Oil spill raises concerns in Buchanan County

Dec. 17—Located 120 miles away on U.S. Highway 36, the small town of Washington, Kansas, shares a common link with St. Joseph.

The Hollenberg Pony Express Station operated near Washington from 1860 to 1861. Today, a more modern connection is getting attention from emergency management officials in Buchanan County.

The two communities share access to a pipeline network that sent 14,000 barrels of crude oil spilling onto pastures and creeks in Washington County, Kansas. One part of that network, known as the Keystone Pipeline, also runs through Buchanan County between St. Joseph and Faucett.

"It will be interesting to see what the cause is determined to be," said Dennis Johnson, chief of the South Central Buchanan County Fire Protection District. "It just proves that at any point in time, at any portion of the pipeline, something could happen."

As of Thursday, the Environmental Protection Agency reports that cleanup crews have recovered 233,814 gallons of an oil-water mixture from a local creek, 5,000 cubic yards of oil-contaminated soil and nine cubic yards of oily solids. The EPA said the material discharged from the pipeline was a diluted bitumen, a heavy crude oil from Canadian tar sands.

It's not a far-off crisis for Buchanan County. A map inside the South Central Fire District station in Faucett shows multiple underground pipelines that pass through the county transporting natural gas, crude oil or refined gasoline products. The Keystone Pipeline goes through much of the fire district's territory as it carries heavy Canadian crude to terminals in Wood River and Patoka, Illinois.

The question is, could a major spill happen here?

"We're very concerned about this happening potentially in Missouri," said Gretchen Waddell Barwick, chapter director of the Sierra Club in Missouri. "We're going to be watching this very closely and we're very, very concerned because the Keystone Pipeline continues to spill. It's going to take a long time and it's going to take a lot of money to clean up a spill of this magnitude."

Keystone spilled 6,500 barrels of crude in South Dakota in 2017 and 4,500 barrels in North Dakota two years later, according to the General Accounting Office.

Pipeline owner TC Energy of Calgary, Canada, referred News-Press NOW to its online updates on the oil spill response and cleanup efforts. An update from Thursday morning showed the company was able to restart the pipeline section that passes through Missouri on the way to Illinois, but it is operating at reduced pressure as a precautionary measure. The section of pipeline that runs from Washington County to Cushing, Oklahoma, remains shut down.

The cause of the spill has not been determined. The U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration ordered TC Energy to reduce the operating pressure on the 96-mile affected pipeline segment when it gets final approval to begin moving crude south to Oklahoma.

Johnson knows of no major pipeline spills in Buchanan County but said firefighters and hazmat teams do everything they can to prepare. The Missouri Pipeline Association holds regular meetings and gives emergency response crews a chance to train and work with pipeline operators.

"When you start talking about the fire department response, it's pretty simple," Johnson said. "You isolate if needed. You evacuate if needed. Our No. 1 goal is life safety. No. 2 is property conservation."

For the Sierra Club, this latest spill vindicates the Biden administration's decision to revoke the permit for a new section of pipeline, known as Keystone XL, that TC Energy wanted to build to deliver 800,000 barrels of crude per day to U.S. refineries. That decision did not impact the existing Keystone network that delivers 600,000 barrels of crude a day.

"They are inherently risky," Waddell Barwick said. "The best thing we can do is invest in clean and renewable energy. If solar leaks, it's just a really nice day."

Greg Kozol can be reached at greg.kozol@newspressnow.com. Follow him on Twitter: @NPNowKozol.