TOPEKA, Kansas — A ruptured pipe spilled enough oil this week into a northeastern Kansas creek to nearly fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool, becoming the largest land-based crude oil pipeline spill in nine years and surpassing all previous spills on the same combined pipeline system, according to federal data.
The Keystone pipeline spill into a creek running through rural pastures in Washington County, Kansas, about 240 kilometers northwest of Kansas City, was also the largest in the system’s history, data from the US Department of Transportation. The operator, Canada-based TC Energy, said the pipeline that connects Canada to Oklahoma lost about 14,000 barrels, or 588,000 gallons.
The spill has raised questions for environmentalists and safety advocates about whether TC Energy should retain a federal government permit that allowed pressure inside parts of its Keystone system – including the stretch across Kansas – to exceed typical maximum allowable levels. As Congress faces a potential debate over reauthorizing regulatory programs, the chairman of a House pipeline safety subcommittee took note of the spill Friday.
A US Government Accountability Office report last year said there had been 22 previous spills along the Keystone system since it was commissioned in 2010, most on TC Energy property and less than 20 barrels. The total for those 22 events was just under 12,000 barrels, according to the report.
“I am closely monitoring this situation to learn more about this latest oil release and advise on ways to prevent future releases and protect public safety and the environment,” tweeted Democratic U.S. Representative Donald Payne Jr. , of New Jersey.
TC Energy and the US Environmental Protection Agency said the spill had been contained. The EPA said the company built an earth dam across the creek about 4 miles downstream of the pipeline rupture to prevent oil from moving into larger waterways.
Randy Hubbard, the county’s director of emergency management, said the oil only traveled about a quarter of a mile and there didn’t appear to be any wildlife fatalities.
The company said it conducts round-the-clock air quality checks and other environmental monitoring measures. He also used several trucks that amounted to giant wet vacuum cleaners to suck up the oil.
Past Keystone spills have resulted in outages that have lasted about two weeks, and the company said it is still assessing when it could reopen the system.
The EPA said no drinking water wells were impacted and oil removal efforts would continue into 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 through.
“At the time of the incident, the pipeline was operating in accordance with design and regulatory approval requirements,” the company said in a statement.
The nearly 2,700 mile (4,345 kilometer) Keystone pipeline transports thick oil from Canada’s tar sands to refineries in Illinois, Oklahoma and Texas, with approximately 600,000 barrels per day transported from Canada to Cushing, Oklahoma. Concerns about water-fouling spills helped spur opposition to a new 1,200-mile (1,900-kilometer) Keystone XL pipeline, and the company pulled the plug last year after President Joe Biden canceled a permit for this one.
Environmentalists have said the heavier oil from the tar sands is not only more toxic than lighter crude, but can sink in water instead of floating on top. Bill Caram, executive director of advocacy group Pipeline Safety Trust, said the cleanup can sometimes even include cleaning up individual rocks in a stream bed.
“It’s going to be months, if not years, before we fully understand this disaster and know the extent of the damage and have everything cleaned up,” said Zack Pistora, 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 create significant environmental damage. The American Petroleum Institute said Friday that companies have robust monitoring to detect leaks, cracks, corrosion and other problems, not just through monitoring centers but with employees walking along the lines. pipelines.
Yet in September 2013, a Tesoro Corp. in North Dakota ruptured and spilled 20,600 barrels, according to U.S. Department of Transportation data.
A more costly spill occurred in July 2010, when an Enbridge Inc. pipeline in Michigan ruptured and spilled over 20,000 barrels into Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River. Hundreds of homes and businesses were evacuated.
The Keystone Pipeline’s previous largest spill occurred in 2017, when more than 6,500 barrels spilled near Amherst, South Dakota, according to a US Government Accountability Office report released last year. The second largest, 4,515 barrels, was in 2019 near Edinburgh, North Dakota.
The Petroleum Institute said pipelines are tested before opening using pressures that exceed company-designed levels and are designed to take into account what they will carry and changes in the soil they will carry. cover. A branch of the US Department of Transportation oversees pipeline safety and allowed TC Energy to put greater pressure on the Keystone system because the company was using pipes made from better steel.
But Caram said: “When we see multiple failures like this of such magnitude and in a relatively short period of time after that pressure has increased, I think it’s time to question that.”
In its report to Congress last year, the GAO said Keystone’s accident history was similar to other pipelines, but spills have increased in recent years. Investigations ordered by regulators found that the four worst spills were caused by flaws in the design or manufacture of pipes during construction.
TC Energy’s license included more than 50 special conditions, mostly for its design, construction and operation, according to the GAO report. The company said in response to the 2021 report that it had taken “decisive steps” in recent years to improve safety, including developing new technology to detect cracks and an independent review of its pipeline integrity program. .
The company said on Friday it would conduct a full investigation into the causes of the spill.
The spill caused crude prices to spike briefly on Thursday. Benchmark US oil rose more modestly – around 1% – on Friday morning as fears of a supply disruption were overshadowed by greater worries about an economic slowdown in the United States and other major country that would reduce the demand for oil.
The pipeline crosses the family farm of Chris and Bill Pannbacker. Bill Pannbacker, a farmer and rancher, said the company told him the problems with the pipeline there were unlikely to be resolved until the Christmas and New Year holidays.
The hill where the breach occurred was a landmark for locals and was once a popular destination for wagon rides, Pannbacker said.
Hollingsworth reported from Mission, Kansas and Foley reported from Iowa City, Iowa. David Koenig contributed reporting from Dallas.
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