Kansas faith leaders, environmentalists call for transparency around Keystone pipeline spill

By: - February 7, 2023 11:47 am
Loren Drummond, reverend at Lyndon United Methodist Church, holds a sign reading “Water is life” during a vigil Feb. 6, 2023, at the Statehouse in Topeka

Loren Drummond, reverend at Lyndon United Methodist Church, holds a sign reading “Water is life” during a vigil Feb. 6, 2023, at the Statehouse in Topeka for the Keystone pipeline spill. (Chloe Anderson for Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Faith leaders joined environmental advocates and Kansas legislators for a vigil Monday at the Statehouse to call attention to TC Energy’s lack of transparency regarding December’s Keystone pipeline spill, which dumped 588,000 gallons of crude oil in northern Kansas.

TC Energy — the Canadian natural gas company that owns the Keystone pipeline — has forbidden news media and elected officials from viewing the area where the spill occurred. The company says the majority of the damage has been cleaned up.

“Not too many people know that this is the 23rd spill for the Keystone pipeline,” said Zack Pistora, state lobbyist for the Sierra Club in Kansas. “And it was actually bigger than all the other previous spills combined.”

The Keystone pipeline carries oil to Illinois and Texas from Canada. The segment of pipe that burst Dec. 8 in Washington, Kansas, runs from Steele City, Nebraska, to Patoka, Illinois. Although it began operating in 2010, corrosion protection wasn’t installed until more than two years later, leading to significant metal loss and wall thickness as low as 1/64 of an inch.

Since it began operating in 2010, the 2,687-mile-long pipeline has spilled 23 times, dumping more than 26,000 barrels of oil. Rabbi Moti Rieber, executive director of Kansas Interfaith Action, said the organization has been vocalizing concerns regarding the pipeline for more than a decade.

Rabbi Moti Rieber
Rabbi Moti Rieber opens the Feb. 6, 2023, vigil by noting that one of the first things he did after being hired as executive director for Kansas Interfaith Action was to lobby against the Keystone pipeline. (Chloe Anderson for Kansas Reflector)

“Now that our minds are one, can we agree that humans and creatures matter — no matter where they live, or how much income they produce?” said the Rev. Rachael Pryor, of Lindsborg, in an opening prayer. “Can we agree that the poorest places and the most marginalized communities are bearing the heaviest weight of this environmental harm?”

TC Energy has paid more than $300,000 in fines — about 0.2% of the $111 million the previous Keystone pipeline spills have caused in property damage. The damage from December’s spill has yet to be totaled.

In early January, TC Energy reported removing nearly 12,000 barrels from Mill Creek and surrounding areas, but many feel frustrated by the company’s lack of transparency, pointing to the implementation of a no-fly zone after drone footage showed the spill’s effects. Rep. Lindsay Vaughn, an Overland Park Democrat who serves on the House Water Committee, also criticized TC Energy for preventing media access.

“We still don’t know the answers to so many questions,” Vaughn said. “… There’s an overwhelming feeling that the story we’re getting is filtered, that TC Energy is telling us what they want us to know.”

The drone footage showed farmland and creek water dyed black. NPR reported the amount of oil that escaped was enough to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

Rep. Lindsay Vaughn
Rep. Lindsay Vaughn, D-Overland Park, who serves as the ranking Democrat on the House Water Committee, criticizes TC Energy’s lack of transparency during a vigil Feb. 6, 2023, at the Statehouse in Topeka. (Chloe Anderson for Kansas Reflector)

Although state representatives weren’t allowed on the site for “safety concerns,” Vaughn was near the area. She said that even from where she was, the smell of oil gave her a headache and she saw countless dead fish.

“We’ve heard reports from people who have been on site that the spilled oil has the consistency of wet asphalt, and there’s no way to clean that up. It can only be taken from the site,” Vaughn said.

Vaughn called for TC Energy to “have a hearing in the state Legislature,” giving the company 90 days to report the initial cause and present a plan of action to prevent any more oil spills.

Despite any solutions TC Energy may present, Wichita residents Kent Rowe and Jennifer Connelly believe finding an alternative to fossil fuels and investing in clean energy is imperative. Rowe, a member of the Chickasaw Nation, says solving the issue of oil spills is simple. 

“Leave the oil in the ground,” said Rowe. “Stop using oil. Stop using petroleum.”

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Chloe Anderson
Chloe Anderson

Chloe Anderson is a freelance photojournalist with work published in Climbing magazine, the Lawrence Times, Kansas Reflector and Sharp End Publishing. As a recent graduate of the University of Kansas, Chloe hopes to continue her career in photography, rock climbing and writing somewhere out West.