Keystone pipeline raises concerns after third major leak in five years | oil spills

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The Keystone pipeline, which runs 2,600 miles from western Canada to the central US, leaked about 14,000 barrels of oil, more than half a million gallons, into a creek in Washington County, Kansas, on Dec. 7. The incident was the largest onshore oil spill since at least 2013, the third major spill from the Keystone pipeline in the last five years and the largest since it began operating in 2010.

It is also true that previous estimates of past leaks in the pipeline turned out to be much larger than initial estimates.

Four dead mammals and 71 dead fish were recovered from the latest spill site, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, which is involved in cleanup efforts with the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration (PHMSA), state agencies and local, pipeline owner and operator TC Energy and the company’s contractors. About 5,500 barrels of oil and water and 5,000 cubic meters of oil-contaminated soil were recovered in initial cleanup efforts.

Most undamaged parts of the pipeline resumed operations last week as cleanup efforts and an investigation into the cause of the leak continue. On Tuesday, it was reported that TC Energy had submitted its plan to regulators to fully restart it.

“This is our livelihood here,” Bill Pannbacker, a farmer whose land was affected by the spill, told CBS News. “Probably an acre, an acre and a half of grass was completely covered in oil. But this is on a slope, so it would come down, and that’s when it would come down to the creek.”

The spill was the largest onshore oil spill since at least 2013 and the largest spill on the Keystone pipeline system since it began operating in 2010.

A satellite image shows emergency crews working to clean up an oil spill along Mill Creek in Washington County, Kansas. Photography: Maxar Technologies/Reuters

“Waterways and land must not be put at risk so that Canada and the major oil companies can get their products to market,” said Jane Kleeb, founder and president of Bold Alliance, a Nebraska-based nonprofit, which helps communities fight fossil fuel projects. Kleeb is also chairman of the Nebraska Democratic Party. “It is a tremendous burden that pipeline companies place on landowners. Not only do they take their land through eminent domain for the private gain of the pipeline company, but they also assume a [access] servitude forever.”

Kleeb argued that these leaks demonstrate how unfair the relationship between pipeline companies and landowners is. She also pointed out how the Keystone pipeline was labeled the “safest pipeline ever built” during the push for approval of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. The latter was a proposed extension to the Keystone pipeline that was ultimately scrapped: its permits were initially revoked by the Obama administration, reinstated by the Trump administration, and then canceled by the Biden administration.

“This spill in Kansas is going to take years to clean up. Currently, TC Energy is pretending that this will be a two-week cleanup job and that everything will be fine,” added Kleeb. “That soil that has now been destroyed on that farmer’s property is gone forever. If you work in the agricultural industry, you know how precious topsoil is and how much farmers and ranchers do to protect it. It’s gone, it’s never coming back, that land will never be the same.”

Crude oil from oil sands transported through the Keystone pipeline differs from conventional oil. It consists of a heavy oil called bitumen that is sheared with a lighter gas called diluent to facilitate transport through pipelines.

“Oil spills pose both short-term and long-term risks to ecological communities,” said Dr. Diane Orihel, assistant professor of aquatic ecotoxicology at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. “In the days following a spill, exposure to the oil can cause acute toxicity in wildlife through ingestion, inhalation, suffocation, drowning or hypothermia. However, scientists now know that the ecological impacts of oil spills can be much more far-reaching and persist for decades after the spill.”

The Doctor. Orihel conducted a study on the impact of bitumen in a freshwater lake. She observed that it sinks below the surface of the water and builds up on the surface of the sediment in a matter of hours or days.

She also found that the diluted bitumen spill resulted in a sharp decline in insect abundance emerging from the lake. Meanwhile, only a small percentage of the main contaminants of concern in the bitumen – called polycyclic aromatic compounds – dissolved in the lake’s water column.

“This propensity for bitumen to sink in freshwater ecosystems also makes cleaning up oil much more challenging,” added Dr. Orihel.

Incidents like Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon have shown that oil spills can have large-scale, long-term effects. “Some wildlife populations can take years to recover from the deaths initially caused by oil spills, but also certain components of oil are persistent and remain in the ecosystem, continuing to be absorbed and causing chronic effects on the health of wildlife”, he says. Is it over there.

However, other major leaks, such as the one linked to the Spirit of Hebei, offered a lesson. “They taught us that quick and extensive cleanup of oil spills can help ecosystems recover from disturbance and limit long-term impacts,” added Dr. Orihel.

About 22 oil spills have occurred on the Keystone pipeline over the past 12 years, with two other major incidents. TC Energy only paid $300,000 in fines for previous leaks in the Keystone pipeline, even though the leaks caused more than $111 million in property damage.

“It’s a lemon,” said Paul Blackburn, a pipeline law attorney at Bold Alliance. “It leaked a remarkable number of times, and while there may be certain types of specific causes for each leak, the fact that it leaks so frequently suggests that there may be some underlying systemic reasons as to what is going wrong.”

A 2010 report by an environmental law center identified a substandard pattern of steel production and use in new pipelines amid a pipeline construction boom between 2007 and 2009. A manufacturer linked to the Keystone pipeline was included.

After construction, the Keystone pipeline received numerous warnings from federal regulators about a lack of corrosion protection and deficiencies in corrosion control. The problems took years to resolve. A recent report by the US Government Accountability Office (GOA) noted that the Keystone pipeline’s safety record is deteriorating and identified “construction issues” resulting in major spills on the Keystone pipeline in 2017 and 2019.

Blackburn argued that fines levied on pipeline companies are included in the cost of doing business for these multibillion-dollar companies, which often pass the costs on to customers if they are not already covered by insurance. He noted that regulators could force pipeline companies to conduct more frequent in-line inspections, such as imaging tools that can ultrasound pipelines to identify potential points of failure and correct them before a leak occurs.

A remediation company deploys a boom to the surface of an oil spill after the Keystone pipeline leaked at Mill Creek in Washington County, Kansas.
A remediation company deploys a boom to the surface of an oil spill after the Keystone pipeline leaked at Mill Creek in Washington County, Kansas. Photography: Kyle Bauer/AP

“All pipelines leak, and depending on where they leak, it could be catastrophic, and it certainly is catastrophic for the people who live there whose land has been impacted,” added Blackburn. “There are much better tools out there to prevent these types of leaks and PHMSA should mandate that they be used more often.”

TC Energy claims that 6,973 barrels of oil were recovered from the creek on Dec. “The affected segment of the Keystone Pipeline System remains safely isolated while investigation, recovery, repair and remediation continue to move forward,” TC Energy said in a statement. “This segment will not restart until it is safe to do so and when we have regulatory approval from PHMSA.”