Environment | National

Lakota Country Times: Company downplays extent of Keystone leak

These pipelines near Swanton, Nebraska, were used for the Keystone pipeline. Photo by Shannon Ramos via Flickr

The sum of all fears: Keystone pipeline leaks
By Brandon Ecoffey
Lakota Country Times Editor

PINE RIDGE-- For years those opposed to the expansion of the Keystone XL Pipeline have warned of the inherent risks of its construction. These inherent dangers became reality early earlier this month when oil was spotted seeping to the surface four miles from the Freeman pump station located in Hutchinson County in south eastern South Dakota.

The oil spotted on the surface is apparently leaking from the Keystone pipeline that had gained national attention as lawmakers jostled over its expansion for the last 8 years. The spill had originally been reported by a passerby who was then quoted by TransCanada's as seeing a "very small sheen” of oil on the surface of the ground. The location of the spill is just along US Highway 18 four miles away from the Freeman pump station in Hutchinson County and approximately 67 miles west of Sioux Falls.

TransCanada closed the portion of the Keystone pipeline that transports oil from Alberta, Canada to Cushing earlier in the week as the size of extent of the spill is being evaluated. The oil that passes through the pipeline is nothing like what everyday Lakota use in heir car. This composition of crude oil originates in the tar sands of Canada and has a composition similar to peanut butter. To make transportation of the sludge easier companies mix in chemicals and Dilbit to liquefy the substance for use in pipelines. Although TransCanada has stated that this mixture is safe for pipelines, other studies have shown that it breaks down pipe at a far greater rate than other versions of crude.

"As predicted anything man made eventually will break. Hopefully this tragic and preventable accident will cause people to think about the benefits of clean energy investments over destructive energy projects that harms South Dakotans," said Oglala Lakota County Representative Kevin Killer.

Rep. Killer is not the only lawmaker in Indian Country to point out what Tribal-nations and their citizens have been warning the larger public for last eight years.

Proposed expansion of the Keystone pipeline united Indigenous peoples across the Great Plains in opposition. For Lakota people the proposed route of the expansion would have cut directly across lands set aside for the unencumbered use by the Oceti Sakowin as outlined in the the Ft. Laramie treaty of 1868. The expansion would have run directly above the Ogallala Aquifer which is one of the largest deposits of fresh groundwater in the world. President Obama essentially killed that project last year when he refused to sign off on the construction of the project.

The Standing Rock Sioux Nation had just last week completed a spiritual ride in opposition to the proposed Dakota Access pipeline near their lands. This leak has sent a chilling reminder that these incidents do occur and tribal governments are better prepared than ever to take on the challenge.

Dave Archambault, Jr., President of the Standing Rock Sioux Nation, expressed frustration over the spill and the unwillingness of states to properly take in the advice of tribal-nations.

"No matter what oil companies and pipelines say, everyone knows that it will happen eventually. Yet Tribes are ignored when we express concern," said President Archambault.

Shawn Bordeaux, State Representative from Rosebud, said that now the onus is on regulators and TransCanada to address.

"This is the tip of the iceberg and it is what tribes have been warning the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission and other officials regarding spills," Bordeaux said. "I am sure there is more to come. We will be watching how this is handled by TransCanada."

How the incident has been handled by the press in SD and TransCanada has been short of satisfactory as conflicting reports have been issued by TransCanada.

TransCanada told the Sioux Falls Argus Leader that it had been notified of the problem on Saturday and that only 187 gallons had been leaked from the pipeline. These statements however had been made by the company prior to finding the source of the leak that as of Tuesday had yet to be located. The Argus Leader would also quote TransCanada as claiming that the oil on the surface was only a 10-foot-by-30-foot area. The Argus Leader did not offer more than the statement provided by TransCanada as proof of the size of the spill but concerned citizens on the scene have confirmed to LCT that more than 100 TransCanada workers have been arrived at the location.

The statements from Transcanada have been met with skepticism as their initial estimate of the spill was done prior to the source of the leak being identified. These claims have not been verified by any journalist on the scene as armed guards have kept citizen journalists and activists from gaining access to site according to those present.

"They had not started digging a trench yet and had just started scraping off the topsoil trying to see where the spill is," said rancher and activist Paul Seamans who witnessed the beginnings of the clean up on Monday. "I could spill 187 gallons of oil on my land and it probably wouldn't even be noticeable," he said.

Seamans said that the site of the spill is visible from Highway 18 but that a gravel-covered Hutchinson County road runs right alongside the location of the spill. When Seamans and others attempted to use the county road to gain a better view he was met by an armed guard who did not allow the group to access the site further.

"He was a nice guy and a local guy but he wouldn't let us past the stop sign that entered the highway," said Seamans. "After he talked with us for a little while his supervisor came over to make sure he wasn't being too nice to us," he said jokingly.

Other concerned citizens including Faith Spotted Eagle have attempted to gain access but so far nobody has been able to get close enough to the site to investigate how accurate the claims made by TransCanada are so far.

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One alarming detail left out of most media reports is the failure of TransCanada's computerized system to notify the company of the spill. TransCanada has long claimed that their system would prevent any significant spills from contaminating ground water as the state-of the-art technology would immediately identify leaks. This system failed in this instance as a passerby was forced to report the presence of oil on the surface.

Representatives from Bold Nebraska, a pro-water group who banded together with tribal-nations against the proposed expansion of the Keystone pipeline, had attempted to hire a pilot to fly over and photograph the extent of the leak but was met with a notice that the area had been declared a no-fly zone.

The issuing of a no-fly zone has been a tool employed by oil companies and the federal government before. A spill in Mayflower, Arkansas in 2013 resulted in nearly 5000-7000 barrels of oil consuming part of the town. Ironically a no-fly zone was also established there but spokesman on behalf of FAA said it was needed to prevent in air collisions as workers attempting to clean up the spill needed to be able to use helicopters. The question remains why a spill of only 187 gallons would require these steps be taken.

(Contact Brandon Ecoffey at editor@lakotacountrytimes.com)

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