The Keystone pipeline, which runs 2,600 miles from western Canada through the central United States, spilled an estimated 14,000 barrels of oil, more than half a million gallons, into a creek in Washington County, Kansas on December 7. The accident was the largest onshore oil spill since at least 2013, the third major leak of the Keystone pipeline in the past five years, and the largest since it began operating in 2010.
Also, previous estimates from previous spills on the pipeline have turned out to be much larger than initial estimates.
Four deceased mammals and 71 deceased fish have been recovered from the site of the recent spill, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, which is participating in cleanup efforts with the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), state and local agencies, and the pipeline owner and operator. TC Energy and the company’s contractors. About 5,500 barrels of oil and water and 5,000 cubic yards of oiled soil were recovered in the initial cleanup effort.
Most of the undamaged sections of the pipeline resumed operations last week, with clean-up efforts continuing and an investigation into the cause of the leak. On Tuesday it was reported that TC Energy submitted its plan to regulators for a full restart.
“This is our livelihood here,” Bill Pannebaker, a farmer whose land was damaged by the spill, told CBS News. Perhaps an acre and a half of weeds were completely covered in oil. But this is on a slope until it drops off, at which point it runs into the creek.”
The spill was the largest onshore oil spill since at least 2013 and the largest leak in the Keystone pipeline system since it began operating in 2010.
“Waterways and lands should not be endangered so Canada and Big Oil can get their products to market,” said Jane Klepp, founder and president of the nonprofit Nebraska Coalition, which helps communities fight fossil fuel projects. Klepp is also the chairman of the Nebraska Democratic Party. “It is an enormous burden that the pipeline companies place on the landowners. They not only take their land through the eminent domain for the private gain of the pipeline company, but also [access] Easement forever.
These spills, Klepp argued, illustrate how unfair the relationship between pipeline companies and landowners is. She also noted how the Keystone pipeline was called “the most secure pipeline ever” during the push to approve the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. The latter was a proposed extension of the Keystone pipeline that was eventually scrapped: its permits were initially revoked by the Obama administration, reinstated by the Trump administration and then revoked by the Biden administration.
“It will take years to clean up this spill in Kansas. TC Energy is currently pretending that this is going to be a two-week cleanup job and that everything will be fine,” Klepp added. “That topsoil that is now destroyed on that farmer’s property is gone forever. If you’ve been in the farming business, you know how precious the topsoil is, and how much farmers and ranchers do to protect that topsoil. It’s gone, never to come back, That land will never be the same.”
The tar sands crude oil transported by the Keystone pipeline is different from conventional oil. It consists of a heavy oil called bitumen that is cut with a lighter gas called a thinner to facilitate transportation through pipes.
“Oil spills pose short- and long-term risks to ecological communities,” said Dr. Diane Orihill, assistant professor of aquatic environmental toxicology at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. “In the days following a spill, exposure to the oil can cause acute toxicity in wildlife from ingestion of the oil, inhalation, suffocation, drowning, or hypothermia. However, scientists now know that the environmental effects of oil spills can be broader in scope and persist.” decades after the spill.
Dr. Orihill conducted a study on the effect of bitumen on a freshwater lake. You notice that they sink below the surface of the water and accumulate on the surface of the sediment in a matter of hours or days.
It also found that infiltration of dilute bitumen led to a strong decrease in the abundance of insects emerging from the lake. Meanwhile, only a small percentage of the major pollutants of concern in bitumen — called polycyclic aromatic compounds — were dissolved in the lake’s water column.
“This tendency for bitumen to sink into freshwater ecosystems makes oil cleanup more difficult,” added Dr. Orihill.
Incidents like the Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon have shown that oil spills can have widespread and long-term effects. “Some wildlife populations may take years to recover from deaths initially caused by oil spills, but also some components of oil are persistent and remain in the ecosystem, continuing to be eaten and causing chronic health effects on wildlife,” she says.
However, other major spills, such as the one related to Hebei Spirit, provided a lesson. “They have taught us that rapid and large-scale cleanup of oil spills can help ecosystems recover from disruption and limit long-term impacts,” added Dr. Orihill.
About 22 oil spills have occurred on the Keystone pipeline over the past 12 years, in addition to two other major accidents. TC Energy only paid a $300,000 fine for previous spills on the Keystone pipeline, even if the leaks caused more than $111 million in property damage.
“It’s a lemon,” said Paul Blackburn, a pipeline law attorney with Bold Alliance. “It has been leaked a significant number of times, and while there may be certain kinds of specific reasons for each leak, the fact that it leaks so often suggests that there may be some systemic reason behind what is going wrong.”
A 2010 report from the Center for Environmental Law identified a pattern of substandard steel production and use in new pipelines amid a pipeline construction boom between 2007 and 2009. A plant associated with the Keystone pipeline is included.
After construction, the Keystone pipeline received numerous warnings from federal regulators about a lack of corrosion protection and corrosion control deficiencies. Solving the problems took years. A recent report from the US Government Accountability Office (GOA) noted that the safety record of the Keystone pipeline is deteriorating and identified “construction issues,” which led to significant spills on the Keystone pipeline in 2017 and 2019.
Blackburn argued that fines for pipeline companies could be included in the multibillion-dollar cost of doing business for these companies, which often pass costs on to customers if they are not already covered by insurance. He noted that regulators could force pipeline companies to conduct frequent online inspections, such as imaging tools that can perform ultrasounds on pipelines to identify potential points of failure and address them before a spill occurs.
“All pipelines leak, and depending on where the leak is, it could be catastrophic, and it’s certainly catastrophic for the people who live there whose land has been affected,” Blackburn added. “There are much better tools out there to prevent these types of leaks and PHMSA should require that they be used more often.”
TC Energy claims 6,973 barrels of oil have been recovered from Al Khor as of Dec. 17. “The affected portion of the Keystone Pipeline System remains safely isolated as investigation, recovery, repair and remediation operations continue to progress,” TC Energy said in a statement. “This part will not be restarted until it is safe to do so and when we get regulatory approval from the PHMSA.”
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