Federal data: Kansas oil spill, largest in Keystone history

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — A ruptured pipe spewed enough oil into a northeast Kansas stream this week to nearly fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool, becoming the largest onshore crude oil pipeline spill in nine years and surpassing all previous ones on the same combined pipeline system, according to federal data.

The Keystone Pipeline I spill into a creek passing through rural grasslands in Washington County, Kansas, about 150 miles (240 kilometers) northwest of Kansas City, is also the largest in the system’s history, according to U.S. Department of Transportation data. The operator, Canada-based TC Energy, said the pipeline, which runs from Canada to Oklahoma, holds about 14,000 barrels, or 588,000 gallons.

The spill has raised questions among environmentalists and safety advocates about whether TC Energy should retain a permit from the federal government that has allowed pressure in parts of its Keystone system — including the section through Kansas — to exceed typical maximum permitted levels. As Congress faces a potential debate over reauthorizing regulatory programs, the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Pipeline Safety weighed in on the spill Friday.

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

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

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

Randy Hubbard, the county’s emergency management director, said the oil traveled only about a quarter mile and there did not appear to be any wildlife fatalities.

The company said it conducts round-the-clock air quality checks and other environmental monitoring. It also used multiple trucks that amounted to giant wet vacuums to suck up the oil.

Past Keystone spills have led to outages that have lasted about two weeks, and the company said it is still assessing when it can reopen the system.

The EPA said no drinking water wells were affected and oil removal efforts will continue into the 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.

“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 carries heavy Canadian bitumen to refineries in Illinois, Oklahoma and Texas, with about 600,000 barrels a day moving from Canada to Cushing, Oklahoma. Concerns about spills contaminating water have helped fuel 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 revoked the authorization to do so.

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

“It’s going to be months, maybe even years, before we fully deal with this disaster and understand the extent of the damage and clean it up,” said Zach Pistora, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club at the Kansas Statehouse.

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

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

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

The previous largest Keystone pipeline spill came 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 Edinburg, North Dakota.

The Petroleum Institute said the pipelines go through tests before they are opened, using 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 division of the US Department of Transportation oversees pipeline safety and has allowed TC Energy to put more pressure on the Keystone system because the company uses pipes made of better steel.

But Karam said, “When we see multiple failures like this of such a large size and relatively short time after that pressure has built up, I think it’s time to question it.”

In its report to Congress last year, the GAO said the Keystone accident history is similar to that of other oil pipelines, but spills have increased in recent years. Investigations ordered by regulators found that the four worst spills were caused by design or manufacturing errors in pipes during construction.

TC Energy’s permit includes more than 50 special conditions, mostly for its design, construction and operation, the GAO report said. The company said in response to the 2021 report that it had taken “decisive actions” in recent years to improve safety, including developing 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 cause of the spill.

The spill caused a brief spike in crude oil prices on Thursday. U.S. benchmark oil rose more modestly – about 1 percent – on Friday morning as fears of supply disruptions were overshadowed by wider concerns about an economic slowdown in the U.S. and other major countries that would dampen oil demand.

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

The hill where the breach occurred was a landmark for local residents and a popular hiking destination, Panbaker said.


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


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