Keystone cleanup turns a remote Kansas Valley into a small town

WASHINGTON, Kansas, Dec. 18 (Reuters) – Farmer Bill Pannebacher got a call earlier this month from a representative from TC Energy Corp., telling him that the Keystone pipeline, which runs through his farmland in rural Kansas, had suffered from Oil spill.

But he wasn’t prepared for what he saw on his land, which he owned with his wife, Chris. Oil shot out of the pipeline and covered what he estimated was roughly an acre of pasture up the pipe, which is located in a valley.

The turf was blackened with diluted bitumen, one of the thickest types of crude oil, which was transported from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.

The collapse on Dec. 7 is the third in the past five years for the Keystone pipeline, and the worst of the three — more than 14,000 barrels of crude oil have been spilled and cleanup is expected to take weeks or months.

TC did not say when repairs could be completed and a 96-mile (155 km) section of the pipeline will be restarted. The Canadian company said in a statement that the crews will remain busy on site during the holidays, and the completion of cleaning depends on the weather and other factors.

“We are committed to restoring the affected areas to their original condition or better.”

Worker bee

Keystone’s two previous spills occurred in unincorporated areas of North Dakota and South Dakota. And although the city of Washington, Kansas, is small with a population of just over 1,000, it is surrounded by farms where wheat, corn and soybeans are grown and cattle are raised. The spill in Washington County affected land owned by several people.

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The once-peaceful valley is a construction site teeming with about 400 contractors and employees of pipeline operator TC Energy and federal, state and local officials. They work at night, leaving a glow from the high-intensity LEDs that can be seen from miles away.

Cranes, storage containers, construction equipment, and vehicles extend more than half a mile from the site of the rupture. The valley became almost a small town, with several Quonset-style cottages erected for the workers.

Aerial photos showed a large swath of black ground that almost looked like an airborne object casting a shadow on the ground. The pasture was used for grazing cattle and calving calves, Pannebaker said, but with calving season over, there was no livestock there at the time.

The oil-covered lawn on the grounds, owned by Pannebaker and his sisters as part of the family trust, is now completely gone. It had been scraped away and was now confined to a giant mound of dirt noticeably darker at the bottom. But the drops of oil on the plants at the top of the hill were still visible.

A wider group is affected

Living in rural Kansas, the Panpackers are used to being prepared for severe weather, but not oil spills. Residents were largely unconcerned despite the incident, even though the area will resemble a work site in the near future.

“How many people have suffered from the oil spill? Who knows what it is?” said Chris Pannebacker. “It’s not like a hurricane or a natural disaster.”

Kansas State Representative Lisa Moser said in a Facebook post that 14 landowners are being compensated for spills or use of their property during the cleanup.

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TC said it is discussing compensation with the landowners but will keep details confidential. The company said it has been in regular contact with the landowners. Pannbacker said TC has not yet discussed compensation with them.

Pannebaker says he doesn’t expect pasture grass to return for at least two or three years; There is a well site in the pasture that is used for livestock which they will not use either.

(Reporting by Erwin Ciba in Washington, Kansas); Additional reporting by Rod Nickel; Writing by David Gavin; Editing by Margarita Choi

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