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The Keystone operator says design and construction flaws led to the Kansas oil spill

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Efforts to clean up the oil spill have been ongoing since December.

The Canadian operator of the pipeline that burst in Washington County released its summary of an analysis it commissioned on the cause of the oil spill.

Stress put on the Keystone pipeline during construction, its operator said Friday, contributed significantly to it bursting in north-central Kansas.

TC Energy says an independent review shows the sequence of factors that led to the Keystone’s rupture in December that fouled a creek and spewed oil over cropland and prairie.

The ill-fated segment experienced “inadvertent bending stresses sufficient to initiate a crack” during its construction in 2011, the company said in a press release about the findings.

The Washington County spill was the biggest in the Keystone’s history, and the second-biggest spill on U.S. soil of dilbit, a Canadian tar sands product that presents particular environmental risks and cleanup challenges when it spills into bodies of water.

The company didn’t release the document, but outlined its version of “the key findings” in it.

Federal officials ordered TC Energy to commission the pipeline failure analysis. The government told the Canadian company to hire an independent contractor to help with the analysis and to “document the decision-making process and all factors contributing to the failure.”

The federal agency — the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration — also received the report on Friday, but it hasn’t commented publicly yet on the conclusions.

TC Energy says the report found that “a progressive fatigue crack” was the main cause of the oil spill.

The crack started at a welded spot in the pipeline that connected an elbow fitting to the pipe segment across a creek.

“Bending stresses during construction also led to a deformation in the elbow fitting and a wrinkle in the adjacent piping,” the company said. “Further, the design of the weld transition created a stress concentration point, making the pipe at this location more susceptible to bending stresses.”

The company says the fitting and pipe “met all strength and material property design and code requirements.”

It also says the Kansas section of the Keystone never operated above the stress level normally permitted for such pipelines, even though it had received special federal permission to exceed those limits.

The federal government had also ordered TC Energy to investigate whether similar conditions elsewhere along the Keystone could lead to the same tragic consequences.

TC Energy said Friday that it is “in the process of implementing a comprehensive plan … to enhance our pipeline integrity program and overall safety performance.”

It said it is carrying out extra inspections and examining “other sites with characteristics like the incident location sites.”

TC Energy initially estimated that 588,000 gallons of crude oil spilled in Kansas. It later lowered the estimate to 543,000 gallons.

However, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is sticking to the original figure, which it says matches the agency’s independent calculations.

Last month, the agency said it expects the cleanup will continue for months to come.

TC Energy says it has recovered 98% of the oil, and has cleaned up 90% of Mill Creek’s soiled shoreline.

Mill Creek was initially buried in crude oil nearly a foot deep in some areas. The substance is a tar sands product called dilbit that presents particular environmental challenges when it spills into bodies of water. While most oil tends to float on water, dilbit starts breaking apart into peanut butter-like bitumen that sinks.

Cleanup crews have spent months removing the spilled oil and ultimately isolated and drained about four miles of the creek to help with the process.

The Canadian company has said it expects the cleanup and related work to cost $480 million.

It hasn’t said whether that figure includes the taxpayer money spent by state and federal agencies that responded to the oil spill, part of which the company will be forced to repay.

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.