Massive oil spill distorts Kansas couple’s confidence in the integrity of Keystone pipeline

By: - June 14, 2023 10:37 am

Chris and Bill Pannbacker of Washington County in north-central Kansas stand at the crest of a steep hill on the family farm, looking north to the creek and grazing land sprayed with 13,000 barrels of crude oil after the Keystone pipeline ruptured Dec. 7. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

WASHINGTON, Kan. — Chris and Bill Pannbacker stood atop a steep sandstone hill adjacent to the spot on the family farm where a major break in TC Energy’s Keystone pipeline showered thousands of barrels of black-as-night crude on livestock grazing land and into nearby Mill Creek.

They were involuntarily drawn into the environmental nightmare Dec. 7, more than six months ago, and still feel the gut-punch of a tragedy that was far from remedied by the relatively quick repair of the 36-inch oil pipe buried underground. The Pannbackers have had an unobstructed view of work by hundreds of people brought in to operate a fleet of heavy equipment — excavators, bulldozers, trucks — to remove oil-saturated soil for disposal in a Nebraska landfill.

Machinery was used to install a temporary system of pipes to divert the creek flow to treatment ponds for extraction of potentially harmful chemicals used to shove tacky Canadian tar sand oil through steel pipe to refineries.

Initiation of the restoration phase of the estimated $480 million operation marked a downsizing of the onsite workforce and greater reliance on a menagerie of equipment necessary to bring the impact zone back to life. Emmons City, the informal name of the site appropriated from the defunct community of Emmons, which was wiped out by a tornado in the 1940s, no longer fills the sky with more artificial light than produced by the city of Washington.

“I am impressed with the cleanup effort and the intensity of the cleanup effort,” said Bill Pannbacker, a beef and crop producer who grew up in a farmhouse less than a mile from the pipeline break. “In the defense of TC, they put the effort in.”

Appreciation for the emergency response, however, hasn’t quelled the Pannbackers’ apprehension the clock is ticking toward a repeat of the pipeline catastrophe.

Fracture of a weld in the Keystone pipeline operated by Canadian-based TC Energy spilled 500,000 gallons of crude in Washington County in December 2022. The $480 million project continues to remove oil and chemical pollution and to remediate the area. (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

Anatomy of the fracture

There was an alarming pressure drop in Keystone’s pipeline at 9:30 p.m. Dec. 7, and equipment showed the rupture was at a joint immediately south of Mill Creek. TC Energy relies on the pipe system to move crude from Alberta to Manitoba, then through North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska before diverting a portion east through Missouri to Illinois and south through Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas to Gulf Coast refineries or export tankers.

Before the Keystone pipeline could be shut down, as much as 500,000 gallons of crude splattered vegetation and infected the modest creek. It created a hillside stain the size of a football field and left a coat of oil on the water surface. Containment booms and vacuum trucks were deployed. A dam was positioned at a low-water road crossing four miles downstream to better contain the heavy crude. Water flow eventually was diverted to treatment ponds to allow bank-to-bank extraction of sediment, debris and plants.

Under oversight of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, TC Energy reopened the pipeline three weeks after the accident. Work to remove oil from within Mill Creek was concluded in May, allowing restoration plans to proceed.

“Starting restoration work in Mill Creek is a tremendous milestone and to meet that in five months highlights the commitment and dedication of response personnel,” said Meg McCollister, administrator for the EPA’s Region 7.

Large trucks have been hauling away polluted soil, while fresh topsoil has been transferred to the site. An attempt to reseed a portion of the slope sprayed with oil has been made. Areas close to the actual break last week still resembled a dirt-covered construction site.

In February, Calgary-based TC Energy attributed the failure to a faulty weld at a bend in the pipe. The weld was performed at a manufacturing plant to link two sections of pipe. TC Energy, which is responsible for inspections of the pipeline, said a progressive fatigue crack led to the largest onshore U.S. crude oil spill in nearly a decade.

Richard Prior, president of TC Energy’s Liquids Pipeline operations, said the company was confident in reliability of the 2,700-mile pipeline and “unwavering in our commitment” to repair the damage in Kansas.

An analysis of the pipe failure by RSI Pipeline Solutions of Columbus, Ohio, for the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration indicated the break resulted from pipeline design issues, problems during pipeline construction and lapses by pipeline operators. That partially redacted report asserted TC Energy underestimated risk associated with deformed pipe. TC Energy excavated portions of the Keystone line in 2013 but didn’t replace all the disfigured pipe.

TC Energy, operator of the Keystone oil pipeline running through Kansas, quickly repaired the December 2022 break in the pipe but continued to grapple with environmental challenges from spilling thousands of barrels of crude in Washington County, Kansas. (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

A murky future

The Pannbackers, who plan eventually to move back to the farmstead from a home in the city of Washington, said the Keystone pipeline was located amid steep hills and ravines common to Washington County. The oil damaged the north side of a hill offering a 360-degree view of surrounding countryside. Once over that ridge, the pipeline descended aggressively into a valley of cropland on the Pannbackers’ farm.

Chris and Bill Pannbacker said they shared unease about the potential for another break in the pipeline completed a dozen years ago.

“You’re damn right,” Bill Pannbacker said. “If that line blows on top of that hill, it’s going to shoot oil all over. It’s going to cover that valley. I don’t have the confidence in the line that I did before, I guess.”

When the pipeline project was proposed, Bill Pannbacker said he recommended the company bore a tunnel through the Dakota sandstone hill rather than deal with such an acute incline. He wasn’t aware at that time the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration — the agency that released the report in May on the Kansas oil — issued an advisory bulletin in 2010 notifying owners and operators of recently constructed large diameter pipelines for natural gas and hazardous liquids of potential problems with weld failures.

That warning said: “Misalignment during welding of large diameter line pipe may cause in-service leaks and ruptures at pressures well below 72% specified minimum yield strength (of flow).”

Chris Pannbacker, who works as a reporter for The Advocate newspaper in Marysville, said she was disappointed government and company representatives had been unwilling to share weekly updates with her on activity at the site of the spill.

“I had a reporter friend tell me one time that she tells corporate types that you’re going to get yelled at a lot more for what you don’t say than what you need to say. There’s some truth in that,” she said.

She said remediation efforts would eventually restore the prairie grass so the scarred hillside looked healthy to a casual observer.

“Well, I think it’s one thing to move on and grow grass and heal the pasture. It’s another thing to know, is it fixed? Is it done?”

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

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International. He has been recognized for investigative reporting on Kansas government and politics. He won the Kansas Press Association's Victor Murdock Award six times. The William Allen White Foundation honored him four times with its Burton Marvin News Enterprise Award. The Kansas City Press Club twice presented him its Journalist of the Year Award and more recently its Lifetime Achievement Award. He earned an agriculture degree at Kansas State University and grew up on a small dairy and beef cattle farm in Missouri. He is an amateur woodworker and drives Studebaker cars.