TOPEKA, Kansas (AP) — A ruptured pipeline spilled enough oil this week into a northeast Kansas stream to nearly fill an Olympic-size swimming pool, making it the largest land-based oil spill in nine years and surpassing to all of the above in the same combined pipeline system, according to federal data.
The Keystone pipeline spill into a stream running through rural pastures in Washington County, Kansas, about 150 miles (240 kilometers) northwest of Kansas City, was also the largest in the system’s history, according to data from the Department of US Transportation The operator, Canada-based TC Energy, said the pipeline running from Canada to Oklahoma lost about 14,000 barrels or 588,000 gallons.
The spill raised questions for environmentalists and safety advocates about whether TC Energy should maintain a permit from the federal government that has allowed pressure within parts of its Keystone system, including the stretch through Kansas, to exceed typical maximum allowable levels. . With Congress facing a possible debate over the reauthorization of regulatory programs, the chairman of a House subcommittee on pipeline safety 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 began operations in 2010, most of them on TC Energy property and fewer than 20 barrels. The total for those 22 events was just under 12,000 barrels, according to the report.
“I am watching this situation closely to learn more about this latest oil leak and inform ways to prevent future releases and protect public safety and the environment,” said Democratic US Rep. Donald Payne Jr. of New Jersey, tweeted.
TC Energy and the US Environmental Protection Agency said the spill has been contained. The EPA said the company built an earthen dam along the creek about 4 miles downstream from the pipeline rupture to prevent oil from moving into larger waterways.
Randy Hubbard, the county’s emergency management director, said the oil traveled only about a quarter of a mile and there appeared to be no wildlife deaths.
The company said it is conducting 24-hour air quality checks and other environmental checks. He was also using several trucks that amount to giant wet vacuums to suck up the oil.
Previous Keystone spills have caused outages that lasted about two weeks, and the company said it is still evaluating when it can reopen the system.
The EPA said no drinking water wells were affected and oil drilling efforts will 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 inside.
“At the time of the incident, the pipeline was operating within design and regulatory approval requirements,” the company said in a statement.
The nearly 2,700-mile (4,345-kilometer) Keystone pipeline transports coarse oil from the Canadian tar sands 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 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 it.
Environmentalists said the heavier tar sands oil is not only more toxic than lighter crude, but also can sink in the water instead of floating on top. Bill Caram, chief executive of the Pipeline Safety Trust, said cleanup can sometimes even include scrubbing down individual rocks in a stream bed.
“This is going to be months, maybe even years before we can fully get this mess under control and know the extent of the damage and clean it all up,” said Zack Pistora, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club in the Kansas Statehouse.
Pipelines are often considered safer than transporting oil by railcar or truck, but large spills can cause significant environmental damage. The American Petroleum Institute said Friday that companies have robust monitoring for leaks, cracks, corrosion and other problems, not only through control centers, but also with employees who walk alongside pipelines.
Still, in September 2013, a Tesoro Corp. pipeline in North Dakota ruptured, spilling 20,600 barrels, according to data from the US Department of Transportation.
A costlier spill occurred in July 2010, when an Enbridge Inc. pipeline in Michigan ruptured, spilling more than 20,000 barrels into Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River. Hundreds of houses and businesses were evacuated.
The previous largest spill from the Keystone pipeline occurred in 2017, when more than 6,500 barrels were 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 pipelines are tested before opening using pressures that exceed company-planned levels and are designed to take into account what they will carry and changes in the terrain they cover. A branch of the US Department of Transportation oversees pipeline safety and allowed TC Energy to put more pressure on the Keystone system because the company used pipelines made of better steel.
But Caram said: “When we see multiple faults like this of such a large size and a relatively short period of time after the pressure has built up, I think it’s time to question that.”
In its report to Congress last year, the GAO said Keystone’s accident record 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 pipeline design or manufacturing flaws during construction.
TC Energy’s permit included more than 50 special conditions, mainly for its design, construction and operation, according to the GAO report. The company said in response to the 2021 report that it took “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 that it would carry out a full investigation into the causes of the spill.
The spill caused a brief rise in crude oil prices on Thursday. Benchmark US oil rose more modestly, around 1%, on Friday morning as fears of a supply disruption were dwarfed by larger concerns about an economic downturn in the US. US and other major countries that would reduce demand for oil.
The pipeline runs through the family farm of Chris and Bill Pannbacker. Bill Pannbacker, a farmer and rancher, said the company told him that problems with the pipeline there probably won’t be resolved until after the Christmas and New Year holidays.
The hill where the breach occurred was a landmark for locals and used to be a popular destination for hayrides, Pannbacker said.
Hollingsworth reported from Mission, Kansas and Foley reported from Iowa City, Iowa. David Koenig contributed reporting from Dallas.