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Keystone pipeline operator says faulty welding and other problems led to the Kansas oil spill

A photo shows Mill Creek downstream from the oil spill, with booms set up to capture floating oil.
Celia Llopis-Jepsen
Kansas News Service
Mill Creek downstream of the 4-mile stretch of creek that TC Energy bypassed in January to contain contamination and assist the cleanup.

The Keystone's biggest spill ever happened on Dec. 7 in Washington County. The cleanup is ongoing.

This story has been updated.

Canadian oil company TC Energy said Thursday that faulty welding caused an “instantaneous rupture” in its Keystone pipeline that gushed hundreds of thousands of gallons of extra sticky tar sands crude oil onto Kansas native prairie, cropland and into a creek.

Meanwhile, the pipeline operator now estimates less oil escaped than originally thought. And it revealed that it expects the cleanup and investigation will cost about $480 million.

The federal government required TC Energy to have a third party conduct metallurgy tests. TC Energy says it can’t make the full report public. The Kansas News Service has filed an open records request to the federal government seeking the full document.

TC Energy gets three months to complete an analysis of the cause of the spill. That report must be “supplemented or facilitated by” a third party. The analysis isn’t finished, but TC Energy said in an online post early Thursday that the mechanical and metallurgy results had come back.

It says those tests point to factors including “bending stress on the pipe and a weld flaw.”

TC Energy seemed to point a finger outside its own ranks, saying the weld flaw was made at a “fabrication facility.”

“The weld flaw led to a crack that propagated over time as a result of bending stress fatigue, eventually leading to an instantaneous rupture,” TC Energy wrote in its press release. “The cause of the bending stress remains under investigation.”

The company said welding inspection and testing had complied with “applicable codes and standards.”

It also said the pipe itself showed no defects.

And it said the Keystone was operating at a legal pressure level when it burst.

The Kansas News Service submitted an open records request in December for a report that shows the precise pressure levels at the time of the rupture. The Keystone received a special greenlight from the U.S. Department of Transportation in 2017 to operate at a higher pressure than normally allowed for oil pipelines.

In late December, the federal government allowed TC Energy to restart the pipeline, on the condition that it operate for the time being at a lower pressure than when the rupture occurred.

“Our focus continues to be the safe operation of the pipeline system,” TC Energy wrote in its press release.

The federal government is also requiring TC Energy to look for other potential weak points within the 96-mile stretch of the Keystone system that includes the site of the spill in Washington County near the Nebraska border.

That stretch runs from Jefferson County in Nebraska through Washington, Clay and Dickinson counties in Kansas.

Oil volume estimates and cleanup

TC Energy now says it believes less oil spilled out of the Keystone than its original estimate of 588,000 gallons.

The new estimate is about 543,000 gallons, the bulk of which has been recovered.

It says the new figure is based on the volume of crude oil that the company injected to refill the pipeline when restarting it.

TC Energy has deleted a counter from its website that showed how many barrels of spilled oil it has recovered so far. It said in an email Thursday that it has recovered about 90 percent.

As for cost, the company said cleaning and remediating the area and investigating what happened will cost an estimated $480 million.

“This estimate may be adjusted as we continue to progress work on site,” it said. “We are working with our insurers to maximize cost recoveries.”

It’s not clear whether federal or state spending factors into this estimate. The company is required to repay some (but not all) of the public taxpayer money spent on cleaning up its mess.

Read more about the Keystone spill in Kansas:

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'm the creator of the environmental podcast Up From Dust. 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.