WASHINGTON COUNTY, Kansas — It’s been nearly two months since the Keystone Pipeline blew up on a December night and crude oil rained down on several acres of native prairie and farmland, coating more than three miles of Mill Creek in a toxic sheen.
Canadian company TC Energy says it has cleaned up nearly 90% of the oil spill here, near the Nebraska border.
Today, residents’ feelings about the company vary.
Some see the capstone as an economic lifeline for a rural county with a limited tax base. Some are hopeful that TC Energy will do good for the county and its landowners.
Much of the oil landed on the Pannbacker farm.
“I don’t think any of us were prepared for the emotion of that,” said Chris Pannbacker. “Some days we’re good and some days, we’re just a little crazy. It’s hard to explain, because some people say ‘It’s just grass’ or ‘It’s just a pasture’ or ‘It’s just a stream.’”
She and her husband, Bill, take a four-wheel drive pickup to the top of a ridge on their farm to view the vast cleanup site on the hillside and valley below.
At night, the scene gives off a glow visible for miles away, as workers work around the clock.
What was Farmland belonging to their neighbor now looks like huge parking lots where trucks, bulldozers and backhoe loaders maneuver.
The trees, cut down by the cleanup crews, lay in huge piles. The blue loam and stem grasses have been plucked from a part of the ridge that the Pannbackers love so much: a place for soulful family moments, picnics and class reunions that go back decades.
“It has great significance from a family perspective,” said Bill Pannbacker, “because it’s such a beautiful scene. I mean, you can see 15 miles in almost any direction.
Bill doubts his family will be herding cattle here for three or five years.
Worst Keystone spill yet
When TC Energy became aware that the Keystone, its largest single pipeline, had burst, Randy Hubbard may have been the first Washington County resident to find out.
“My cell phone rang around 1:30 in the morning,” said Hubbard, the county’s emergency preparedness coordinator. “He was a gentleman from Texas… with TC Energy. And he said, ‘Sorry to wake you up so early, but I think we have a significant oil release in your county.’”
Though he didn’t know it yet, this was Keystone’s biggest spill up to that point. An estimated 588,000 gallons of crude oil of diluted bitumen were leaked.
Hubbard rushed to the site, where a huge slick of oil slid downstream along Mill Creek. The county’s small public works crew helped TC Energy workers build a dam.
The job was so urgent that they started it in the dark.
By morning, the federal and state regulators had arrived. Cleanup crews poured in. The smell of oil filled the air in the county seat (also called Washington) and miles away, making people’s eyes water.
“Traffic was absolutely nonstop,” said Dan Thalmann, editor of The Washington County News. “I’ve never seen anything like it – just truck after truck after truck carrying all kinds of equipment of all kinds.”
The sheriff’s office received a flurry of calls from residents who were alarmed and unsure of what had happened. Hubbard posted a public notice on Facebook to assure people they were safe.
It could have been worse
If TC Energy and the county crews had lingered, the oil would have traveled farther downstream. So Hubbard feels some relief that the situation wasn’t worse.
The company’s response and army of contractors impress him.
“I couldn’t be happier with how things are going,” he said. “Obviously, it’s a shame that happened.”
Had the spill occurred during a wetter season, the oil would have moved faster.
“We’re going to have a decent downpour in April and Mill Creek could rise five feet in a matter of hours,” Thalmann said.
In 2010, the larger Kalamazoo River in Michigan, swollen by heavy rains, carried spilled crude oil more than 30 miles downstream and into adjacent wetlands.
Nearly two months after the Kansas spill, the remediation site remains a busy place, at times with more than 800 workers a day.
It’s not much smaller than the nearby county seat itself — population 1,200 — making it, as some locals have noted, temporarily the second-largest city in the county.
Motels in the surrounding counties have been full for weeks. A Texas catering company feeds workers.
Local gas stations serve a constant stream of vehicles.
The influx of workers to fix the ruptured pipeline and clean up the spill came as motels and other businesses in Washington and neighboring counties were already busy welcoming those arriving to repair Highway 36 and build a large wind farm.
Rural tax base
The Washington County News reported last month that Keystone is this county’s largest local taxpayer, by leaps and bounds.
For retired nurse Deloris Syring, this brought home the value of the metre-wide underground pipeline.
“We think that’s a good thing,” he said. “We need it because we’re rural and we’re kind of a poor community.”
