 2010, most of them on TC Energy’s property and fewer than 20 barrels. The total of those 22 events was just under 12,000 barrels, the report said.

“I am closely monitoring this situation to learn more about this latest oil spill and inform ways to prevent future spills and protect public safety and the environment,” Democratic U.S. Representative Donald Payne Jr. from New Jersey, tweeted.

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

Randy Hubbard, the county’s director of emergency management, said the oil has only traveled about a quarter of a mile and there appear to have been no fatalities in the wild.

The company said it conducts air quality checks and other environmental monitoring 24 hours a day. It also used multiple trucks that amounted to giant wet vacuum cleaners to suck up the oil.

Previous Keystone leaks have led to 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 will continue next week. No one was evacuated, but the Kansas Department of Health and Environment warned people not to enter the creek or allow animals to wade in.

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

The nearly 2,700-mile Keystone Pipeline carries thick Canadian tar sands oil to refineries in Illinois, Oklahoma and Texas, with about 600,000 barrels per day shipped from Canada to Cushing, Oklahoma. Concerns about leaks contaminating water helped fuel resistance to a new 1,200-mile (1,900-kilometer) Keystone XL pipeline, and the company pulled the plug last year after President Joe Biden revoked a license for it.

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

“This is going to be months, maybe even years, before we fully get this disaster under control and know the extent of the damage and clean everything up,” said Zack Pistora, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club at the Kansas Statehouse.

Pipelines are often considered safer than shipping oil by rail car or truck, but major spills can cause significant environmental damage. The American Petroleum Institute said Friday that companies have robust monitoring to spot leaks, cracks, corrosion and other problems not only through control centers, but also with workers walking along pipelines.

Yet in September 2013, a Tesoro Corp. pipeline ruptured. in North Dakota and leaked 20,600 barrels, according to US Department of Transportation data.

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

The previous largest spill from the Keystone pipeline occurred in 2017, when more than 6,500 barrels leaked near Amherst, South Dakota, according to a report released last year by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. The second largest, at 4,515 barrels, was in 2019 near Edinburg, North Dakota.

The Petroleum Institute said pipelines undergo tests before opening at pressures that exceed the company’s planned levels and are designed to account for what they will carry and changes in the ground they cover. A branch of the U.S. Department of Transportation oversees pipeline safety and allowed TC Energy to put more pressure on the Keystone system because the company used pipes made of better steel.

But Caram said: “If we see multiple failures like this on such a large scale and a relatively short time after that pressure builds, I think it’s time to question that.”

In its report to Congress last year, the GAO said Keystone’s history was similar to that of other oil pipelines, but spills have increased in recent years. Research commissioned by regulators found that the four worst spills were caused by errors in the design or fabrication of piping during construction.

TC Energy’s permit included more than 50 special conditions, mainly for design, construction and operation, the GAO report said. The company said in response to the 2021 report that it has taken “decisive actions” in recent years 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 leak caused a brief rise in crude oil prices on Thursday. Benchmark US oil rose more modestly – about 1% – on Friday morning as fears of a supply disruption were overshadowed by wider concerns about an economic downturn in the US and other major countries that would reduce oil demand.

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

The hill where the break occurred was a landmark for locals and used to be a popular destination for covered wagon rides, Pannbacker said.

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

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Follow John Hanna on Twitter at


The Valley Voice
The Valley Voicehttp://thevalleyvoice.org
Christopher Brito is a social media producer and trending writer for The Valley Voice, with a focus on sports and stories related to race and culture.

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