KS Keystone Pipeline Ruptures, Spills Bitumen
A segment of the Keystone Pipeline operated by TC Energy ruptured last week, spilling approximately 14,000 barrels of tar sands oil in what has been called the largest onshore crude pipeline spill in almost a decade.
While the spill has since been contained, cleanup and an investigation into what caused the rupture is ongoing.
Around 9:01 p.m. CST on Dec. 7, a leak detection alarm was received in regards to the 36-inch above-ground pipeline, with an emergency line trip alarm received six minutes later. The pipeline was shut down and isolation valves were commanded closed just seven minutes later.
Early morning on Dec. 8, TC Energy reported the discharge of crude oil from one of its pipelines in the Keystone Pipeline system near Washington, Kansas, to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA dispatched two on-scene coordinators, with state and local emergency crews also responding.
The pipeline spilled into a creek running through rural pastureland about 150 miles northwest of Kansas City, losing about 14,000 barrels, or 588,000 gallons, of crude oil. It was reportedly the largest onshore crude pipeline spill in nine years, surpassing all the previous ones on the same pipeline system combined.
The Keystone pipeline leaked in Kansas. What makes this spill so bad? https://t.co/pw905RhumO— NPR Science Desk (@nprscience) December 17, 2022
In response to the rupture, TC Energy built an earthen underflow dam on Mill Creek, approximately 4 miles downstream of the rupture location, to prevent further migration of the oil, including one pipe to allow water to pass through.
A second dam was built on Dec. 14 to provide structural relief to the earthen underflow dam that was previously constructed. No additional oil impacts or oil migrations occurred as a result.
Additional resources, such as vacuum trucks and oil skimmers, were mobilized to support oil recovery from the creek. TC Energy crews were also reportedly clearing the pipeline rupture area to allow for the investigation and repair.
The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration was reportedly on-scene investigating the cause of the discharge. The EPA is not directly involved in this process.
On Dec. 15, the EPA announced that response crews continue to focus on cleanup and recovery operations in Mill Creek, and additional equipment such as heated skimmers, diaphragm pumps, and additional frac tanks were en route to the scene at the time. Preparations were also underway for colder weather that could impact oil recovery.
According to response statistics, four mammals and 71 fish were killed in the incident. Wildlife assessment crews are continuing their assessment observations on impacted wildlife, with deceased an impacted wildlife being assessed by biologists with the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks.
The EPA and TC Energy report that there is no indication of adverse health or public concerns, as well as no impact on local drinking water wells. While no one was evacuated, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment issued a warning for residents to not go into the creek.
The material spilling from the pipeline was tar sands oil, or diluted bitumen. The thick, toxic substance can reportedly make the cleanup more difficult, with an “almost peanut butter consistency.”
“When a tar sands disaster like this happens, it is worse than a traditional oil spill. Because tar sands is much more difficult, expensive and much more toxic to clean up. We know that this is going to take years,” Jane Kleeb, Founder of Bold Alliance, told NPR.
She also noted that, in her experience, initial estimates of the amount of oil actually spilled can be wrong, with the initial number potentially “doubling.”
In response to Kleeb's comments, TC Energy told NPR in a statement, "Our commitment to the community is that our response efforts will continue until we have fully remediated the site. We have the people, expertise, training and equipment to mount an effective response and clean-up, and that's what we're doing."
Anthony Swift, Director of the Canada Project with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said that most containment efforts don’t work for bitumen, because diluted bitumen “doesn't float the way conventional oil does. And most means of spill remediation in water bodies do rely on most of the oil staying on top of the water body,” Swift said.
The material can sink to the bottom of rivers and wetlands, making containment difficult and expensive. It also has “incredibly strong” adhesive properties on land.
“Once this thick tar sands is on something, you basically have to just extract everything that this stuff has touched,” he said. “The bitumen can migrate and it tends to seep into soils. The longer it's left, the more of a problem it can become.”
As of Sunday (Dec. 18), TC Energy reported that they recovered an estimated 7,233 barrels of oil from the creek (13,877 barrels of oil and water), with recovery rates potentially being impacted by the upcoming cold weather in the area.
“The affected segment of the Keystone Pipeline System remains safely isolated as investigation, recovery, repair and remediation continue to advance,” wrote the company. “This segment will not be restarted until it is safe to do so and when we have regulatory approval from PHMSA.”
Officials have not yet determined the cause of the incident, and it is unclear when the repairs to the pipeline will be completed. TC Energy officials said no timeline has been established for restarting the flow of crude oil through the line.
Keystone XL Project, Previous Spills
The affected Keystone Pipeline is not to be confused with TC Energy’s previous $8 billion Keystone XL pipeline project, which was officially canceled in June 2021. The decision arrived after more than a decade-long battle of whether the project would be carried out despite its environmental risks.
TC Energy, then known as TransCanada, announced its plans in 2008 to build a pipeline that would carry 830,000 barrels of crude oil daily from Hardisty, Alberta, Canada through the Great Plains to refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast.
While the project has long been debated, the start of the project’s official cancelation could be attributed to President Joe Biden’s Executive Order on Protecting Public Health and the Environment and Restoring Science to Tackle the Climate Crisis.
Despite TC Energy having already constructed some 300 miles of the 1,200-mile project or Alberta’s investment of more than $1 billion into the project over the last year, officials announced that they’d reached an agreement with TC Energy to exit that partnership.
While additional details have not been provided, TC Energy and Alberta report that they plan to try to recoup the government’s investment. TC Energy has also reported that it would continue working with regulators, stakeholders and Indigenous groups to meet its environmental and regulatory commitments and ensure a safe termination of and exit from the project.
In April 2018, TransCanada revealed that approximately 9,700 barrels of oil spilled on farmland in Marshall County, South Dakota, on Nov. 16, 2017—considerably more than the 5,000 barrels the company originally estimated were lost.
Preliminary reports indicated that the leak may have come because of damage to either the pipeline itself or its protective coating, caused during construction 10 years ago. The Aberdeen News noted that if the current estimate is correct, that spill is the seventh largest in the U.S. since 2010.
By July, officials confirmed at least one section of the pipeline north of Britton, South Dakota, was being dug up for inspection. A year later, a federal report indicated that improper coatings were likely used on the pipeline. The Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration issued a notice of probable violation to pipeline owner TC Oil Operations, also known as TC Energy, in mid-June.
Another incident occurred in November 2019, causing over 380,000 gallons of oil to leak from the Keystone Pipeline, a total amounting to 9,120 barrels of crude oil. Sections of Keystone pipeline were shut down in response to the leak, which impacted a wetland area and, at the time, an estimated 2,500 square yards of land. TC Energy, formerly known as TransCanada, said that air quality, wildlife and environment monitoring was being conducted.
While the cause of the leak underwent investigation, North Dakota regulators also noted that drinking water supplies went unaffected, and TC Energy reported that the spill had been contained, and that it was using backhoes and vacuum trucks to recover the spilled oil.
The pipeline officially returned to service on Nov. 10, after receiving approval for a repair and restart plan by the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.
However, at the end of the same month, North Dakota environmental scientist Bill Suess, the estimated amount of land affected by the oil spill had risen nearly 10 times the original estimate, although the amount of oil leaked remained the same.
During collection, the contaminated soil was stockpiled and taken to a landfill in Sawyer, North Dakota.