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Oil spill into a rural Kansas creek shuts down the Keystone pipeline

An emergency dam built to contain an oil spill
Workers build an emergency dam to intercept an oil spill after a Keystone pipeline ruptured in Washington County, Kansas, on Thursday.
(Kyle Bauer / KCLY/KFRM Radio)
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An oil spill in a creek in northeastern Kansas shut down a major pipeline that carries oil from Canada to the Texas Gulf Coast.

Canada-based TC Energy said it shut down its Keystone system Wednesday night following a drop in pipeline pressure. It said oil spilled into a creek in Washington County, Kansas, about 150 miles northwest of Kansas City.

The company Thursday estimated the spill’s size at about 14,000 barrels and said the affected pipeline segment had been “isolated” and the oil contained at the site with booms, or barriers. It did not say how the spill occurred.

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“People are sometimes not aware of the havoc that these things can wreak until the disaster happens,” said Zack Pistora, who lobbies the Kansas Legislature for the Sierra Club’s state chapter.

Concerns that spills could pollute waterways spurred opposition to plans by TC Energy to build another crude oil pipeline in the Keystone system, the 1,200-mile Keystone XL, which would have cut across Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska. Critics also argued that using crude from western Canada’s oil sands would worsen climate change, and President Biden’s cancellation of a U.S. permit for the project led the company to pull the plug last year.

In 2019, the Keystone pipeline leaked an estimated 383,000 gallons of oil in eastern North Dakota.

Houston-based Amplify Energy Co. and two of its subsidiaries have agreed to plead guilty to violating the Clean Water Act

Janet Kleeb, who founded the Bold Nebraska environmental and landowner rights group, which campaigned against the Keystone XL, said there have been at least 22 spills along the original Keystone pipeline since it began service in 2010. She said federal studies have shown that the type of heavy tar sands oil the pipeline carries can be especially difficult to clean up in water because it tends to sink.

“All oil spills are difficult, but tar sands in particular are very toxic and very difficult, so I’m awfully concerned,” said Kleeb, who is also the Nebraska Democratic Party’s chair.

But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said there were no known effects yet on drinking water wells or the public, and the oil didn’t move from the creek to larger waterways. Randy Hubbard, the Washington County Emergency Management coordinator, said there were no evacuations ordered because the break occurred in rural pastureland.

TC Energy said it had set up environmental monitoring at the site, including around-the-clock air-quality monitoring.

The sale of thousands of California gas and oil wells is raising concern about oversight of idle and orphaned wells.

“Our primary focus right now is the health and safety of onsite staff and personnel, the surrounding community, and mitigating risk to the environment,” a company statement said.

A U.S. Energy Information Administration spokesperson said the Keystone pipeline moves about 600,000 barrels of oil per day from Canada to Cushing, Okla., where it can connect to another pipeline to the Gulf Coast. That’s compared with the total of 3.5 million to 4 million barrels of Canadian oil imported into the U.S. every day.

Past Keystone spills have led to outages that lasted about two weeks, but this outage could possibly be longer because it involves a body of water, analysts at RBC Capital Markets said in a note to investors. Depending on the spill’s location, it’s possible that a portion of the pipeline could restart sooner, they said.

The spill was five miles northeast of Washington, the county seat of about 1,100 residents. Paul Stewart, an area farmer, said part of it was contained on his land using yellow booms and a dam of dirt. The spill occurred in Mill Creek, which flows into the Little Blue River.

At Gov. Gavin Newsom’s urging, California lawmakers are expected to begin a special session Monday to consider a penalty on oil profits in response to high gas prices.

The Little Blue feeds the Big Blue River, which flows into Tuttle Creek Lake, north of Manhattan, home of Kansas State University. The EPA said the oil did not affect the Little Blue.

Chris Pannbacker said the pipeline runs through her family’s farm. She and her husband drove north of their farmhouse and across a bridge over Mill Creek.

“We looked at it from both sides, and it was black on both sides,” said Pannbacker, a reporter for the Marysville Advocate newspaper.

Junior Roop, the sexton of a cemetery near the spill site, said people could smell the oil in town.

“It was about like driving by a refinery,” he said.


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