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More workers sent to Keystone Pipeline leak as SD state senator worries about impacts

AMHERST, S.D.—TransCanada Corp. has doubled its workforce as it continues to work on finding a cause and cleaning up after its Keystone Pipeline ruptured near the South Dakota-North Dakota state line, causing 210,000 gallons to leak into a grassland.

The company said 150 specialists are now onsite near the small town of Amherst in far northeast South Dakota as they uncover the pipeline buried about 3 to 4 feet deep to try to find the cause of the leak and start removing contaminated soil.

The leak early last Thursday morning, Nov. 16, was in a federal Conservation Reserve Program field, where the landowner is paid to set aside the land to help protect soil and provide wildlife habitat.

It didn't leak into a nearby drainage ditch protected by a berm or into an underground aquifer, company and state officials said, but there is still some concern about possible contamination of more-shallow groundwater in the area..

A gravel road has been built into the site as crews work around the clock on the cleanup.

The company is using dump trucks, excavators and bulldozers.

Measures continue to be in place to keep wildlife from entering the area, and sophisticated air-monitoring equipment is being used around-the-clock — though there have been no significant concerns, the company said.

State officials said a cause could be known this week. Cleanup could take months.

In an earlier leak in southeast South Dakota on the same pipeline in April 2016, there was a 400-barrel leak—or 16,800 gallons—with the majority of the oil cleanup completed in two months on the pipeline that runs from the Canadian border straight south through all of eastern North Dakota and South Dakota and into Nebraska.

State Sen. Jason Frerichs, D-Wilmot, who represents the area, wonders if a cause will come that quickly and also has some worries about the cleanup. He noted that it's the second leak within just over a year. The earlier leak was caused by a bad weld.

"The track record isn't very good," Frerichs said about the two leaks. "It's not a matter of if there is another leak, it's when."

The senator said he's not an anti-pipeline person, but he said he doesn't want the thick crude oil from Alberta's tar sands region that go all the way to refineries on the Texas gulf coast. He said he prefers the cleaner oil from western North Dakota.

In 2005, the United States imported an estimated 217 million barrels of the tar sands oil from Canada. In 2015, that figure increased to 587 million barrels, accounting for about 22 percent of crude oil imports from all nations.

Frerichs thinks TransCanada should pay into the federal Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, which it currently doesn't. The fund is primarily financed by a 9-cents-per-barrel tax on domestic crude oil and imported crude oil and petroleum products. Federal government officials determined that oil sands-derived crude oils are not subject to the excise tax and efforts to change the ruling haven't made it through Congress.

Frerichs said that needs to be changed to offer protections. It's not that TransCanada won't pay for the cost of this latest cleanup, he said, but other secondary problems could develop and then he asked who will be responsible.

It could be even more of a concern to South Dakotans in the coming months and years, Frerichs said. On Monday, Nov. 20, the five-member Nebraska Public Service Commission rejected TransCanada's preferred route for the Keystone XL Pipeline, a new project that would also carry Alberta tar sands oil from Canada to the U.S., and opted on a 3-2 vote for an alternative route that moves the pipeline farther east and away from the state's ecologically delicate Sandhills region.

The landowners who are in the way of the newly approved pipeline now need to be contacted in order for that project to move forward.

The new pipeline, a nine-year effort to build, already has permits from Montana and South Dakota, where the pipeline would cut across from west to east. The proposed $8 billion project just misses North Dakota as it would go just south and west of the far southwest North Dakota border with the two states.

Frerichs said he's fed up with how the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission and the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources "lay out the red carpet" for the pipeline and oil companies.

"They have no clue on how this can impact some of our citizens and neighbors. Instead, they say, 'Let's just give them what they want,' " he said. "Instead of tar sands, why not shoot for a 50 percent ethanol blend that sets the ag economy on fire."

In a TransCanada video on its website, the company interviewed several residents of the region who said they were impressed with the company's communications with them and how quickly they responded.

A neighbor to the spill, Don Tischer, told the company interviewer in the video that he thinks the land will be returned to better shape than it was before the spill and that people will be compensated for any damage. Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate Tribal Chairman David Flute told the company on video that there was great communication, but that he is concerned about any historical or cultural items the company might find during the cleanup. He said he was told they would get a call if anything was found. Flute, however, told other publications that he is concerned about water protections in the area.