An oil spill from the Keystone pipeline near Edinburg, North Dakota, last month is about 10 times larger in area and amount of land impacted than government officials originally reported.
The Oct. 29 spill flooded part of an eastern North Dakota wetlands with about 383,000 gallons of a heavy oil called bitumen or “dilbit” when it’s chemically thinned to help it move through a pipeline. Commonly called tar sands oil, the chemically treated bitumen is dense and sticky and extremely difficult to remove from the environment once spilled.
State regulators originally said the spill affected about 22,500 square feet of land. But North Dakota environmental scientist Bill Suess said new estimates put the area of land affected around 209,100 square feet.
The oil spill remains under investigation and a section of the pipeline where the spill occurred was sent to a third-party lab for analysis.
When tar sands oil is released into the environment, the chemicals used to dilute it evaporate quickly, leaving the heavy bitumen behind.
“Once bitumen sinks to the bottom of a lake or wetland, it is much more problematic to clean up than conventional oil, which floats nicely and can be skimmed off the surface,” Diane Orihel, a professor in aquatic ecotoxicology at Queen’s University, told VICE News.
Given the fragile nature of wetlands and the important role they play for migratory birds, any bitumen spill these areas can be considered a “worst-case scenario,” Michel Boufadel, a professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of New Jersey Institute of Technology, told VICE News.
According to Time, Mr. Suess said that TC Energy cleanup crews have set up berms around the spill site and are removing contaminated soil to a depth of six feet. The contaminated soil is being taken to a landfill in Sawyer, North Dakota. It’s unclear what measures will be taken to restore the land after that. The company has not updated its Edinburg oil spill response webpage for more than a week.
The $5.2 billion Keystone pipeline has moved crude oil through Saskatchewan and Manitoba in Canada and North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri in the U.S. on the way to refineries in Patoka, Illinois, and Cushing, Oklahoma.
TC Energy has been working on plans to add several hundred miles of the pipeline through the middle of the U.S. The plan, known as the Keystone XL, involves cutting through swaths of tribal lands and vital water systems to reach the Gulf Coast. The Trump administration approved the plan in 2017 after it was previously blocked by the Obama administration amid intense Native American and environmental protests. A federal judge, however, blocked the project pending final assessment of the pipeline’s environmental risks.
The Keystone pipeline has leaked substantial amounts of oil several times in the last eight years. According to Smithsonian, documents reviewed by Reuters “reveal that the amount and frequency of these leaks are substantially higher than what TransCanada indicated to regulators in risk assessments.”
Beasley Allen’s Toxic Torts section handles cases of economic and health impacts resulting from environmental disasters. Lawyers in the section, which is headed by Rhon Jones, have worked on cases including a toxic coal ash spill in Tennessee, and the BP oil spill, which affected thousands of people in a number of states along the Gulf Coast. The section also investigates cases of toxic exposure, and lawyers are currently working on cases of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma connected to the popular weed killer Roundup, as well as cases of water contamination by perfluorinated compounds (PFCs).