Whoops, That Keystone Pipeline Spill Was Twice as Big as Everyone Thought

Keystone Pipeline spill on November 16.
Keystone Pipeline spill on November 16.
Photo: Courtesy of KSFY via TransCanada

Remember that huge Keystone pipeline spill in South Dakota last year? Well, it turns out it was about twice as big as folks originally thought.


Here’s a quick video we made about the incident involving Keystone (not to be confused with Keystone XL, which still isn’t constructed) back in November:

That video is now outdated because the pipeline—which runs 2,687 miles from Canada to the U.S.—didn’t spill 210,000 gallons of crude oil. It spilled more like 407,400 gallons, according to The Aberdeen News, which got this info from developer TransCanada. This makes it the seventh largest spill in the U.S. since 2010, as the local paper makes clear.

We all knew this spill was A Big Fucking Deal: Row crops (like soy and corn) grow near the site, and that discolored grass is usually used for cattle-grazing. The company hasn’t really released any updates since the incident, meaning questions remain about impacts to wildlife, land and water, especially for the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate of the Lake Traverse Reservation, who live near the spill site. The company does say on its website, however, that it’s completed remediating the South Dakota site, which involved replacing the topsoil and seeding the area.

TransCanada has ignored several requests from Earther for updates. We will update this post if we hear back from our most recent attempt.

Keystone’s sister pipeline, Keystone XL, is still contentious AF, so this spill added fuel to the fire for opponents to the proposed 1,179-mile long crude oil pipeline that’ll rev up the export of tar sands from Alberta, Canada.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration is set to release an official report on the incident in the next few weeks. Maybe that will give us a better sense of what happened. Until then, environmentalists will continue to fight the creation of the Keystone XL, which remains in the courts as landowners attempt to keep the project off their land.


[h/t Reuters, Aberdeen News]

Yessenia Funes is climate editor at Atmos Magazine. She loves Earther forever.


Dense non aqueous phase liquid

The pipeliner was off only by a factor of two? Pfft. That’s almost nuts on in the soil and groundwater spill volumen/initial mass of contamination estimation game. Especially for a pipeline spill emergency response volume SWAG made to the press. Spill volumes for old spill sites with minimal to no records may be off by factors of tens or more between what was estimated before remediation and what was actually recovered.

When a spill occurs from a pressurized pipeline in a remote area like South Dakota it isn’t all that easy to estimate the actual spill amount except for a reasonable range based on line characteristics like flow rate, pressure, pipe hole/crack size and duration of spill. The low estimate is usually initially reported. It’s not good form to report a high spill volume estimate, since that may lead to an assumption that not all the spill volume had been recovered or had degraded during remediation. That is a regulator or landowner’s lawyer may believe that more crude oil lies in the subsurface in the following states: 1) tied up in the pore space of the unsaturated zone between the surface and water table, 2) floating as a non aqueous phase liquid on the groundwater in the capillary fringe down away from the point of spill, 3) dissolved in the groundwater, 4) or in the case of tar sands diluted bitumen, possible migrating through the water table as a dense non aqueous phase liquid until it pools at the confining layer above the actual aquifer.

When diluted bitumen from Canada spills it speciates into three distinct phases: 1) the light hydrocarbon diluent (close to gasoline in properties), 2) a multiphase mixture of diluent, lighter hydrocarbons from the bitumen and an oil/water emulsion, and 3) a DNAPL of bigass hydrocarbons from the original bitumen.