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Two months after the Keystone's biggest oil spill, residents of a Kansas county wonder what's next

Two people in winter coats look down from the top of a hill.
Celia Llopis-Jepsen
/
Kansas News Service
Bill and Chris Pannbacker regularly visit this ridge on their farm to watch workers cleaning the Keystone pipeline oil spill.

Hundreds of workers have been hustling around the clock to recover the oil. Some landowners want more information about the cleanup and about why the pipeline broke.

WASHINGTON COUNTY, Kansas — It’s been almost two months since the Keystone pipeline erupted on a December night and crude oil rained down upon several acres of native prairie and cropland, and coated more than three miles of Mill Creek in a toxic sheen.

Canadian company TC Energy says it has cleaned nearly 90% of the oil that spilled here, near the Nebraska border.

Today, the feelings of residents toward the company vary.

Some see the Keystone as an economic lifeline for a rural county with a limited tax base. Some feel confident that TC Energy will do right by the county and its landowners.

Much of the oil landed on the Pannbacker farm.

“I don’t think either of us were prepared for the emotion of this,” Chris Pannbacker said. “Some days we’re good and some days, we’re just kind of mad. It’s hard to explain, because some people say ‘It’s just grass,’ or ‘It’s just a pasture,’ or ‘It’s just a creek.’”

She and her husband, Bill, take a four-wheel drive pickup to the top of a ridge on their farm to view the vast cleanup site on the hillside and in the valley below.

At night, the scene gives off a glow visible for miles around, as workers toil round the clock.

What was farmland belonging to their neighbor now looks like massive parking lots where trucks, bulldozers and backhoes maneuver.

Trees, torn down by the cleanup crews, lay in huge piles. Topsoil and bluestem grasses have been stripped from part of the ridge that the Pannbackers so cherish — a spot for sentimental family moments, picnics and class gatherings going back decades.

“It holds a lot of significance family-wise,” Bill Pannbacker said, “because it’s a beautiful scene. I mean, you can see 15 miles in most every direction.”

Bill doubts his family will graze cattle here for three or five years.

An ad hoc compound for cleanup work.
Celia Llopis-Jepsen
/
Kansas News Service
Portions of the cleanup site in late January, as seen from atop the ridge on the Pannbacker farm.

The Keystone’s worst spill yet

When TC Energy realized that the Keystone — its biggest single oil pipeline system — had burst open, Randy Hubbard may have been the first local in Washington County to find out.

“My cellphone rang about 1:30 in the morning,” said Hubbard, the county emergency preparedness coordinator. “It was a gentleman out of Texas … with TC Energy. And he said, ‘Sorry to wake you up this early, but I think we have a significant oil release within your county.’”

Though he didn’t know it yet, this was the Keystone’s largest spill to date. An estimated 588,000 gallons of diluted bitumen crude oil had escaped.

Hubbard rushed to the site, where a massive oil slick slid downstream along Mill Creek. The county’s small public works crew helped TC Energy workers build a dam.

The work was so urgent that they began it in the dark.

By morning, federal and state regulators had arrived. Cleanup crews poured in. The smell of oil filled the air in the county seat (also called Washington) and miles away, making people’s eyes water.

“The traffic was absolutely nonstop,” said Dan Thalmann, publisher of The Washington County News. “I’ve never seen anything like it — just truck after truck after truck hauling all sorts of equipment of all kinds.”

The sheriff’s office got a barrage of phone calls from alarmed residents unsure of what had happened. Hubbard posted a public notice on Facebook to assure people they were safe.

Could have been worse

Had TC Energy and county crews dallied, the oil would have traveled farther downstream. So Hubbard feels some relief that the situation wasn’t worse.

The company’s response and army of contractors impress him.

“I couldn’t be more pleased with the way things are going,” he said. “Obviously, it’s unfortunate that this happened.”

Had the spill happened during a wetter season, the oil would have moved faster.

“In April, we’ll get a decent downpour and Mill Creek might go up five feet in hours,” Thalmann said.

A man sitting at his desk in front of computer screens.
Celia Llopis-Jepsen
/
Kansas News Service
Washington County emergency coordinator Randy Hubbard responded to the scene in the early hours of Dec. 8 when TC Energy called him.

In 2010, the larger Kalamazoo River in Michigan, swollen by strong rains, carried spilled crude oil more than 30 miles downstream and into adjacent wetlands.

Almost two months after the Kansas spill, the cleanup site remains a busy place, sometimes with more than 800 workers daily.

That’s not so much smaller than the nearby county seat itself — population 1,200 — making this, as some locals noted, temporarily the county’s second-biggest city.

Motels in surrounding counties have been full for weeks. A catering company from Texas feeds the workers.

Local gas stations serve a steady stream of vehicles.

The influx of workers to fix the broken pipeline and clean up the spill came when motels and other businesses in Washington and neighboring counties were already busy accommodating those arriving to repair Highway 36 and build a major wind farm.

Rural tax base

The Washington County News reported last month that the Keystone is this county’s biggest local tax source — by leaps and bounds.

For retired nurse Deloris Syring, that drove home the value of the three-foot-wide underground pipeline.

“We think it’s a good thing,” she said. “We need that because we’re rural, and we’re kind of a poor community.”

