Crews redirect Kansas Creek in a race to clean up a Keystone pipeline spill and prevent further pollution

Canadian company TC Energy temporarily diverted a north-central Kansas creek to isolate a four-mile stretch contaminated by the collapsed Keystone oil pipeline.

Last month’s spill primarily polluted this section of Mill Creek, although benzene and other chemicals are found further downstream in quantities that could eventually harm wildlife, but they remain too low to cause drinking water problems. . (No town or city takes water from the immediate area.)

TC Energy and its contractor are using giant water-filled bubbles to fence off a four-mile stretch from the rest of the creek — both upstream and downstream — and began bypassing the stretch Thursday, pumping clean water upstream from the spill 1.2 a mile-long above-ground hose that flows back into the stream bed downstream.

This could mean carrying over 5,000 gallons of water per minute. (The flow of the river changes with the season and weather, according to TC Energy.)

“We are aiming to divert all stream flow and can add additional pumps and equipment as needed,” the company wrote in an email.

Federal and state regulators overseeing the spill site say diverting the Washington County creek would help.

“This will reduce the chance of chemicals moving downstream and improve oil recovery efforts,” the state health department said in an email. “Furthermore, the reduction in flow will allow teams on site to determine if oil has settled to the bottom of the stream.”

Finding sunken oil is critical to a thorough cleanup because the December 7 Keystone wreck in Washington County was estimated by TC Energy to be nearly 600,000 gallons, the second-largest Dilbit oil spill on US soil.

Dilbit, or diluted bitumen, comes from Canadian tar sands and behaves differently than regular crude oil. Leading scientists have warned almost a decade ago that the federal government should enact special regulations to prepare for the particular challenges of cleaning up drilling fluid spills.

This map shows where TC Energy will deviate Mill Creek to avoid a four-mile stretch requiring intensive cleanup.

When dilbit is poured into a river or stream, it soon begins to sink, confusing traditional cleanup methods that focus on containing and collecting floating oil.

This raised the risk that dilbit could flow through large underwater openings in two emergency dams that were created to stop the huge slick of crude oil at Mill Creek downstream.

A study by the National Academy of Sciences has found few reliable ways to detect dilbit when it begins to move below the surface of the water. The weathering process, which causes the material to sink, can begin within a few days. The spill happened almost a month ago.

TC Energy did not give details on what methods it uses to inspect the sunken drill bit, but the EPA says it has heavy oil experts offering technical advice and that “efforts are underway to identify and contain the sunken oil.” “.

A scientist who worked on the 2016 National Academy study and advised the Environmental Protection Agency on a major drill bit spill in Michigan suggested that crews in Kansas could test a sunken drill bit in Mill Creek by placing small grids over underwater wells. search for things.

“But estimating the amount is much more difficult if and until (a sunken dilbit) settles in some place with weak water and can be measured in sediment cores,” Steve Hamilton, Michigan State University. professor of ecology and biogeochemistry, wrote in an email.

In the end, he says, crews successfully found sunken oil in the Kalamazoo River by pounding the riverbed with special poles to release balls and glitter that floated to the surface.

“(That) turned out to be the most practical indicator,” he said. “But it may take some time before the (sunk) oil acquires a sheen. We don’t understand what makes it more likely to resurface at a later time.”

Hamilton suspects that the sunken dilbit may bind to organic matter, which releases the marbles only after decomposition, but this theory remains untested. If this turned out to be true, he said, it could mean that the dibit, which is now sinking and attaching itself to organic matter in Mill Creek, will not break free and show a sheen until the water in the stream warms up in a few months.

TC Energy and environmental regulators have not publicly estimated how long it will take to clean up Mill Creek or how long they will divert the creek with pumps and a ground hose.

“Once repairs are completed and the area has been tested,” the company said in an email, “the stream and water will return to (their) normal flow path before the incident.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said in an email that the timing of the restoration of normal flow will depend on water and sediment samples, as well as river bank restoration work.

State environmental officials told the Kansas Water Authority in an update a few weeks ago that diverting the creek could help prevent further environmental damage.

“This will really improve the quality of the stream downstream at Mill Creek,” said Erich Glaive, who runs the Bureau of Environmental Field Services at the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. “So we really hope that this whole process will be completed.”

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has confirmed that it is aware of the plan and will assist with permits if needed.

“We are contacting (Kansas Department of Health and Environment) and the EPA about whether regulatory support is needed in the form of any additional approvals,” the email reads.

Approximately 740 workers are working at the facility in Washington County.

Cold weather made cleaning difficult, requiring the crews to provide indirect heating to prevent ice formation.

The EPA says more than 800,000 gallons of fluid, including water and oil, have been recovered from the four-mile stretch of polluted creek to date.

Last week, TC Energy completed a pipeline repair, returning the Keystone system to all delivery points. Keystone transports oil from the Canadian tar sands in Alberta to facilities in the Midwest and Houston, Texas.

The federal order requires the pipeline to now operate at a lower pressure than before the spill.

Learn more about the Kansas Keystone spill:

Celia Llopis-Jepsen is a news reporter for the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @celia_LJ or email her at celia (at) kcur (dot) org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration between KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW, and High Plains Public Radio dedicated to health, social determinants of health, and their relationship to public policy.

Kansas News Service stories and photographs may be published free of charge by the media with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Copyright 2023 SDG 89.3. To learn more, visit KCUR 89.3.

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