Keystone executive gives Kansas legislators vague answers on oil spill cleanup

By: - March 14, 2023 12:56 pm

Gary Salsman, vice president of field operations for TC Energy, testifies to a joint meeting of two Kansas House of Representatives committees about a rupture on the Keystone pipeline that spilled almost 13,000 barrels of oil in northern Kansas. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Owners of the Keystone pipeline still don’t know why it ruptured in northern Kansas, spilling almost 13,000 barrels of oil into Mill Creek and onto surrounding farmland, an executive of the company said Tuesday.

Gary Salsman, vice president of field operations for TC Energy, which owns the Keystone pipeline, testified before a joint meeting of two Kansas House committees in the morning and before the Senate Utilities Committee in the afternoon. He fielded pointed questions from lawmakers about the cause of the spill, cleanup and their concerns about TC Energy’s transparency.

Salsman assured the committee that no spills are acceptable to the company and its response team will remain at the site of the spill, which turned Mill Creek black.

“These response efforts will continue until we have fully remediated the site,” Salsman said.

But on questions of how long cleanup will take, why spills on the Keystone pipeline are becoming more frequent and how much longer a months-long no-fly zone for drones will prevent media and other interested parties in viewing the site, Salsman had little to share.

TC Energy, based in Canada, is still reviewing the root cause of the spill, which involved a welding flaw that burst under stress of bending pipe.

“We understand what happened,” Salsman said. “At this point, we don’t understand why.”

Salsman said TC Energy expects to find out more about that in the next few weeks.

The Keystone pipeline runs 2,687 miles and carries crude oil from Canada to the U.S. It splits just north of the Kansas-Nebraska border with one route cutting across northeast Kansas before running through Missouri and into Illinois. The one that burst runs south through the middle of Kansas and ends in Texas.

The spill was first estimated to be 14,000 barrels, or 588,000 gallons, but the company revised that estimate to 12,937 barrels. It is the largest spill in the decade-plus that the pipeline has been in operation.

Salsman said the company has recovered more than 95% of the oil that was released.

TC Energy has paid just more than $300,000 in fines for more than 20 previous spills. That’s 0.2% of the more than $111 million in property damage resulting from those spills.


During his testimony, Salsman was lauded by some committee members for TC Energy’s transparency following the spill. The company dedicated a webpage to providing updates.

Rep. Sandy Pickert, R-Wichita, thanked Salsman for the frequent updates the company posted in the early days after the spill.

“So the lesson would be that if something like this happens in my area, I can get online and find out,” she said.

But Salsman failed to answer pointed questions from Rep. Lindsay Vaughn, D-Overland Park, and Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita.

Carmichael asked Salsman when he expected the work to be done.

Salsman responded that TC Energy would be on site until the area is fully remediated, which the company expects to cost about $480 million.

“I understand,” Carmichael said. “My question is when do you currently expect to complete this work?”

Salsman said it would take “a few months” to complete major cleanup with “an additional few months of effort” after that.

Carmichael continued to press Salsman, saying “landowners and citizens are concerned about this.”

“When should we expect to be done?” Carmichael asked again.

Salsman replied: “Representative, unfortunately, that’s not entirely within our control.”

Carmichael concluded, “The answer is you don’t know.”

Salsman said the cleanup would be done in accordance with standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

Again, Carmichael said: “The answer is you don’t know.”

Vaughn raised concerns about the rising number and increasing severity of spills along the Keystone pipeline, citing a 2021 Government Accountability Office report. She asked Salsman what the company makes of that trend and what it’s doing to avoid future spills.

Salsman offered again that no spills are acceptable to the company and always goes above and beyond in responding to emergencies.

Vaughn pressed Salsman about why spills are becoming more frequent and worse.

Salsman said again these incidents aren’t acceptable and that safety is the company’s highest priority. But he said the company can always do better.

“I’ve been with this company 25 years,” he said, “and we always do the right thing.”

Following the morning House committee, Salsman and other executives from TC Energy hurried out the door and refused to answer follow-up questions. They evaded journalists down three floors of the Kansas Statehouse.

Reporters were told to direct follow-up questions about air and water quality, access to the site and the timeline for cleanup to a catch-all media email inbox. The company didn’t immediately answer Kansas Reflector’s follow-up questions.

Asked in the afternoon Senate committee hearing how many spills had happened along the Keystone pipeline, Salsman appeared not to know and, instead, said the pipeline had experienced “a number of incidents.”

TC Energy still has a no-fly zone for drones covering the site of the spill. It was first issued in the days following the December spill.

Sen. Marci Francisco, D-Lawrence, raised concerns about media being unable to access the site or use drones to get an aerial view and asked TC Energy could find a time to grant reporters access to the site to increase transparency.

But Salsman said workers on the ground have to have special safety training to access the site.

“I think our ability to manage the access to the site and make sure that those individuals on site could focus on the cleanup has been a key factor in us being able to respond as quickly and get to the point that we’re at today,” he said.

Salsman also said it was important to protect the confidentiality of landowners whose properties TC Energy is occupying during cleanup.

He said “at some point when the the critical phase of the cleanup is over,” TC Energy may grant access to the site. The company’s media relations department said in an email that company officials “continue to evaluate the opportunity to accommodate site visits.”

What caused the spill?

TC Energy announced last month that it had completed a metallurgical analysis showing the pipeline burst was caused by a flaw in welding that, under the strain of bending stress on the pipe, burst.

But it’s still in the midst of an analysis into why those conditions were present.

Salsman said the section of pipe that burst was installed in 2011 and original to the pipeline.

Rep. Laura Williams, R-Lenexa, said TC Energy’s website talks about its investments in pipeline safety, including risk assessments and threat identification and evaluation. She asked whether there were any warning signs that the segment of pipeline that burst posed such a threat.

“To my knowledge, we did not have any indication that issue existed in that particular location,” he said.

Pipelines in the U.S. are limited under federal regulations in terms of the pressure they can exert to move oil through pipelines. That regulation limits pipelines to operate at 72% of the maximum pressure the metal can withstand.

But, under a special permit, Keystone is allowed to operate at 80% of that level, according to the 2021 GAO report.

When the pipeline burst, it was operating at 1,153 pounds per square inch, Salsman said, within its limit of 1,440.

Salsman said the pipeline is currently operating at 923 psi. The company did not answer a question about the maximum level the pipeline has operated at.

TC Energy has been performing round-the-clock air monitoring at the site, Salsman said.

The company declined to make available the full report on the metallurgical analysis summarized in a news release last month, though Salsman told the House committees it had been released. The company also didn’t release the results of air and water quality monitoring at the site.

In his opening remarks, Salsman said TC Energy recognizes that it must operate with responsibility to the environment.

“While we strive for zero safety or operational incidents, our Keystone system did not achieve this goal,” Salsman said.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly characterized the pressure limits in Keystone’s permit and how close the pipeline was to them when it burst.

This article first appeared in the Kansas Reflector, a sister site of the Nebraska Examiner in the States Newsroom Network.

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Allison Kite
Allison Kite

Allison Kite is a data reporter for the Missouri Independent and Kansas Reflector, with a focus on the environment and agriculture. A graduate of the University of Kansas, she’s covered state government in both Topeka and Jefferson City, and most recently was City Hall reporter for the Kansas City Star.