Washington County was home to about 5,500 people in 2020. Like many counties along the Nebraska border, dramatic changes in agriculture and the U.S. economy have cost Washington thousands of residents over the past century.

The Keystone enjoyed a decade-long tax exemption that recently expired. This year, the county government, school districts and other local entities will collect nearly $2 million from the pipeline.

A woman holding up a recipe book
Celia Llopis-Jepsen
/
Kansas News Service
Deloris Syring and other residents, including the Pannbackers, have shown their support for oil spill cleanup workers by baking many hundreds of cookies.

At Christmas, when temperatures plunged well below zero and cleanup crews forged ahead at the creek, Syring and others started baking.

They aimed to donate one cookie for each of the hundreds of workers, then quickly blew past that goal. Enthusiastic families broke out their sugar and flour jars not just in Washington, but other nearby towns. They baked fudge and brownies and sugar cookies. They traced snowflakes and Christmas trees and gingerbread men in brightly colored icing.

For Syring, that showed the appreciation of a community that takes a pragmatic approach to bad news.

“We’re used to things breaking down,” she said. “The farmers’ tractors break down all the time. Or their combines … And I think people just looked at it as something like that.”

The cleanup workers came from across the continent and spent their holidays far from home, cleaning Mill Creek and seeking occasional relief from the brutal temperatures in warming huts at the site.

EPA oversight

That view of the spill resonates with Chuck and Teresa Penning, owners of the Sale Barn Cafe.

They serve up ingredients from their farm, where they take a conservation-minded approach to agriculture, such as by avoiding chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

“It’s something that happened, it’s getting taken care of, we’ll just all move on from it,” Chuck said of the Keystone spill, while cooking breakfast for customers on outdoor griddles in 20 degree weather.

Louis Carter, a farmer who stopped at the cafe to eat, said he has faith in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to make TC Energy clean up its mess.

“They’re independent,” he said. “Near as I know, this Canadian company, they’re doing their job, too. But there’s somebody looking over their shoulder at the same time.”

Jeff Pritchard, an on-scene coordinator for the EPA, said crews have begun to haul contaminated soil away from the site.

And he described the cleanup as still in “Phase 1.”

A road grader
Celia Llopis-Jepsen
/
Kansas News Service
Crews regularly rework local dirt roads taking a beating from snow and heavy trucks headed to the oil spill site.

“I would say you’re still looking at months” of cleanup, he said. “Once all the bulk oil comes off the surface (of Mill Creek), you start looking at the impacted creek bank and other debris in there.”

He said he didn’t know when landowners would get to use the creek and adjoining crop fields and pastures again.

“Obviously,” Pritchard said, “that’s the end goal.”

Last month, TC Energy rerouted Mill Creek — temporarily — to bypass and isolate about four miles of it. That makes cleanup easier and blocks benzene and sunken bitumen from washing downstream. (Though workers dammed the creek shortly after the spill, that didn’t fully block the water flow.)

The clean water goes from upstream of the spill site through an overground hose, and then rejoins into the creek downstream of the isolated stretch.

Soon after the company completed the bypass, Kansas announced that areas farther downstream of the site had again become safe for livestock and people. The isolated 4-mile stretch of creek at the spill site remains unsafe.

Pritchard said the EPA would also require TC Energy to continue checking for potential contamination downstream, including by scouring the creek bed for sunken bitumen with a technique that proved helpful in the Kalamazoo River cleanup.

A view from the farm

Getting many details from either the EPA or TC Energy hasn’t been easy for reporters in the weeks since the spill.

And though workers toil on the Pannbackers’ property, the situation isn’t much different for them, either.

Chris Pannbacker worries that TC Energy has too much control over what her family gets to know. She wants to know how the cleanup works in detail.

“It’s a story that’s being heavily filtered,” she said. “Because we don’t have access. I mean, the EPA has never talked to us. … KDHE has never talked to us.”

She’s also frustrated that the federal government let TC Energy restart the Keystone without first disclosing what happened.

Bill Pannbacker says he had mixed feelings about the Keystone from the very start.

“I wasn’t very enthused when … this was a designated route for their pipeline,” he said. “But I didn’t resist. I mean, they compensated us for the damages and all that (related to installing the pipeline more than a decade ago). I would just as soon they’d gone somewhere else, but this was the route.”

He set aside his concerns at the time — “I guess I was of the attitude that, you know, people … they need fuel.”

But he urged the oil company to bore through the ridge on the farm (which the company ultimately did not do) instead of running the pipeline up its steep slopes.

The Keystone ruptured at the base of the ridge, and Pannbacker can’t shake his worry that faulty engineering or installation caused the rupture. To date, the reason for the rupture — if even known yet by TC Energy — remains undisclosed to the public.

TC Energy gets 90 days to give the federal government a report on the cause, yet the federal government allowed it to restart the Keystone just a few weeks after the break.

Celia Llopis-Jepsen covers the environment for the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @celia_LJ or email her at celia (at) kcur (dot) org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to the Kansas News Service.

I write about how the world is transforming around us, from topsoil loss and invasive species to climate change. My goal is to explain why these stories matter to Kansas, and to report on the farmers, ranchers, scientists and other engaged people working to make Kansas more resilient. Email me at celia@kcur.org.