Keystone cleanup turns remote Kansas valley into a small town

WASHINGTON, Kan., Dec 18 (Reuters) – Farmer Bill Pannbacker received a call earlier this month from a representative of TC Energy Corp, telling him that his Keystone pipeline, which runs through his farmland in the countryside of Kansas, had suffered an oil spill.

But he was unprepared for what he saw on his land, which he owns with his wife, Chris. The oil had squirted out of the pipeline and covered what he estimated was nearly an acre of pasture upstream from the pipe, which is located in a valley.

The grass was blackened with thinner bitumen, one of the thickest crude oils, which was transported from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.

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

TC did not say when repairs might be complete and a 96-mile (155 km) section of the pipeline would restart. Crews will remain busy on site over the holidays and completion of the cleanup will depend on weather conditions and other factors, the Canadian company said in a statement.

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


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

The once quiet valley is currently a construction site bustling with some 400 contractors, pipeline operator TC Energy staff and federal, state and local officials. They work in the night, leaving a glow from the high-intensity lamps seen from miles away.

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

Aerial photos showed a large strip of blackened earth that almost looks like an aerial object casting a shadow on the earth. Pannbacker said the pastures were used for cattle grazing and calving, but with calving season over, there were no cattle at the time.

The oil-blackened grass on the land, which is owned by Pannbacker and his sisters as part of a family trust, is now completely gone. It’s been scraped away and is now confined to a giant mound of dirt that’s noticeably darker at the bottom. But oil droplets on the plants further up the hill were still visible.


Living in rural Kansas, the Pannbackers are used to preparing for bad weather, but not for an oil spill. Residents have been largely carefree despite the accident, although the area will look like a construction site for the foreseeable future.

“How many people have experienced an oil spill? Who knows what it is?” Chris Pannbacker said. “It’s not like a tornado or a natural disaster.

Kansas State Rep. Lisa Moser in a Facebook post said 14 property owners were being compensated for the spill or use of their property during the cleanup.

TC said it was discussing compensation with landowners, but would keep details confidential. The company said it has remained in regular contact with landowners. Pannbacker said TC has yet to discuss compensation with them.

Pannbacker says he doesn’t expect pasture grass to return for at least two or three years; there is a well site on the pasture used for cattle which they will not use either.

Reporting by Erwin Seba in Washington, Kansas; additional reporting by Rod Nickel; written by David Gaffen Editing by Marguerita Choy

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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