TC Energy response staging area on Dec. 10, 2022, in Washington County, Kansas. (TC Energy Corporation)
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Federal regulators have issued warnings repeatedly over the life of the Keystone pipeline that operators aren’t doing enough to prevent corrosion and don’t follow proper construction procedures.
But despite a history of warnings and large spills, the Keystone pipeline failed again last week, dumping 14,000 barrels — or 588,000 gallons — of oil in northern Kansas. It’s the largest spill since the pipeline began operations about a decade ago.
After more than 20 spills, the crude oil pipeline’s Canadian owner, TC Energy, has paid just over $300,000 fines. That’s 0.2% of the more than $111 million in property damage it has caused. That doesn’t include the damage from its latest spill, which has yet to be totaled.
“This has been a long-standing systemic problem,” Kenneth Clarkson, a spokesman for Pipeline Safety Trust, said in a statement. “The fines are just not meaningful to these extremely profitable operators.”
The Keystone pipeline carries crude oil from Canada to Texas and Illinois with one branch running across northeast Kansas and another south through central Kansas. The system drew controversy for years because of a proposed extension, called the Keystone XL Pipeline, which would have run through Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska before tying into the existing system near the Kansas border.
In its history, the pipeline has spilled more than 26,000 barrels of oil, including last week’s spill, which is larger than all its others combined. It occurred near Washington, Kansas, not far from the Nebraska border. Oil sprayed onto farmland and flowed into Mill Creek, turning the water black.
Following the spill, TC Energy deployed crews to build a dam to prevent the oil from traveling downstream along Mill Creek. They’ve been working to vacuum the oil from the creek.
As of Monday evening, TC Energy said it had removed 2,598 barrels of oil and water from Mill Creek.
“Vacuum trucks and our crews are operating around the clock to drive this effort…oil has not breached the containment area,” TC Energy said in a statement.
TC Energy has been providing periodic updates in news releases since the spill announcing more and more staff have responded to the spill. It increased its crew to more than 250 on Sunday. Now, it says more than 300 personnel are on site, including third-party environmental specialists, who it will not identify.
“We do not have more to share on third-parties at this time,” it said when asked.
State and local emergency management personnel and the Environmental Protection Agency are also overseeing cleanup.
The spill has drawn attention to the pipeline once again and sparked criticism from environmentalists and pipeline safety specialists.
Zack Pistora, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club, said in an email that federal records “clearly (indicate) a problematic history of violations, penalties and corrective actions associated with the Keystone pipeline.”
“The fact that this spill is much greater than all the previous spills combined, that the frequency of large spills is increasing and that the root cause failure has yet to be identified ought to give the company and regulators serious consternation about this pipeline’s future,” Pistora said.
Pistora gave credit to federal regulators for providing oversight to the pipeline.
“But at some point, the prevalence of major spills, required corrective actions and the growing risk of pipeline failure becomes too great to continue putting public safety and the environment in jeopardy,” Pistora said.
When asked about its history and why failures keep occurring, TC Energy said in a statement that it makes “ongoing investments in pipeline monitoring systems, planned maintenance, pipeline integrity management and emergency preparedness.”
“Our focus is the safe operation of our system in an environmentally responsible manner,” the company said. “We take every incident very seriously. No incident is ever acceptable to us.”
A history of failures
The section of the Keystone pipeline running from Steele City, Nebraska, to Patoka, Illinois, began operations in the summer of 2010, but it didn’t install corrosion protection for more than two years, federal documents show.
And what was installed was not properly designed.
In 2012, the pipeline’s operator conducted an inspection and found that four spots along the pipeline had experienced anywhere from 61% to 97% metal loss. One area had a wall thickness of less than 1/64 of an inch.
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.
The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration levied a fine of $135,400.
In warning letters early in the pipeline’s operation, PHMSA said Keystone failed to perform welding appropriately and failed to install the pipeline “in a manner that minimizes the possibility of damage to the pipe.”
In 2016, it failed to coat the pipeline to prevent atmospheric corrosion, which was a violation of its own procedures, federal documents show. Earlier this year, the federal government warned that shutdown devices along the Keystone pipeline aren’t properly labeled and an employee couldn’t identify the device during an inspection.
Some of the federal government’s warnings have later manifested in spills.
Corrosion caused the Keystone pipeline to spill 442 barrels of crude oil at a facility in Beaumont, Texas, in 2020. TC Energy reported to the federal government that it had been focused on mitigating corrosion along the main pipeline, not the delivery facility in Beaumont.
Most of Keystone’s spills have been attributed to mechanical or equipment failures.
A 2019 spill in Niagara, North Dakota, was attributed to a manufacturing problem that eventually led the joint to crack. As a result, 4,500 barrels of oil — close to 200,000 gallons — caused property damage totaling more than $39 million.
Another material failure caused by construction or installation led to a spill of almost 6,600 barrels in South Dakota in 2017, causing $44.8 million in damage.
It’s unclear the total damage caused by Keystone’s spill in Kansas, but farmers have lost pasture temporarily to the oil spill.
Kansas State Rep. Lisa Moser said on Facebook that five landowners were directly affected and nine more have staging areas on their properties. She said all 14 landowners are being paid as they are directly or indirectly being affected by the spill.
TC Energy said in a statement that its efforts at the spill site in Kansas “will continue until we have fully remediated the site.”
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