The Keystone pipeline is causing concern after its third major spill in five years


The pipeline's largest spill investigation is under way in Kansas as recent reports indicate a deteriorating safety record

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

This also happened because the previous estimate of the previous spill in the pipe turned out to be much larger than the initial estimate.

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 US Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), state and local agencies, pipeline owner and operator TC Energy and corporate contractors. . About 5,500 barrels of oil and water and 5,000 cubic yards of oil-contaminated soil were recovered in the initial cleanup efforts.

Most of the undamaged sections of the pipeline were operational again last week, as cleanup efforts and investigations into the cause of the spill continue. On Tuesday it was reported that TC Energy had submitted its plans to regulators for a full restart.

"That's our livelihood here," Bill Pannbacker, a farmer whose soil was affected by the spill, told CBS News. “Maybe an acre, an acre and a half of grass is completely covered in oil. But it's on a slope so it will flow down, and that's when it flows into the river.

The spill was the biggest onshore oil spill since at least 2013 and the biggest spill in the Keystone pipeline system since it began operations in 2010.

“Waterways and land must not be at risk so Canada and big oil can market their products,” said Jane Kleeb, founder and president of the Nebraska nonprofit Bold Alliance, which helps communities fight fossil fuel projects. Kleeb is also chairman of the Nebraska Democratic Party. “This is an extraordinary burden that the pipeline company places on landowners. They are not only taking their land through reputable domains for the private benefit of the pipeline companies, they are also taking [access] perpetual conveniences.”

Kleeb thinks this spill shows how unfair the relationship between the pipeline company and the landowners is. He also pointed out how the Keystone pipeline was labeled 'the safest pipe ever built' during the push for approval for the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. The latest was the proposed extension of the Keystone pipeline that was eventually dropped: it was initially revoked by the Obama administration, reinstated by the Trump administration and then revoked by the Biden administration.

“This spill in Kansas will take years to clean up. TC Energy is currently pretending that it will be a two week cleanup job and everything will be fine,” Kleeb added. “The topsoil that has now been destroyed on the farmer's land is gone forever. If you're in the agricultural industry, you know how valuable topsoil is, and how much farmers and ranchers do to protect that topsoil. It's gone, never to return, the land will never be the same again."

The crude tar sands oil transported by the Keystone pipeline is different from conventional oil. It consists of a heavy oil called bitumen cut with a light gas called diluent for easy transportation through pipelines.

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

Incidents such as the Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon have shown that oil spills can have large-scale long-term effects. "Some wildlife populations may take years to recover from the deaths initially caused by oil spills, but certain components of oil also persist and remain in ecosystems, continuing to be absorbed and causing chronic health effects in wildlife," he said.

However, other major spills, such as the one in Hebei Spirit, have taught lessons. “They have taught us that quickly and extensively cleaning up oil spills can help ecosystems recover from disturbance and limit long-term impacts”, added Dr Orihel.

Some 22 oil spills have occurred in the Keystone pipeline in the last 12 years, with two other major incidents. TC Energy only paid a fine of $300,000 for the previous spill in the Keystone pipeline, even if the spill caused more than $111 million in property damage.

"It's a lemon," said Paul Blackburn, an attorney specializing in pipeline law with the Bold Alliance. "It was leaked many times and although there may be some type of specific cause for each leak, the fact that the leaks are so frequent suggests that there may be some underlying systemic reason for what went wrong."

A 2010 report from the environmental law center identified patterns of substandard steel production and use in new pipelines amid a pipeline construction boom between 2007 and 2009. Manufacturers associated with the Keystone pipeline are included.

Following construction, the Keystone pipeline received numerous warnings from federal regulators about its lack of corrosion protection and deficiencies in corrosion control. The problem took years to fix. A recent US Government Accountability Office (GOA) report noted the Keystone pipeline's safety record had deteriorated and identified “construction issues,” which resulted in major spills at the Keystone pipeline in 2017 and 2019.

Blackburn argues the possible fines imposed on pipeline companies are included in the costs of doing business for these multi-billion dollar companies, which often pass fees on customers if they have not been covered by insurance. He noted regulators could force pipeline companies to conduct more frequent in-line inspections, such as imaging tools that can perform pipeline ultrasounds to identify possible points of failure and repair them before a spill occurs.

"All the pipes are leaking and depending on where the leaks are, it could be catastrophic, and certainly catastrophic for the people living there whose land is impacted," Blackburn added. "There are much better tools to prevent these kinds of leaks and PHMSA should require that they be used more frequently."

TC Energy claims 6,973 barrels of oil had been extracted from the river on 17 December. "The affected segments of the Keystone Pipeline System remain safely isolated as investigation, recovery, repair and remediation continue," 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."

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