Environmentalists Rush To Combat 210,000-Gallon Keystone Pipeline Oil Spill In South Dakota

A spill this size could affect land and wildlife for years to come.

South Dakota is facing an environmental crisis with the leak of 210,000 gallons of oil from the Keystone Pipeline on November 16 near the town of Amherst. Now the Environmental Protection Agency, Greenpeace, and even the local tribe that opposed the pipeline are all taking action to clean up the spill and avert future ones.

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"It is a below-ground pipeline but some oil has surfaced above ground to the grass," Brian Walsh, a spokesman for the state's Department of Environment and Natural Resources, told CNN. "It will be a few days until they can excavate and get in borings to see if there is groundwater contamination."

TransCanada, the operator of the pipeline, said it was working with state and federal agencies. The company also tweeted an aerial photo, showing a large dark splotch on the surface of the ground.

"The safety of the public and environment are our top priorities and we will continue to provide updates as they become available," the company said.

The Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate tribe is especially worried, as the spill occurred near its Lake Traverse Reservation. "We are concerned that the oil spill is close to our treaty land, but we are trying to stay positive that they are getting the spill contained and that they will share any environmental assessments with the tribal agency," said Dave Flute, chairman of the tribe.

Flute also said his tribe is offering assistance in containing the spill and evaluating the environmental impact. "Although our tribe opposed the construction of this pipeline (and other pipelines), we understand it is here," he said in a press release. "It is what it is."

The Environmental Protection Agency is also monitoring the situation. "EPA is aware of the spill and is receiving periodic updates from the state of South Dakota, which is overseeing response activity at the spill site," a spokesman said.

The spill broke out just days before Nebraska officials announce whether they'll approve the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline. (The current Keystone Pipeline extends from Alberta to Texas and Illinois, and the XL Pipeline would span from Alberta to Nebraska.)

"The Nebraska Public Service Commission needs to take a close look at this spill," said Rachel Rye Butler, a spokesperson for the environmentalist organization Greenpeace. "A permit approval allowing Canadian oil company TransCanada to build Keystone XL is a thumbs-up to likely spills in the future."

Thursday's leak is the third pipeline spill in South Dakota this year. In April, 16,800 gallons leaked from a portion of the Keystone Pipeline near the town of Menno and 84 gallons leaked from the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline in Spink County.

Oil spills aren't just tough to clean, they can also be devastating to the environment. When the oil tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground in 1989, it leaked 10.8 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound, Alaska, and the oil eventually covered 11,000 square miles of ocean. The oil spill "killed an estimated 250,000 seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbour seals, 250 bald eagles, up to 22 killer whales, and an unknown number of salmon and herring," BBC News reports. 

"Now we've had about 14 or 15 species recover, but there [are] still some others that haven't yet," NOAA scientist Alan Mearns told EarthFix in 2009, reporting on the Exxon Valdez recovery.

Even worse than that spill was the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill following the explosion of that BP-operated oil rig, which leaked an estimated 210 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. In 2013, former NASA physicist Bonny Schumaker told NBC News about a "death of wildlife" in a 30-to-50-mile radius of the Deepwater Horizon site.

"Since the fall of 2011, now about 14 months, I see no turtles, few if any dolphins, few if any rays — Manta rays, cownose, golden rays, any of them — few sharks, few bait balls, all of the things we used to see," she said.

Meanwhile, Greenpeace keeps advocating for clean energy over fossil fuels, noting how solar energy and wind energy have both boasted immense job growth in recent years, as the use of fossil fuels continues to contribute to climate change. "The science is clear," the organization says. "The path to a sustainable future for people, wildlife, and the climate does not include fossil fuels."

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