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Feds slap restrictions on more than 1,000 miles of Keystone pipeline after Kansas oil spill

A photos shows crews cleaning oil that spewed out of the Keystone pipeline in Washington County, Kansas.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Crews clean oil that spewed out of the Keystone pipeline in Washington County. The EPA expects the cleanup to continue for months.

Regulators want to know the risks that flawed welding or shifting ground could pose for more breaks on the Keystone, which has spilled repeatedly since 2011.

Oil spills on the Keystone pipeline that runs from Canada to Texas are becoming more frequent and serious, federal regulators said Tuesday.

So the U.S. Department of Transportation ordered Canadian company TC Energy to lower the pressure for crude oil along another 1,200 miles of its pipeline.

Federal officials also ordered a review of how the company handles geologic hazards such as unstable soil and said more spills and “serious harm” are likely if the pipeline operation doesn’t improve.

“Continued operation (without change) is or would be hazardous to life, property or the environment,” the order said.

The order comes during an ongoing investigation into the country’s second-biggest inland spill of a Canadian tar sands product, called dilbit, in north-central Kansas in December.

TC Energy says bad welding played a role in what the company has described as an “instantaneous rupture.” More than 500,000 gallons of crude oil gushed out on the night of Dec. 7, raining down on native prairie and cropland and pouring into a tributary of the Little Blue River.

Bad welding caused other Keystone spills in the past, too — a fact cited by federal regulators in their decision on Tuesday. The one in Kansas was the pipeline’s worst spill yet.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration — part of the US Department of Transportation — also said that TC Energy had been monitoring the area for shifting ground before the 3-foot-wide pipe burst.

Unstable soil and ground movement are dangerous for pipelines. The agency says TC Energy was required to mitigate any such problems under its federal permit for the pipeline.

Workers responding to the spill witnessed that the pipeline was under improper stress, the agency said.

“It is not clear whether the pipe segment has been under stress since construction (in 2011) or if land movement in the area may have more recently induced or increased stress,” the agency said.

The Keystone burst at the base of a ridge in Washington County. Landowners say they worried from the start about the company running pipe up the ridge’s slopes and they want to know if the hill played a role in the rupture.

But federal regulators have not said whether that specific aspect of the topography played a role in the improper stress.

They do, however, point out that the Keystone crosses drinking water sources, populated areas and sensitive ecological regions in more than half a dozen states.

In Kansas, the oil poured into Mill Creek, a winding stream that was moving slowly during a particularly dry year. It did not affect drinking water for humans, though landowners had to move livestock away from the newly toxic creek.

But the pipeline also crosses big waterways in Kansas, such as the Kansas River that provides drinking water to about 800,000 people in northeastern Kansas.

After the December spill, regulators immediately slapped a lower pressure rule on nearly 100 miles of the Keystone in Kansas and Nebraska.

Tuesday’s order lowers the pressure limit for another 1,200 miles of pipe, southward to Oklahoma, eastward to Illinois and northward to the Canadian border.

The order cites “indications that TC Oil’s operating, maintenance, and/or integrity management programs may be inadequate to address the repetitious pattern of failures” on the Keystone since 2011, including flawed welding and the risks posed by shifting soil.

It gives the company two months to review how it handles geologic hazards and whether shifting earth factored into the Dec. 7 spill. The company must hire an independent contractor for the review, which also has to investigate whether land movement could be stressing other points of the Keystone system.

In an email, TC Energy said Wednesday that it is reviewing the federal order and that it will comply.

“Our commitment to the safe operations of our system is unwavering,” the email said.

The new order also requires TC Energy to file reports on welding quality along most of the rest of its pipeline system within the U.S.

The Keystone pipeline system carries tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada, to U.S. facilities. It runs through North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska, then forks as shown on this map. One leg runs southward through Kansas to Oklahoma and Texas and another cuts eastward through Kansas to Missouri and Illinois.

TC Energy initially estimated that 588,000 gallons of crude oil spilled in Kansas. It later lowered the estimate to 543,000 gallons. However, the EPA is sticking to the original figure, which it says matches the agency’s independent calculations.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency expects the cleanup will continue for months to come.

TC Energy estimates that the cleanup and related work will cost $480 million. It’s unclear whether that figure includes the taxpayer money spent by state and federal agencies that responded to the oil spill — part of which the company will be forced to repay.

Celia Llopis-Jepsen covers the environment for the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @celia_LJ or email her at celia (at) kcur (dot) org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to the Kansas News Service. Tags Kansas News Service.

I'm the creator of the environmental podcast Up From Dust. I write about how the world is transforming around us, from topsoil loss and invasive species to climate change. My goal is to explain why these stories matter to Kansas, and to report on the farmers, ranchers, scientists and other engaged people working to make Kansas more resilient. Email me at celia@kcur.org.
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