AMHERST, SOUTH DAKOTA – Four days before TransCanada anticipated obtaining permits for the Keystone XL project, the company’s older pipeline leaked, spilling more than 210,000 gallons of Canadian crude oil into the South Dakota plains.
The spill occurred near the Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux Tribe Reservation.
“It’s not if pipelines leak, but when they will leak, and we’re experiencing a leak, a pretty substantial amount,” Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux Tribe Chairman Dave Flute said in a public video. “We want to know what was the cause, why it happened, and how much was spilled, and what impact that will have on our environment.”
The leak occurred at 5:30 a.m. Thursday near Amherst, South Dakota, and the Keystone Pipeline was shut down within 30 minutes, Brian Walsh, team leader for the South Dakota Department of Environment & Natural Resources, said. Cleanup crews are at work, and Walsh’s agency is overseeing the cleanup process. The leak is TransCanada's largest in South Dakota, Walsh said.
“The spill has not reached any surface water, and it is contained,” Walsh said. “It’s not flowing off site. They have mobilized equipment necessary to begin the cleanup activities to the site and we anticipate they will work 24 hours a day to clean up the area.”
The Keystone Pipeline is operated by TransCanada, which manages a 56,900-mile network of pipelines extending from Alberta, Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, according to a press release made available by TransCanada. On the TransCanada Twitter page, company officials posted that they are currently assessing the situation near Amherst.
“Frequent updates are being provided to the affected landowners, community, regulators, and other state and federal agencies to ensure they are aware of our progress,” the press release stated. No mention was made of why the oil leaked.
“In terms of cost of cleanup that falls on TransCanada,” Walsh said. “In terms of penalties, we just don’t know at this time.”
On the Twitter page entitled Keystone Pipeline Sabotage, oil and pipeline proponents began crying foul hours after the spill.
“Wouldn’t put it past the crazy Dems to sabotage the pipeline,” someone named ARI Russian BOT said.
“Just as the approval was pending,” a commentator named Doug said. “Want to bet it was sabotage?”
Cleanup is no small feat, and could take months, perhaps years. All contaminated soil must be removed. If diluted bitumen, which has the consistency of thick tar, reaches water sources such as lakes, ponds, rivers, or aquifers, the cleanup would become nearly impossible, as bitumen, opposed to crude oil, sinks in water.
The Keystone XL Pipeline was first proposed in 2008, but the project received widespread opposition in Canada and the United States, and it ended with President Barrack Obama’s 2015 decision to reject the pipeline’s permits. President Donald Trump breathed new life into the Keystone XL Pipeline after signing a flurry of executive orders four days after ascending to the presidency.
TransCanada was in negotiations with regulators to run the Keystone XL Pipeline, with a capacity of 830,000-barrels-per-day, through Nebraska when the spill occurred.
The spill has many speculating if the company’s expansion permits will be approved, or not. Legally, pipeline safety is not a factor in issuing permits, according to Nebraska law. The state’s law says regulators are not allowed to consider the risks of pipeline accidents when considering permissions for pipeline construction, as the issue is federal, not state.
“In determining whether the pipeline carrier has met its burden, the commission shall not evaluate safety considerations, including the risk or impact of spills or leaks from the major oil pipeline,” Nebraska’s Major Oil Pipeline Siting Act stated.
Pro-pipeline politicians and businessmen continuously state pipelines are the safest method to transport crude oil, but pipeline opponents contest, saying all pipelines will one day leak.
Spills are unavoidable, according to an August 2017 report compiled by the Dakota Resource Council, a nonpartisan watchdog group.
The Dakota Resource Council’s report stated that the oil boom in the Bakken is endangering people’s health, and that the state lacks meaningful standards for detecting and repairing leaks.
“Each day, oil and gas activities across the state spring leaks that spew toxic pollution into the air, like an invisible spill,” the report stated. “The smog that pollution causes to form is endangering the health of communities across North Dakota.”
From 2010 to the present, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration or PHMSA reported a total of 373 spills between three major pipeline companies. After Thursday’s incident, and two leaks from the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2017, that number is 376.
Not including Thursday’s spill, TransCanada and subsidiaries had 13 spills totaling 829 barrels or 34,818 gallons of crude oil
Kinder Morgan and subsidiaries and joint ventures had 213 spills totaling 21,598 barrels or 907,116 gallons of hazardous liquids
Enbridge and its subsidiaries and joint ventures had 147 spills totaling 40,794 barrels or 1,713,348 gallons of hazardous liquids.
The $3.8 billion Dakota Access Pipeline sprung two leaks in March 2017, spilling 84 gallons in Watford City and 20 gallons in Mercer County
“Additionally three other tar sands pipelines, Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain, Enbridge’s Line 3 expansion, and TransCanada’s Energy East, are in various stages of development,” a 2017 Greenpeace report stated. “Construction of one or more of these pipelines could lead to the expansion of the tar sands, with serious consequences for communities and the climate.”
Although environmental activists have been fighting big oil and pipelines for years, the controversy took front pages across the world in 2016 during construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota. Resistance camps grew to become one of the state’s largest communities at one time exceeding 10,000 people. Approximately 854 people were arrested during the months-long opposition outside of Standing Rock, and so far 310 of those arrested have had their cases dismissed of were acquitted, according to the Water Protector Legal Collective, a law firm defending activists facing charges in North Dakota.
More than 120 First Nations and Indigenous tribes on both sides of the northern border have signed a treaty stating their opposition to the tar sands pipelines, trains, and tankers through their territories and lands.
Nearby, on the Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux Tribe Reservation, they’re wanting answers, but said that even though the spill occurred outside of their jurisdiction, TransCanada is being transparent with them.
“There is not an accurate amount of spillage that they can quantify,” Chairman Dave Flute said. “If there is any possible issue that we could have with our water, they will let us know,” Flute said. “Everybody knows there is a spill, we just don’t know how many gallons.”
Already, people from out of state are arriving at the cordoned spill area, Flute said.
“As [former Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Chairman] Dave Archambault had preached, and I supported Archambault, be peaceful,” Flute said. “If you do come up here I do ask that you be mindful, and be respectful. Freedom of speech, you can say what you want to say, but be respectful.”
Flute said pipeline officials reacted quickly, and have shown concern for residents.
The North Dakota Public Service Commission was also contacted for comment on the safety of current pipelines operating in North Dakota, but no response was given by press time.
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