Why is the Keystone pipeline oil spill in Kansas so difficult to clean up?

A blackened hill in Kansas near the Keystone Pipeline oil spill.

The Keystone pipeline poured hundreds of thousands of gallons of tar sands oil into a creek in northern Kansas earlier this month. TC Energy, which operates the pipeline, says it has recovered a small amount of this oil, but experts say a full cleanup will take a long time.

On December 7, 14,000 barrels of oil spilled from the Keystone Pipeline in Mill Creek in Kansas. But she didn’t just spill any oil — she spilled diluted bitumen, EPA He said last week. Bitumen from tar sands is dense, so it is mixed with other products such as lighter oils to produce dilute bitumen, which can travel easily through the pipeline. But when a spill does happen, it’s a clean-up nightmare, because the diluted bitumen sinks into the water instead of floating on the surface.

Spill photos show there is a lot to clean up. The oil has blackened hillside and the banks of the creek. “It sucks,” Joshua AxelRudd, a senior advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council, told Earther.

axelRod said that, at first, the diluted bitumen will float on the surface of the water like other oils. During this stage, traditional cleaning methods such as skimming the oil from the top of the water will still work. But this does not last long. “The components start to separate very quickly,” Axelrod said. “The lighter liquids that are added evaporate into the air, and what remains is that bitumen, which is the oil of the tar sands, and it begins to sink.”

He recalled the devastating 2010 Oil spill in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where about 42,000 barrels (1,764,000 gallons) of diluted bitumen spilled into a tributary of the Kalamazoo River. It took four years and more than a billion dollars to clean up, making it the worst tar sands oil spill in US history, Grist reported. Oil spread nearly 40 miles downriver. The animals were covered in oil and polluted more than 4,400 acres of land near the river. Inside Climate News reported in 2016.

So far, TC Energy has not provided an estimate of how long it will take to remove most of the oil from the creek. But in the x oil spill statement dated December 19thTC Energy said that as of December 18 it had recovered “an estimated 7,233 barrels of oil” from the affected creek. “The affected portion of the Keystone Pipeline System remains safely isolated as search, recovery, repair, and remediation operations continue to progress. This portion will not be restarted until it is safe to do so,” the statement said.

Map of the Keystone pipeline in Kansas in TC Energy's seventh oil spill update.

Workers from the Environmental Protection Agency were on the scene that same week supervising cleanup efforts. They recovered oil from the creek, removed “soil and vegetation affected by the oil,” and conducted water and air monitoring, EPA he said in a statement.

Axelrod said he hopes TC Energy and others involved in the cleanup process will get as much oil out of the creek as possible before the cleanup becomes more complicated. “I think those people who use that water are going to want to see … at least five to 10 years of monitoring to see how much oil is left and if it’s getting into their water supply,” Axelrod said.

This oil spill is a great example of why we need to phase out pipelines,” said Zack Pistoria, a Kansas lobbyist for the local Sierra Club chapter. He says he and other environmentalists are frustrated because spills are often related to cracks inserted during pipeline construction, and companies like TC Energy can’t predict when the next leak will occur. “Is it worth the risk?” he said to Arthur. “It’s always like, ‘Okay, this is it.'” [spill] is a possibility, “but when it happens, it’s worse than you expect.”

Pistoria is right: This isn’t the first time the Keystone Pipeline system has spewed oil into the environment. In November 2017, the Keystone pipeline in Amherst, South Dakota About 210,000 gallons were spilled. Inspections found that the spill was caused by a crack that occurred during pipeline construction.

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