Environmental experts say Keystone Pipeline spill could've been worse

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VERMILLION, S.D. (KSFY) - Thursday's 210,000 gallon leak of the Keystone Pipeline near Amherst, South Dakota, isn't the first time the pipeline has leaked and experts say, it likely won't be the last.

(Image Source: Shannon Ramos / CC BY 2.0 / MGN)

"You know, it's not a matter of will they leak? It's a matter of when they'll leak," Meghann Jarchow, Assistant Professor and Coordinator of the Sustainability Program at the University of South Dakota said.

Last year, a leak was discovered near Menno, about 200 miles from this most recent leak in Amherst. This leak, however, is the largest in South Dakota history and it was spotted fairly quickly.

Jarchow said leaks like this won't always be found as quickly.

"What we have here by Amherst is an example of that and when you have these rural areas, it takes awhile before you can get out there and they can't monitor every stretch of the pipeline all the time," Jarchow said.

In the Keystone Pipeline is a product called bitumen. Oil executives call it, "oil sand," but Jarchow said the product is extremely thick and can't travel through the pipeline on its own, so chemicals, or diluents, are added to thin out the product so it can travel.

While the spill didn't occur near water this time, Jarchow said, we still don't know exactly what chemicals have been used to make the bitumen flow better through the pipeline.

"I think that those are proprietary so I don't think we can know exactly what is in them," she said.

And that mixture can have serious consequences.

"There's been examples where it's exploded so when it volatilizes into the air, it can start on fire also," Jarchow said. "There's a challenge if it gets into water -- it separates -- and so the bitumen goes back to being a solid, and the diluent mixes in with the water."

"I think one thing about this is actually extremely lucky is that it's not near water because soil is really good at detoxifying things, water is really good at transporting things," she said.

And for the farmers who own the land where the spill occurred ...

"If it stays in the soil, I think it's going to have a more localized effect," Jarchow said. "It probably isn't going to be great for next year and probably not for awhile."

Jarchow said this was the concern for many with the Dakota Access Pipeline. She said if a spill like this had occurred near the Missouri River, it could affect the water supply in Sioux Falls, Vermillion and many other communities in South Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa.

KSFY News also reached out to Rep. Kristi Noem, Sen. Mike Rounds and Sen. John Thune.

Brittany Comins, Spokesperson for Rep. Noem said:

"The investigation is ongoing. Rep. Noem will be closely monitoring developments about what caused this, where safeguards worked and where they failed, and what the impact will be.”

Sen. Rounds issued this statement:

"Our office is in touch with TransCanada, DENR, PHMSA and the EPA as they work to evaluate the spill and clean up the site. They are focusing on the continued efforts to act swiftly and appropriately to clean up the spill. Once the initial emergency response is over, there will be a time to evaluate how it can be prevented from happening again.”

Sen. Thune issued this statement:

"My office has been in touch with TransCanada, and I have personally discussed this issue with Skip Elliott, the administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, who assured me that remediation efforts and an investigation are already underway. While no leak is a good leak, the source was quickly identified, and I appreciate that investigators and support staff quickly responded. I will continue to monitor the situation to ensure the investigation and clean up are carried out as efficiently as possible.”