Lawmakers fear a spill in the Keystone system in southern Kansas

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — State lawmakers on Tuesday raised concerns that southern Kansas is vulnerable to oil spills from the Keystone pipeline system because of an increase in earthquakes there, as they questioned the pipeline operator’s chief about the massive spill in northeast Kansas in December.

Gary Salsman, vice president of field operations for Canada’s TC Energy, briefed three Kansas state legislative committees on the Keystone Pipeline rupture in Washington County, Kansas, about 150 miles (240 kilometers) northwest of Kansas City, which occurred on 7 December. It was the largest spill on U.S. land in nearly nine years, and the company expects to spend $480 million to clean it up, an effort that will last at least through the summer.

Salsman told a joint meeting of the Kansas House Energy Committee and its Water Committee that safety is TC Energy’s top priority and that the company will remain in Washington County until the cleanup is complete. He is also expected to testify before the Senate Public Utilities Committee.

But several lawmakers said they were concerned about the pipeline in the Wichita area, about 160 miles (260 kilometers) south of the spill site in Washington County. The region experienced an increase in earthquakes in 2013 after Keystone opened a segment of its pipeline in Kansas linked to activities related to hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to extract oil and natural gas.

“I’m concerned not so much about this spill, but what’s lurking moving forward, especially as you go down south,” said state Rep. Leo Delperdang, R-Wichita, chairman of the House Energy Committee. “We get earthquakes. What happens to the movement of the earth?’

During a House committee hearing, Rep. Jerry Stogsdill, D-Kansas City, asked Salsman whether the Keystone pipeline needed “exceptional engineering” in southern Kansas.

Salsman acknowledged that he is not an expert on the subject, but added, “When we design a pipeline, we consider all of these factors, and I think that was part of our design criteria.”

TC Energy said last month that a failed weld in a pipeline bend under a Washington County creek caused a crack that grew larger over time due to stress on the bend. The rupture dumped nearly 13,000 barrels of crude oil, each enough to fill a standard domestic bathtub, into the creek and onto surrounding pastures.

Salsman told lawmakers that 95% of crude oil has now been recovered.

“We really contained this site,” he said.

The 2,700-mile (4,345-kilometer) Keystone system carries heavy crude oil extracted from the tar sands of western Canada to the Gulf Coast and central Illinois.

Concerns that spills could contaminate waterways have fueled opposition to TC Energy’s plans to build another crude oil pipeline in the same system, the 1,200-mile (1,900-kilometer) Keystone XL, through Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska. President Joe Biden’s revocation of the permit forced the company to halt the project in 2021.

In Kansas, GOP lawmakers praised TC Energy for acting quickly to contain the spill in Washington County and called the company transparent about its operations. No one was evacuated, and state and U.S. government officials said water from the two rivers downstream was not affected. Salsman said the company has received no complaints from people related to air quality.

Salsman said the company diverted water from the affected creek to avoid the 4.5-mile (7.2-kilometer) stretch so crews could excavate soil contaminated with crude oil. The company estimates there are an average of 800 people on site in any 24-hour period.

“Our focus is — entirely — on the rehabilitation of the site and the safety of those people working on site,” Salsman said.

Democrats were sharper in their questions. Data from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline Safety Unit showed that the spill in Washington County was the largest in the Keystone system since it began operating in 2010, surpassing 22 previous spills combined, according to a July 2021 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office to Congress. .

The report says: “The severity of spills has worsened in recent years.”

Kansas City state Rep. Lindsay Vaughan, the top Democrat on the House Water Resources Committee, asked Salsman why the TC Energy pipeline spill is getting worse. Salsman didn’t answer the question directly, saying the company had conducted a full cleanup and had taken steps to correct all previous incidents.

“We’re going to get to the bottom of it,” he said.

Vaughn later said she wasn’t satisfied with the response, and Zach Pistora, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club in Kansas, said people still don’t have reasonable assurances that another oil spill won’t happen.

“I appreciate the kind words,” he said, “but there are still some difficult questions that have not been answered.”


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