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Ogallala Aquifer Report Fails to Settle Concerns Over Oil Spill Risk

A thorough and adequate study of the impacts has not been done, a scientist says; it's a rigorous and comprehensive review, says TransCanada's CEO.

Jan 14, 2013
Texas landowner protests construction of the southern leg of the Keystone XL pip

The question of how an oil spill from the proposed Keystone XL pipeline might affect the Ogallala aquifer was raised again this month, in a report the U.S. State Department will use to help it decide whether to approve or reject the controversial project.

The report concluded that a spill would have little effect on Nebraska's primary source of drinking water, because the oil would spread less than a thousand feet within the High Plains/Ogallala aquifer. The impact on the Ogallala aquifer would be "local," not "regional," said the report, which was prepared by the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and HDR Engineering, an Omaha-based consulting firm.

Scientists interviewed by InsideClimate News agreed with the report's conclusions that an underground spill probably wouldn't travel far and that a single accident wouldn't damage the entire Ogallala aquifer. But they also said the report didn't take into account other important factors:

  • Some of the chemicals found in the primary type of oil the pipeline would carry are trade secrets, so it's impossible to know how they would behave in the Ogallala aquifer.  
  • The report analyzed the effects of only a 42,000-gallon spill, even though far larger spills have plagued U.S. oil pipelines in recent years. A 2010 accident in Michigan dumped more than a million gallons of a type of oil known as dilbit into the Kalamazoo River. In 2011, a pipeline leaked 63,000 gallons of oil into Montana's Yellowstone River.
  • The DEQ's study was generic, rather than specific to Nebraska's geology and hydrology. The actual risks would vary, the scientists said, depending on where the spill occurs in the Ogallala aquifer, the location of nearby wells and other site-specific factors.

"The DEQ report provides a general and generic assessment of the potential impacts from a hypothetical spill," said John Stansbury, a civil engineering professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who has pushed for detailed studies about the pipeline's environmental impacts.

"The bottom line is that a thorough and adequate study of the impacts has not been done [to date], and that includes the DEQ report."

The DEQ's conclusion that the impact of a spill would be localized didn't reassure local ranchers and farmers. More than 85 percent of Nebraskans rely on the Ogallala aquifer for their drinking water, and virtually everyone along the route depends on it for their families, crops and livestock.

"We have the cleanest, purest water in America," said Bruce Boettcher, who raises organic cattle in Holt and Rock counties. The land has been in his family for five generations and he intends to pass it down to his three children.

"People have a connection to the land and the water…because the water is so close to the top of the ground. We live in it. It's right here; we see it every day. We don't want it disturbed."

TransCanada, the company that hopes to build the pipeline, told the DEQ in a letter last October that it will "provide an alternate water supply for any well where water quality was found to be compromised by a spill." But landowners say that's simply not feasible.

Susan Luebbe has 1,200 head of cattle on her ranch, and each one drinks 15 to 30 gallons of water a day. Where would the "alternate" water source come from, she asks. How could TransCanada transport tens of thousands of gallons per day on rural roads that are often unpaved, through blizzards and harsh weather conditions?

"It's a total joke," Luebbe said. "They can throw that [offer] out there, but they don't know what ranching is like in Nebraska."

Richard Kilmurry said some of his cattle drink from streams that are connected to the Ogallala aquifer, but TransCanada hasn't offered to replace contaminated surface water. "If your water is never going to be useable again, it pretty much renders your land useless," he said.

TransCanada did not respond to requests for comment for this story. In a news report earlier this month, the company said it welcomed the DEQ's conclusions, and president and CEO Russell Girling called the report "a rigorous and comprehensive review."

The groundwater study is just a small part of the 2,000-page report, which was designed to examine how the pipeline would affect Nebraska communities and natural resources. It concluded that "Construction and operation of the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline, with the mitigation and commitments [TransCanada] has identified…could have minimal environmental impacts in Nebraska."

The authors said TransCanada would be responsible for any spill cleanup and the company's commitments "such as funding for a public liaison, liability insurance, and private well testing, provide for additional protection of Nebraska's interests."

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