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Ice, Manure and a $480 Million Price Tag: Keystone Oil Spill Cleanup Continues in Kansas | CUR 89.3

In the two months since the Keystone Pipeline blast in Washington County, Mill Creek went from being covered in floating oil nearly a foot deep, to less than an inch thick.

About four miles of the creek remains closed from normal water flow as part of the ongoing, around-the-clock cleanup.

Workers extracted nearly 2 million gallons of oily water from Mill Creek, continuing in freezing temperatures by breaking up and melting the ice.

In mid-December, the Environmental Protection Agency says, about 1.5 miles of the creek was coated bank to bank in floating oil that accumulated more than 10 inches deep in some places.

By January 25, less than a tenth of a mile remained covered shore to shore with floating oil that had gone down to less than an inch deep.

Now, no areas of the creek remain covered bank to bank, the federal agency says, although workers are still recovering oil.

Since workers have bypassed about four miles of Mill Creek to help with cleanup and stop chemicals and bitumen being washed downstream, part of the isolated creek now has little water left and workers are pulling ice and sediment out of the creek bed and from the banks, says the EPA.

The agency says oil company TC Energy and state environmental officials took samples from drinking water wells near the spill site, but tests found no chemicals from the spill.

Spring brings heavier rains to the area, and landowners fear the risk that heavy rains could cause the creek to overflow its banks.

The EPA says the workers built a spillway in case of flooding. The National Weather Service provides daily inputs. And two weeks ago, TC Energy began work on increasing pumping capacity to divert water.

Contaminated water

The nearly 2 million gallons of fluid extracted from Mill Creek so far go into huge treatment tanks or ponds to separate the water and oil before transporting the oil to a refinery.

Workers inject air into the contaminated water to help vaporize some of the remaining chemicals. They also treat the water with granular activated carbon, says the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

Next, samples of the treated water will go to a lab for analysis to determine if workers can pour the water into the stream downstream of the cleanup site.

“If not, the water will be treated again until all contaminants are removed,” said KDHE, which oversees water treatment and discharge.

The EPA says a large water treatment system is under construction, including 5 acres of pond or ponds for contaminated surface water. He says ponds will be more efficient than reservoirs now that most of the oil has been extracted from Mill Creek.

TC Energy says crews recovered about 90% of the spilled oil. He deleted a counter from his website that showed updates on how many barrels had been recovered.

From the ground to Nebraska

A Nebraska landfill has agreed to take soil contaminated by the Keystone oil spill.

Trucks began hauling topsoil Jan. 17 from the site in Washington County where the Keystone broke out Dec. 7 and sprayed extra-sticky tar sands oil called dilute bitumen, or dilbit, over several acres of prairie, farmland and Mill Creek.

“Laboratory analysis of the oil and waste found it non-hazardous,” KDHE said in an email.

A Shawnee County landfill north of Topeka’s Rolling Meadows was previously listed as a potential destination for waste from the oil spill.

“Dumps have discretion whether or not they want to receive waste,” KDHE said. “Pheasant Point Landfill (near Omaha) accepted waste.”

In addition to the contaminated soil, Pheasant Point will take other wastes from the site, such as oily and absorbent protective clothing, and floating barriers used to block the oil spill on the surface of Mill Creek.

Cleaning fees and corporate donations

Separately, the Canadian company responsible for the oil spill will donate $60,000 to Washington County Hospital as part of a campaign launched after the spill to match donations from the public.

TC Energy also said it would donate $7,500 to equip local responders with better mobile and radio equipment.

TC Energy reported annual revenue of nearly $10 billion and net income of more than $1.5 billion in its most recent annual report.

The company last week estimated that it will cost $480 million to clean up and investigate the Keystone spill and said it had “adequate insurance coverage.”

The company is still investigating why the pipeline blew, but has so far said that “bending stress on the pipe and a weld flaw” played a role.

Read more about the Keystone spill in Kansas:

Celia Llopis-Jepsen covers the environment 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 of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, 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 free of charge by the news media with proper attribution and a link to the Kansas News Service.

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