The Keystone pipeline leaked in Kansas.  What makes this spill so serious?

The Keystone pipeline leaked in Kansas. What makes this spill so serious?


In this photo taken by a drone on December 9, cleanup continues in the area where the ruptured Keystone pipeline spilled oil into a creek in Washington County, Kansas.

DroneBase via access point


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DroneBase via access point


In this photo taken by a drone on December 9, cleanup continues in the area where the ruptured Keystone pipeline spilled oil into a creek in Washington County, Kansas.

DroneBase via access point

It’s been more than a week since TC Energy announced that its Keystone pipeline had leaked into Mill Creek in Washington County, Kan. Nearly 600,000 gallons of oil spilled into the waterway as well as the land surrounding it.

Conservationists say this is just the start of a cleanup that will likely take years.

Operators were alerted to a problem with the pipeline on December 7. As of Friday morning, according to TC Energy, 4,125 barrels of creek oil were recovered of an estimated 14,000 barrels (about 588,000 gallons) believed to have been lost in the spill.

Aerial footage of the leak from Nebraska state media shows the leak affected a nearby pasture and residents’ farmland.

Many initial details, such as the cause of the spill, are still unclear. What we do know is the type of oil that was transported by the pipeline: tar sands oil, also called diluted bitumen.

This thick, toxic substance makes cleanup much more difficult, said Jane Kleeb, founder of Bold Alliance, and Anthony Swift, director of Project Canada with the Natural Resources Defense Council, two environmental advocacy groups.

“When an oil sands disaster like this happens, it’s worse than a traditional oil spill. Because the oil sands are much more difficult, expensive and much more toxic to clean up. We know it’s going to take years,” Kleeb told NPR. . She said she has been monitoring oil spills, particularly tar sands spills, for 14 years.

She also notes that, in her experience, initial estimates of the amount of oil actually spilled may be wrong.

“Usually when that happens, that initial number ends up doubling,” she said.

The full leak image will not be known until the recovery process is complete.

In response to Kleeb’s comments, TC Energy told NPR in a statement, “Our commitment to the community is that our response efforts will continue until we have fully remediated the site. We have the people, the expertise, training and equipment to mount an effective response and cleanup, and that’s what we’re doing.”

Diluted bitumen is like “peanut butter”


A general view shows an oil sands mining operation and facility near Fort McKay, Alta., September 7.

Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images


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Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images


A general view shows an oil sands mining operation and facility near Fort McKay, Alta., September 7.

Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images

TC Energy, formerly known as TransCanada, says its Keystone pipeline runs from Canada to Oklahoma. (This Keystone pipeline should not be confused with the canceled Keystone XL pipeline project which has been a major flashpoint in the United States for years.)

Even though TC Energy maintains it has the proper training and equipment to effectively respond to the Mill Creek spill, the effort will be daunting, Swift said.

Bitumen does not flow efficiently through a pipeline, “so it is mixed with diluents to be prepared for pipeline transport as diluted bitumen, or ‘dilbit'” says the American Petroleum Institute.

“It’s a very thick substance it’s almost the consistency of peanut butter,” said NRDC’s Swift.

Most containment efforts don’t really work for bitumen, he says. In situations of other oil spills affecting waterways, one of the first steps is to install booms to prevent the oil from spreading further into the water.

Diluted bitumen “doesn’t float like conventional oil. And most means of cleaning up bodies of water rely on the fact that most of the oil stays above the body of water,” Swift said.

The bitumen eventually sinks to the bottom of rivers and wetlands, making containment and environmental consequences much more difficult and costly.

On land, this material poses major problems thanks to bitumen’s incredibly strong adhesive properties, Swift said.

“Once those thick tar sands are on something, you just have to extract whatever that thing has touched,” he said. “Bitumen can migrate and it tends to seep into soils. The longer it sits, the more problematic it can become.”

Experts compare this spill to a Kalamazoo incident in 2010


In this drone photo, cleanup continues Dec. 9 in the area where the ruptured Keystone pipeline spilled oil into a creek in Washington County, Kan.

DroneBase via access point


hide caption

toggle caption

DroneBase via access point


In this drone photo, cleanup continues Dec. 9 in the area where the ruptured Keystone pipeline spilled oil into a creek in Washington County, Kan.

DroneBase via access point

Both Kleeb and Swift said the latter Keystone’s leak reminds them of the Kalamazoo River oil spill in 2010.

In July 2010, more than one million gallons of tar sands crude oil spilled into Talmadge Creek, a small tributary of the Kalamazoo River near Marshall, Michigan, according to the Kalamazoo River Watershed Council. This environmental disaster was caused by a burst pipe from Enbridge Energy Partners LLC. The spill resulted in contamination of a 30-mile stretch of the Kalamazoo River.

“From 2010 to 2014, more than 1.2 million gallons of oil were recovered from the river,” according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Estimates from the years following the cleanup suggest it cost over $1 billion.

Kansas and the people on the ground are going to have to prepare for the long haul, Kleeb said.

“I’ve never seen an oil sands spill of this magnitude in a creek. We don’t know what it’s going to look like and how it affects the biodiversity in that creek. Let alone pastures,” Kleeb said. said.

“In the past, when we’ve seen the spills happen, it’s impacted the land for years. They don’t just have to dig up all the polluted ground, there’s a lot of work to do to make sure it doesn’t impact the root system,” she says. “And now all that precious topsoil, which is essential to agriculture, is now being destroyed and forever will be.”

This is not TC Energy’s first, second or third spill

Keystone has had 22 reported leaks since 2010, according to a Government Accountability Office report last year. With the Mill Creek case, it’s now at least 23.

“Keystone’s accident history has been similar to that of other oil pipelines since 2010, but the severity of spills has worsened in recent years,” the GAO said. “Similar to crude oil pipelines nationwide, most of Keystone’s 22 accidents from 2010 to 2020 released less than 50 barrels of oil and were confined to operator-controlled property, such as a pump station. .”

Prior to construction, TC Energy obtained a special permit from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) to operate certain portions of the pipeline at a pressure level higher than that normally permitted by agency regulations for the transportation of petroleum.

Although the reason for the spill is still unknown, Swift and Kleeb expressed concerns about this permit and wondered if the higher stress level was potentially a major factor in the latest spill.

“It’s unusual, it’s not the norm,” she said of the number of spills from that pipeline alone. “They should never have given a company with so many spills a special permit to pump at higher pressures.”

PHMSA told NPR that “regulations include extensive pipeline accident reporting requirements.” Federal regulations require accident reports on incidents that have “a release of 5 gallons or more of hazardous liquid or carbon dioxide, excluding maintenance-related releases,” a spokesperson for the company said. the agency.

Not including the Mill Creek leak, the two largest spills in Keystone’s history occurred in 2017 and 2019. As of Dec. 7, government data shows this spill to be the pipeline’s largest. the story, reported the Associated Press.

In response to the Mill Creek case (as with each of Keystone’s previous major spills), PHMSA issued “Corrective Action Orders,” the agency’s strongest enforcement tool, said a spokesperson told NPR.

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