Regulators cut pressure on pipeline after Kansas oil spill

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) – U.S. government regulators stopped allowing much of the Keystone pipeline to operate at higher-than-normal pressures following a massive oil spill in northeastern Kansas in December.

This week’s order from the US Department of Transportation’s pipeline safety arm covers 1,220 miles (1,963 kilometers) of the Keystone pipeline in seven US states. Regulators had previously ordered the system operator, Canada-based TC Energy, to relieve pressure on a 155-kilometer segment of the pipeline from southern Nebraska near the Kansas border to central Kansas, where verified the leak.

The action by regulators came ahead of the first hearings in the Kansas Legislature on the spill. A TC Energy official will address questions from lawmakers during a joint meeting of two House committees on Tuesday.

TC Energy said in a statement on Friday that it was already operating within the pressure limits set by this week’s order and would continue to meet them.

“Our commitment to the safe operation of our system is unwavering,” the company said.

But Zack Pistora, a Kansas lobbyist for the Sierra Club, said Friday that perhaps regulators should reconsider operating the Keystone pipeline “in its entirety.” The system has had more than 20 spills since it went online in 2010, and the one in Kansas was the system’s largest and the largest U.S. ground spill in nine years, according to regulators.

“There is no certainty that this pipeline won’t break again in the near future, even with less pressure,” Pistora said.

The latest order from regulators directed TC Energy to lower the maximum pressure by 10% on the pipeline from the North Dakota border with Canada to northern Oklahoma, as well as on the spur system from southern Nebraska through Missouri to Central Illinois. This would bring the maximum pressure in line with what was normally allowed after TC Energy received special permission to exceed it six years ago.

A pipeline rupture on Dec. 7 dumped nearly 13,000 barrels — each with enough crude to fill an ordinary household bathtub — into a creek through rural pastures in Washington County, Kansas, about 150 miles (240 kilometers) north -west of Kansas City.

No one was evacuated following the spill, and officials said it did not affect the two largest rivers and the reservoir downstream of the stricken creek. With permission from regulators, the company reopened the affected segment just over three weeks after the spill.

However, in a separate cleanup order on Jan. 6, the US Environmental Protection Agency said the amount of spilled oil was “a harmful amount” that violated national clean water laws. The Associated Press obtained a copy of the EPA order via a Freedom of Information Act request.

TC Energy must notify the state and the EPA Field Coordinator before shipping any hazardous materials. Additionally, the company will pay US government costs for the cleanup and face a fine of nearly $52,000 a day if it violates the EPA order.

A US Governmental Accountability Office report to Congress in July 2021 found that pipeline regulators had allowed higher-than-normal maximum pressure on the Keystone system as of 2017. Regulators concluded that operating at higher pressures was sure if TC Energy met more than 50 conditions.

TC Energy said last month that a faulty weld caused a crack that grew over time due to stress on a bend in the pipe where the break occurred. The company estimated the cleanup will cost $480 million and has an average of 800 people on site in any given 24-hour period.

“We continue to make progress,” on the cleanup and investigation into the root cause of the pipeline rupture, the company said in its statement.

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

Concerns that the spills could pollute waterways have spurred 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 Dakotas and Nebraska. The cancellation of a permit by President Joe Biden led the company to pull the plug on the project in 2021.

The order from pipeline regulators this week also requires TC Energy to review pipeline pressure and consider potential problems each month on the 291-mile (468-kilometer) Keystone segment from southern Nebraska to northern Oklahoma.

The order stated that failing to relieve pressure on more of the pipeline and requiring other measures would make pipeline operations “dangerous to life, property or the environment.”


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