Keystone oil pipeline was pushed to permit limits before spill in Kansas

TOPECA — The Keystone oil pipeline was operating at full capacity when it exploded and spilled nearly 13,000 barrels of oil in northern Kansas, a company executive said Tuesday.

Gary Salsman, vice president of field operations for TC Energy, which owns the Keystone pipeline, testified before a joint meeting of the two Kansas House committees. He answered lawmakers’ burning questions about the cause of the spill, the cleanup and their concerns about TC Energy’s transparency.

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

“These response actions will continue until we fully restore the site,” Salsman said.

But questions about how long cleanup will take, why spills at the Keystone pipeline are becoming more frequent and how long a no-fly zone for several months will prevent the media and others concerned from sharing.

TC Energy, based in Canada, is still investigating the root cause of the spill, which was a weld defect that burst under the stress of a pipe bend.

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

Salsman said TC Energy expects to learn more about this in the next few weeks.

The Keystone pipeline is 2,687 miles long and transports crude oil from Canada to the US. It branches north of the Kansas-Nebraska border, with one route crossing northeast Kansas before passing through Missouri to Illinois. The one that burst goes south through downtown Kansas and ends in Texas.

The spill was originally estimated at 14,000 barrels, or 588,000 gallons, but the company revised that estimate to 12,937 barrels. This is the largest spill in more than a decade of pipeline operation.

Salsman said the company recovered more than 95% of the oil that was thrown out.

TC Energy has paid just over $300,000 in fines for more than 20 previous spills. This is 0.2% of more than $111 million in property damage from these spills.


During their testimony, some committee members praised Salsman for TC Energy’s transparency in the aftermath of the spill. The company has dedicated a web page to the update.

Representative Sandy Pickert, R-Wichita, thanked Salsman for the frequent updates the company posted in the days following the spill.

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

But Sulsman didn’t answer the pointed questions from Rep. Lindsey Vaughn, D-Overland Park, and Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita.

Carmichael asked Sulsman when he expected the work to be completed.

Salsman replied that TC Energy would be on site until the area was fully restored.

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

Salsman said it would take “a few months” to complete a major cleanup, and then several more months of effort.

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

When should we expect completion? Carmichael asked again.

Salsman replied, “Rep, unfortunately, this is not entirely in our power.”

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

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

Again, Carmichael said, “Answer: You don’t know.”

Vaughn expressed concern about the rise in the number and severity of spills along the Keystone pipeline, citing a 2021 Government Accountability Office report. She asked Salsman what the company thinks about this trend and what it is doing to avoid spills in the future.

Salsman again stated that spills are unacceptable for the company and are always doing their best in responding to emergencies.

Vaughn told Salsman why spills are becoming more frequent and more severe.

Salsman again said that these incidents are unacceptable and that safety is the company’s highest priority. But he said the company can always do better.

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

After a morning House committee meeting, Salsman and other TC Energy executives ran out the door and refused to answer further questions. They eluded reporters on three floors of the Kansas Statehouse.

Reporters were encouraged to forward additional questions about air and water quality, access to the site, and cleanup timelines to the all media mailbox. The company did not immediately respond to additional questions from Kansas Reflector.

What caused the spill?

Last month, TC Energy announced the completion of a metallurgical analysis showing that the pipeline rupture was caused by a welding defect that burst under bending stress on the pipe.

But he is still in the process of analyzing why these conditions were present.

Salsman said the burst pipe was laid in 2011 and was part of the pipeline.

Representative Laura Williams, R-Lenexa, said the TC Energy website highlights its investments in pipeline security, including risk assessment, threat identification and assessment. She asked if there were any warning signs that the burst section of the pipeline posed such a threat.

“To my knowledge, we have not had any indication of a problem at this particular location,” he said.

Pipelines in the US are limited by federal regulations in terms of the pressure they can exert to move oil through the pipelines. This rule limits the operation of pipelines at 72% of the maximum pressure that the metal can withstand.

But according to a 2021 GAO report, by special permit, Keystone is allowed to operate at 80% of its maximum pressure.

When the pipe burst, Salsman said, it pushed the limits of that exception, operating at 1,153 psi. This corresponds to 80.07% of the maximum 1440 psi. Salsman did not acknowledge this, but said the pipeline was operating “well below” maximum pressure.

Salsman said the pipeline is currently operating at 923 psi.

According to Salsman, TC Energy monitors the air around the facility around the clock.

In his opening remarks, Salsman said that TC Energy recognizes that it must operate in an environmentally responsible manner.

“While we strive to achieve zero security or operational incidents, our Keystone system has not achieved that goal,” Salsman said.

A Kansas Senate committee was scheduled to hear an update on the spill Tuesday afternoon.

This article first appeared on Kansas Reflector, a sister site of the Nebraska Examiner on the State News Network.

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