Massive Oil Spill in Kansas


Crude oil poured into Mill Creek, a natural waterway, just three miles east of Washington, Kansas. | Image by REUTERS

One of the worst breaches of crude oil seen in the United States in a decade has the residents of Washington, Kansas, plugging their noses as cleanup efforts and an investigation begin.

“We could smell it first thing in the morning; it was bad,” Dana Cecrle, a 56-year-old local resident, told Reuters.

The leak that spewed approximately 14,000 barrels of oil from the Keystone Pipeline was discovered on December 7 and has since been contained.

According to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration of the U.S. Transportation Department, crude oil poured into Mill Creek, a natural waterway, just three miles east of Washington, Kansas — the seat of a rural county home to about 5,500 people.

The Keystone Pipeline is operated by Texas-based TC Oil, a subsidiary of the Canadian company TC Energy. Each day, it carries 622,000 barrels of Canadian oil to U.S. refineries and export hubs on the Texas Gulf Coast.

The day after the breach and shutdown of the affected segment, there was a brief price surge in crude oil. Any further impact from the incident on prices depends largely on when the regular pipeline operations will resume.

While a previous Keystone spill had caused the pipeline to remain shut for about two weeks, there are unconfirmed reports that TC Energy is aiming to mitigate the damage by opening segments of the pipeline elsewhere. The company has not yet announced a timeline for reopening.

The cause of the recent spill is still unknown. It has nonetheless brought the Keystone Pipeline under renewed scrutiny, especially from regulators, safety advocates, and environmentalists, who point to other accidents and breaches occurring in 2011, 2016, and 2020.

It is also notable that TC Energy holds a federal permit allowing it to exceed the usual maximum levels of pressure permitted in parts of the Keystone system, including where the leak occurred.

While drone footage of the breach shows a large blackened slick stretching across rural lands, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, “the discharge has been contained, and no drinking water has been impacted.”

TC Energy has deployed a team of 250 crewmembers to handle cleanup with “multiple vacuum trucks, booms, and additional resources,” according to a statement released by the company on Sunday. Third-party environmental specialists have also been mobilized to monitor and assess the impact on air quality, water quality, and wildlife, with no negative effects — apart from the stench — reported as of yet.

While the cleanup is estimated to take one week, others are less optimistic.

Zack Pistora of the Sierra Club said, “This is going to be months, maybe even years before we get the full handle on this disaster and know the extent of the damage and get it all cleaned up.”

Likewise, Catherine Collentine, associate director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Dirty Fuels campaign, said in a statement, “There is no such thing as a safe tar sands pipeline, and this is another disaster that continues to prove we must put our climate and our communities first.”

These comments join the chorus of environmentalists arguing that the damage caused by incidents such as this recent leak make pipelines not worth the convenience of more directly transporting fossil fuel.

On the other hand, despite the stench and disruption, Washington resident Cecrle shrugged the whole incident off: “Stuff breaks. Pipelines break, oil trains derail.”

Similarly taking it in stride was 70-year-old resident Carol Hollingsworth. “Hell, that’s life,” she said. “We got to have the oil.”

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