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Keystone pipeline spills 210,000 gallons of oil in South Dakota

Just four days before regulators in Nebraska are expected to announce their decision regarding the final permit that the energy company TransCanada needs to begin construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline in that state, another pipeline owned by the same company leaked about 210,000 gallons of oil into a field in South Dakota.

The spill occurred on Thurs, Nov. 16 – the announcement is expected on Mon, Nov. 20, a day from the time of writing – near the small unincorporated community of Amherst, S.D. It was detected at about 6:00 local time that morning, and has been shut down while the cause of the leak is investigated, according to a statement from TransCanada.

Aberdeen News, a paper local to the area, reported on Nov. 18 that the community has been overrun with vehicles hauling cleanup equipment and workers in protective gear. TransCanada told the paper that cleanup efforts began on Friday morning and are expected to take at least several more weeks. Spokeswoman Robynn Tysver said, “We will not leave this site until it’s clean… This is our responsibility, plain and simple.” 

An Aberdeen News reporter tweeted on the day of the spill that she was able to smell oil from inside her vehicle while about a mile away from the site.

The South Dakota Department of Environment and Natural Resources said that it does not believe drinking water or livestock will be threatened, and that no houses or farm buildings are within a mile of the leak.

That could easily not have been the case, however. About 90 Nebraska farmers and ranchers whose land lies along the proposed Keystone XL route have declined to sign easements with TransCanada and have advised regulators in their state not to issue a permit. A representative of the group told the New York Times this week that the spill has confirmed her fears that the prospective pipeline would certainly be capable of leaking and that the spilled oil could destroy agricultural land.

The benzene in crude oil leakage can result in leukemia and birth defects for nearby human populations, and oil spills harm microorganisms that biodegrade hydrocarbons in the atmosphere. The combined economic, public health and environmental devastation of a given oil spill and its likelihood, which Thursday’s event demonstrated, have motivated protest against the construction of the Keystone XL and others, most notably the Dakota Access pipeline, which disturbs sacred Meskwaki and Sioux tribal nation burial grounds. Protests at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in 2016 drew international attention, but the pipeline’s construction continued and was completed in April of this year. It became commercially operational in June.

Dave Flute, the chairman of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate tribe whose Lake Traverse Reservation borders the site of the leak, said in a statement that he was “monitoring the situation as this leak is adjacent to our reservation… We do not know the impact this has on our environment at this time but we are aware of the leak.”

Almost a million gallons of heavy crude oil leaked from a pipeline into Kalamazoo River in Michigan in 2010, and 50,000 gallons flowed into the Yellowstone River in 2015 and contaminated local drinking water.

If completed, the Keystone XL Pipeline will deliver tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada to refineries in Texas and Illinois.

Current aerial photographs of the site of the leak show what looks like a shadow over a substantial section of the field. Although the photographs do demonstrate that the site is very isolated, they have raised concerns that a future spill will occur in a less rural area.

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