Regulators, Landowners Watch Oil Cleanup

Apr 5, 2016

Landowners and regulators are watching as crews search for the source of an oil sheen in southeastern South Dakota. The Keystone Pipeline is shut down as TransCanada teams drill for soil samples and excavate to figure out how oil got into the land. Officials with TransCanada say the oil covers about 300 square feet of land near Freeman.

TransCanada learned of a leak on the Keystone crude oil pipeline Saturday after a landowner spotted a sheen on the soil. Another local landowner Paul Seamans says it’s a problem that a regular citizen discovered the issue and no alarms notified officials.

"TransCanada has really bragged about their how great their leak detection system is, and it sure failed them here anyhow," Seamans says. 

Seamans says the potential leak proves the pipeline and its safety measures aren’t as secure as some people think.

Credit TransCanada

Shawn Howard with TransCanada says officials shut down the pipeline minutes after they verified oil in the ground. He says TransCanada has more than 100 people working to find the source of the oil.

"It’s too early for us to be able to say, ‘here’s what happened’ or ‘here’s some steps that were missed.’ That’s going to be part of the investigation that we do. That’ll be part of the investigation that our federal regulator does, and that’ll be part of the records that we provide to them," Howard says. 

Companies are required to file spill cleanup plans with the Public Utilities Commission when they build pipelines. PUC chair Chris Nelson says state law doesn’t provide the panel any role in a pipeline leak, but commissioners want to know how oil got into the ground.

Credit TransCanada

"Obviously we’re ultimately going to be interested in finding out what the cause was of the leak, what happened with the pipeline to cause this particular incident," Nelson says. "That we’re going to want to know, I think, more so that we have that knowledge basis as we may evaluate permits for other pipelines that may want to come through South Dakota."

The South Dakota Department of Environment and Natural Resources monitors decontamination efforts and has direct oversight of TransCanada. Brian Walsh is an environmental scientist with the DENR.

"We’re watching to make sure that they identify the entire extent or the area that’s been contaminated so we don’t miss anything," Walsh says. "We make sure that they look at potential receptors or people who might be impacted and they mitigate those impacts, and then we make sure that, when they do excavate or clean up water or soil, that it’s properly disposed of in an approved manner."

Walsh says state officials receive lab reports and sample data to confirm the dirty soil is removed. He says state authorities can add requirements if necessary and must approve the information before TransCanada completes restoring the property where oil leaked.

Walsh says the cleanup process has no timeline, because it simply takes as long as necessary for tests to prove soil soaked in crude oil is gone and the land is clean.