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Keystone cleanup turns remote Kansas valley into small town

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

But he wasn’t prepared for what he saw on his land, which he owns with his wife, Chris. The oil came out of the pipeline and covered what he estimated was nearly an acre of pasture above the pipeline, which is in a valley.

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

The Dec. 7 rupture is the third in the last five years for the Keystone Pipeline, and the worst of the three – more than 14,000 barrels of oil have spilled and cleanup is expected to take weeks or months.

TC did not say when the repairs could be completed and a 155 km (96 mile) segment of the pipeline restarted. Crews will remain busy on site over the holidays and the completion of the cleanup depends on weather and other factors, the Canadian company said in a statement.

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


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

The once tranquil valley is now a busy construction site with around 400 contractors, employees of pipeline operator TC Energy and federal, state and local authorities. They work into the night, letting the glow of high-intensity lamps be seen for miles around.

Cranes, storage containers, construction equipment and vehicles stretch over 800 meters from the rupture site. The valley has become almost a small town, with several Quonset-style huts erected for workers.

Aerial photos showed a large swath of blackened land that almost looks like an airborne object is casting a shadow across the land. Pannbacker said the pasture was used for cattle grazing and calving, but with the calving season over, there were no cattle there at the time.

The oil-blackened grass in the land, which belongs to Pannbacker and her sisters as part of a family trust, is now completely gone. It has been scraped off and is now confined to a giant mound of earth that is noticeably darker at the bottom. But drops of oil on the plants further up the hill were still visible.


Living in rural Kansas, Pannbackers are used to preparing for severe weather, but not an oil spill. Residents didn’t worry too much about the accident, even if the area looks like a construction site in the near future.

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

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

TC said it is discussing compensation with the landowners but will keep the details under wraps. The company said it maintains regular contact with landowners. Pannbacker said TC has yet to discuss compensation with them.

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

Erwin Seba, reporting from Washington, Kansas; additional reporting by Rod Nickel; Written by David Gaffen Edited by Marguerita Choy

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