Washington County was home to approximately 5,500 people in 2020. Like many counties along the Nebraska border, dramatic changes in U.S. agriculture and economy have cost Washington thousands of residents over the past century.
Keystone was on a 10-year tax holiday that recently expired. This year, the county government, school districts and other local governments will raise nearly $2 million from the pipeline.
By Christmas, when temperatures dipped well below freezing and cleanup crews moved forward to the creek, Syring and others began baking.
They wanted to donate one cookie for each of the hundreds of workers, then quickly exceeded that goal. Enthusiastic families have been bursting their sugar and flour cans not only in Washington, but in other nearby cities as well. They made fudge, brownies and sugar cookies. They drew snowflakes and Christmas trees and gingerbread men in brightly colored icing.
For Syring, this showed appreciation for a community that takes a pragmatic approach to bad news.
“We’re used to things breaking,” she said. “Farmers’ tractors break down all the time. Or their combines… And I think people just saw it as something like that.
The cleaners came from all over the continent and holidayed away from home, cleaning Mill Creek and occasionally seeking relief from the brutal temperatures in the site’s heated huts.
That vision of the spill resonates with Chuck and Teresa Penning, owners of the Sale Barn Cafe.
They serve ingredients from their own farm, where they take a conservation-minded approach to farming, such as avoiding chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
“It’s something that happened, it’s being taken care of, we’re all going to go through it,” Chuck said of the Keystone spill, as he cooked breakfast for customers on hotplates outdoors in the 20-degree heat.
Louis Carter, a farmer who stopped by the cafe to eat, said he trusted the US Environmental Protection Agency to get TC Energy to clean up his mess.
“They are independent,” he said. “Almost know, this Canadian company is also doing its job. But there is someone looking over his shoulder at the same time.
Jeff Pritchard, an on-site coordinator for the EPA, said crews have begun hauling the contaminated soil away from the site.
And he described the cleanup as still in “Phase 1.”
“I’d say you’re still looking at months” of cleanup, she said. “Once all the bulk oil comes out of the surface (of Mill Creek), you start looking at the impacted creek bank and other debris in there.”
He said he did not know when the landowners could use the creek and the adjacent farmlands and pastures again.
“Obviously,” Pritchard said, “that’s the ultimate goal.”
Last month, TC Energy diverted Mill Creek, temporarily, to bypass and isolate about four miles of it. This simplifies cleanup and stops washing downstream of submerged benzene and bitumen. (Although workers dammed the creek shortly after the spill, that hasn’t completely blocked the flow of water.)
The clean water goes upstream from the spill site through an above ground hose, and then rejoins the stream downstream of the isolated stretch.
Soon after the company completed the bypass, Kansas announced that areas further downstream of the site were once again safe for livestock and people. The isolated 4-mile stretch of creek at the spill site remains dangerous.
Pritchard said the EPA will also require TC Energy to continue to check for potential downstream contamination, including by scouring the creek bed for submerged bitumen in a technique that has proven useful in cleaning up the Kalamazoo River.
A view from the farmhouse
Getting many details from the EPA or TC Energy hasn’t been easy for reporters in the weeks following the spill.
And while the workers toil hard on the Pannbacker property, the situation isn’t much different for them either.
Chris Pannbacker fears TC Energy has too much control over what his family learns. He wants to know in detail how cleaning works.
“It’s a story that gets heavily filtered,” he said. “Because we don’t have access. I mean, the EPA never talked to us. … KDHE never spoke to us.”
She is also frustrated that the federal government allowed TC Energy to restart Keystone without first disclosing what happened.
Bill Pannbacker says he had mixed feelings about Keystone from the start.
“I wasn’t very keen when… this was a designated route for their pipeline,” he said. “But I couldn’t resist. I mean, they compensated us for the damages and everything (related to the installation of the pipeline over a decade ago). I wish they had gone somewhere else but this was the way.
She put her concerns aside at the time: “I guess I’m of the attitude that, you know, people…they need fuel.”
But he urged the oil company to drill into the farm’s ridge instead of running the pipeline up its steep slopes.
The keystone has broken at the base of the ridge, and Pannbacker can’t shake his concern that faulty engineering or installation caused the break. To this day, the reason for the breakup, while still known to TC Energy, remains unknown to the public.
TC Energy has 90 days to provide the federal government with a report on the lawsuit, but the federal government only allowed it to restart Keystone a few weeks after the outage.
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.
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