Farmer Bill Pannbacker got a call earlier this month from a representative from TC Energy Corp , telling him that its Keystone Pipeline, which runs through his farmland in rural Kansas, had suffered an oil leak.
But he was not prepared for what he saw on his land, which he owns with his wife, Chris. Oil had shot out of the pipeline and coated what he estimated was nearly an acre of pasture uphill of the pipe, which is set into a valley.
The grass was blackened with diluent bitumen, one of the thickest of crude oils, which was being transported from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.
The rupture on Dec. 7 is the third in the last five years for the Keystone Pipeline, and the worst of the three – more than 14,000 barrels of crude has spilled and cleanup is expected to take weeks or months.
TC has not said when repairs could be completed and a 96-mile (155-km) segment of the pipeline will restart. Crews will remain busy on site through the holidays and 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 condition or better.”
Keystone’s two previous spills happened in unincorporated areas in North Dakota and South Dakota. And while the city of Washington, Kansas, is small with just over 1,000 residents, it is surrounded by farms where wheat, corn, 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 buzzing with some 400 contractors, staff from pipeline operator TC Energy, and federal, state and local officials. They are working into the night, leaving a glow from the high-intensity lamps seen from miles away.
Cranes, storage containers, construction equipment and vehicles stretch for more than a half mile from the site of the rupture. The valley has become almost a small town, with several Quonset-style huts erected for workers.
Aerial photos showed a large, blackened swath of land that almost looks like an airborne object is throwing a shadow over the land. Pannbacker said that pasture was used for cattle grazing and calving, but with calving season over, there were no livestock there 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 was scraped away and is now confined to a giant mound of dirt that is noticeably darker at the bottom. But oil droplets on plants further up the hill were still visible.
Living in rural Kansas, the Pannbackers are used to preparing for harsh weather, but not an oil spill. Residents have been largely unconcerned despite the accident, even as the area will resemble a work site for 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 either the spill or the use of their property during cleanup.
TC said it is discussing compensation with landowners but would keep details private. The company said it has stayed in regular contact with landowners. Pannbacker said TC has not yet discussed compensation with them yet.
Pannbacker says he does not expect the grass on the pastureland to return for at least two or three years; there is a well site on the pasture used for the cattle that they will not be using either.