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Keystone Pipeline Spills in Kansas, Dirtying Creek and Causing Oil Prices to Spike

(Photo by Celia Llopis-Jepsen, Kansas News Service)
(Photo by Celia Llopis-Jepsen, Kansas News Service)


WASHINGTON COUNTY, Kan. (KNS) –  An oil spill in north-central Kansas fouled a creek Wednesday night and prompted the emergency shutdown of a major international pipeline.

People in Washington County, just south of the Nebraska border, woke Thursday morning to the smell of gas, the county’s emergency management agency wrote on social media.

Canadian company TC Energy didn’t answer questions Thursday morning about the Keystone pipeline leak, how much crude oil spilled into Mill Creek and how far the oil traveled downstream.

It pointed to a press release instead.

“We have shut down the Keystone Pipeline System and mobilized people and equipment,” the statement said. “The affected segment has been isolated, and booms deployed to control downstream migration.”

Late Thursday afternoon the company issued a second statement estimating the spilled volume at about 14,000 barrels, and saying the company has blocked downstream movement of the crude oil.

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

The type of oil in the Keystone pipeline is sludgy and often sinks to the bottom of waterways – making it more difficult to clean than conventional crude oil.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration — part of the U.S. Department of Transportation — says it has deployed workers to the site to investigate how the spill happened.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also sent workers. The agency will oversee TC Energy’s response, “ensure proper cleanup” and assess what happened. It says it will work with TC Energy to determine how much oil spilled.

TC Energy says it began shutdown procedures at about 8 p.m. Wednesday when pressure dropped in the system and alarms sounded. It says it is working on cleaning up the spill.

The Keystone carries oil from Canada to American refineries. It has previously leaked in South Dakota and North Dakota, CNN reported.
CNN also reported that oil prices spiked 5% Thursday morning because of the pipeline’s shutdown after the leak was discovered in Kansas about 20 miles south of the Nebraska town of Steele City.

CNN says oil prices hit $75.44 a barrel immediately after the news broke that the pipeline, which transports hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil daily, had temporarily ceased flowing.

Mill Creek flows into the Little Blue River, which flows into the Big Blue River. That, in turn, feeds Tuttle Creek Reservoir near Manhattan and ultimately, the Kansas River.

City officials in the town of Washington, the county seat, wrote on Facebook that they are aware of the spill to the northeast of town and that “there is no threat or imminent danger to city utilities, and the City water supply remains safe and not in jeopardy.”

The EPA agrees the spill doesn’t currently pose any known risks to drinking water.

The agency says it’s collaborating with the Kansas Department of Health and Environment and Washington County emergency management.

County emergency officials didn’t immediately respond to media inquiries, but wrote on Facebook: “Many residents in and around Washington have reported waking to what smells like gas. We are aware of the situation. Residents are not in danger and the situation is being monitored.”

Residents compared notes on the agency’s Facebook page.

“The smell of gas is really bad next door to me. On East 4th,” one wrote.

“The same smell is 12 miles southwest of Washington,” another commenter said.

Amy Burgin, a river ecosystem expert, said the public will need more specifics to understand the potential ramifications of the spill.

That includes details about whether the creek was dry or flowing with water at the site of the spill, whether the spill occurred under or above ground and how much oil leaked.

“Rivers are not meant to stay put — they move and they move whatever gets into them,” she said. “So oil is something that becomes very difficult to clean up from an aquatic system.”

Burgin is a scientist at the Kansas Biological Survey and Center for Ecological Research and a professor at the University of Kansas Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

One of the last significant Keystone spills occurred in 2017, when a leak in Marshall County, South Dakota spilled 210,000 gallons of oil.

TC Energy had planned to build an additional pipeline called the Keystone XL, which sparked years of political debate, legal wrestling and protests. President Joe Biden  blocked the XL pipeline immediately upon taking office.


Celia Llopis-Jepsen is the environment reporter for the Kansas News Service. Follow her on Twitter @celia_LJ. Jackie Ourada of Nebraska Public Media contributed to this report. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of Kansas Public Radio, KCUR, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to the Kansas News Service.

The Kansas News Service produces essential enterprise reporting, diving deep and connecting the dots in tracking the policies, issues and and events that affect the health of Kansans and their communities. The team is based at KCUR and collaborates with public media stations and other news outlets across Kansas. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to kcur.org. The Kansas News Service is made possible by a group of funding organizations, led by the Kansas Health Foundation. Other founders include United Methodist Health Ministry Fund, Sunflower Foundation, REACH Healthcare Foundation and the Health Care Foundation of Greater Kansas City.