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Drones temporarily banned from flying over Keystone pipeline oil spill in Kansas

Mill_Creek.original.jpg
Tyler Kersting
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Nebraska Public Media
Keystone Pipeline oil leaks into Mill Creek in Washington County, Kansas

Drone footage immediately following the spill showed the 588,000 gallons of oil turned Mill Creek black. Keystone pipeline owner TC Energy says the fly-zone is necessary for the "safety and security" of cleanup crews.

TC Energy has established a no-fly zone over the Kansas site where its Keystone pipeline spilled 14,000 barrels of oil following drone footage of the disaster.

The Canadian company said in a statement that it did so for safety reasons. But drone footage of the spill — the largest in the pipeline’s history — was among the only means of seeing the damage as the site is closed to press. Even lawmakers were not allowed there for a briefing.

“Clearing the airspace is critical for the safety and security of the pilots conducting ongoing monitoring as well as the working crew on the ground,” TC Energy said in a statement. “Crews are working around the clock on the incident and need to be distraction-free.”

Earlier this month, the Keystone pipeline spilled near Washington, Kansas, just south of the Nebraska border. So far, TC Energy says it has isolated the spill to keep it from flowing downstream and recovered 7,233 barrels of oil — or 13,877 barrels of oil and water. More than 400 personnel have responded to the site.

Drone footage immediately following the spill showed the 14,000 barrels — or 588,000 gallons — of oil turned Mill Creek black. One former Kansas legislator said oil had sprayed around 80 yards onto his field next to the site. The oil that landed on nearby fields looks like a plume of smoke from above.

The no-fly zone was issued Dec. 16 and ends Wednesday evening, according to the Federal Aviation Administration’s website.

The Keystone pipeline splits into two segments in Nebraska, just over the Kansas border. One cuts across northeast Kansas, through Missouri and ends in Illinois. The one that spilled runs through central Kansas and Oklahoma to refineries in Texas.

TC Energy last week announced it had resumed operations on the unaffected pipeline. The other remains shut down under an order from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The spill site near Washington, Kansas, is still inaccessible, but on Monday, lawmakers received a briefing nearby and viewed a drone tour.

Oil covers a swath of Bill Pannbacker’s pasture near Washington, Kansas. Pannbacker estimated oil sprayed 80 yards into his property from the rupture, which occurred just over his property line.
Bill Pannbacker
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Oil covers a swath of Bill Pannbacker’s pasture near Washington, Kansas. Pannbacker estimated oil sprayed 80 yards into his property from the rupture, which occurred just over his property line.

Rep. Lindsay Vaughn, D-Overland Park, said she appreciated that TC Energy had opened a line of communication but that “there are still a lot of unanswered questions.” She said it was difficult to determine the necessity of the drone no-fly zone, and she did have concerns about transparency.

“Third-party drones — if they’re not going to be allowed to monitor the site, then I think there has to be other ways that media or third parties can have greater information or access to what’s going on because that’s one of the best ways to hold all parties accountable for the best outcome possible,” Vaughn said.

Zack Pistora, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club in Kansas, expressed mild disbelief that the company couldn’t allow legislators to see the site.

“I understand that a company doesn’t want to show you the horrible side of the nature of their business,” Pistora said. “…That wouldn’t be something they would like to show government officials that may say, ‘More needs to be done to prevent this spill from happening next time.’”

TC Energy said its “priority is that the investigation, recovery, repair and remediation continue to advance.”

“We appreciate the interest and respect the role journalists play in documenting and reporting to the public,” the company said. “We are committed to being transparent and to providing access to media when it is safe to do so.”

Keystone’s history

This month’s spill is estimated to be larger than all of the Keystone pipeline’s previous spills combined. But the pipeline’s spills have been growing larger in recent years.

In 2020, the Keystone pipeline spilled 442 barrels of oil near a delivery facility in Texas because it failed to control corrosion. At one point, part of the pipeline in Missouri was so corroded that the wall was less than 1/64 of an inch thick.

At the same time, the pipeline company failed to correct deficiencies in its corrosion control for years, including 56 deficiencies along the pipeline from Nebraska to Illinois and six between Nebraska and Oklahoma.

TC Energy has been repeatedly warned about its corrosion control and installation practices, and material defects have caused the bulk of its 20-plus spills.

But despite causing an estimated $111 million in property damage in its history, Keystone has paid fines of just more than $300,000 in the 12 years it has been operating. Another fine tied to the Texas spill is pending. The federal government has proposed one of more than $500,000.

Under a corrective action order from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, TC Energy must investigate the root cause of the spill in northern Kansas and create a plan to resume operations before receiving federal permission to restart the pipeline.

Spill and response

Bill Pannbacker, who previously served in the Kansas House of Representatives, said he was awakened Dec. 8 by a phone call informing him of the spill.

“That got my adrenaline going probably for 10 hours,” Pannbacker said.

Pannbacker estimated the rupture in the pipeline occurred about 15 feet from his property line. Oil saturated the ground for 30 or 40 yards into his field. Droplets landed 80 yards from the fracture.

“The creek is just pretty much black,” he said in the days after the spill.

Fortunately, Pannbacker said, that area of pasture was closed off, so the rupture didn’t affect his cattle. But he said a neighbor had to move cows that had previously been drinking from Mill Creek. He expected cleanup and construction to last at least through the holidays.

According to Kansas Rep. Lisa Moser, 14 landowners are either affected directly by the spill or have response vehicles and personnel on their property. She said in a Facebook update they’re all being paid.

Vaughn said she was impressed by the level of coordination between TC Energy and federal, state and local responders.

One of her primary concerns was that the heavy oil would sink to the bottom of Mill Creek and become far more difficult to clean up. She said TC Energy told the group of lawmakers it had not sunk below the water’s surface yet.

Vaughn said TC Energy gave lawmakers a fact sheet saying its “commitment … is that our response and recovery efforts will continue until we have fully remediated and restored the area.”

“Going forward, I think it’s our responsibility to hold them accountable for that,” she said.

This story was originally published on the Kansas Reflector.

Allison Kite is a data reporter for The Missouri Independent and Kansas Reflector, with a focus on the environment and agriculture.
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