Battered by Floods, Nebraskans Worry About Pipeline Spills

Historic flooding recently inundated parts of the Cornhusker State where the proposed Keystone XL pipeline would pass through. Here’s why that’s a disaster in the making.

Credit: Nati Harnik/Associated Press

Midwesterners have rarely experienced a flood quite like the one that began on March 12 of this year. That’s when a historic “bomb cyclone” rolled over the upper Great Plains, bringing rain and unseasonably balmy temperatures to a landscape that had been frozen for months. The storm melted massive quantities of snow, which the still-frozen ground could not absorb. The result was the Midwest’s most damaging flood in half a century.

All hell broke loose. Rising waters literally swept away bridges, homes, and livestock. Nebraska’s 29-foot-tall Spencer Dam collapsed, unleashing a wall of water 15 feet high. Levees failed and highways became impassable. Massive shards of ice sped down the Niobrara River, destroying most things in their path before accumulating in enormous piles. Days later, when the water finally retreated, the region’s farmers, ranchers, and tribal communities were left to face the aftermath: land ruined and livelihoods destroyed. Ultimately, the disaster killed at least four people.

The destroyed Spencer Dam after a massive ice jam broke through the hydroelectric dam on the Niobrara River in Spencer, Nebraska
Credit: The US National Guard/Alamy Stock Photo

Now imagine if the proposed Keystone XL pipeline had been in the flood’s path.

That’s what has Art Tanderup worried. He and his wife, Helen, have been farming for 15 years in Neligh, Nebraska, growing corn, soybeans, and rye. The farm has been in Helen’s family for more than a century. Though their land fared better in the flood than many of their neighbors’, the Tanderups still have reason for concern. If built, the Keystone XL pipeline would pass within about 600 feet of their home. “We’re the ones taking all the risks if that thing goes in the ground,” Art Tanderup says.

When the Obama administration rejected TransCanada’s KXL project in 2015 after nearly a decade of ping-ponging legal battles and public outcry, local landowners like the Tanderups felt great relief. But it wasn’t long until the Trump administration breathed new life into the project, catapulting them backward. Most recently, Trump issued a presidential permit for the pipeline in an attempt to bypass a court order blocking KXL’s construction. A federal court in Montana found several violations of environmental statutes by federal agencies, including the State Department’s “insufficient” environmental review of the pipeline’s “alternative” route through Nebraska. On its proposed path from Alberta’s boreal forest to Gulf Coast refineries, the tar sands pipeline would cross not only farms like the Tanderups’ homestead but also more than 1,000 bodies of water and sensitive habitats, such as the migratory path of the critically endangered whooping crane. And KXL would run right through the areas of Nebraska worst hit by the recent flooding.

Water—especially in the extraordinary quantities that Nebraskans saw earlier this year—poses a significant threat to pipeline infrastructure, says Richard Kuprewicz, an independent expert in pipeline safety who has worked with both industry and environmental groups for decades.

Let’s say there’s standing water atop typically dry land. That water mixes with the topsoil and changes its density, explains Kuprewicz. Now imagine there’s a pipeline buried beneath that topsoil. Depending on the density of what’s running through the pipeline and how deeply it’s buried, it’s possible that the structure could float. “It will bend like a curve,” he says, “or move around, potentially laterally or up and down.” All that movement poses serious problems. Think of it like an aluminum can, Kuprewicz says. As the pipeline bends and stretches, the movement can eventually thin the metal and cause ruptures, something known as “fatigue failure.”

Now remember that the KXL pipeline would carry up to 35 million gallons of thick, diluted bitumen per day.

Oil companies are aware of such flooding risks and in frequently waterlogged areas will sometimes attach weights to pipelines to prevent them from becoming buoyant. But those weights pose problems of their own. According to a preliminary assessment by the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, such weights caused damage to the existing Keystone line in South Dakota, resulting in a 210,000-gallon spill in 2017.

Saturated soil is also more likely to wash away, which can unearth pipelines buried too shallowly. In severe floods, this erosion happens fast. Heavy rains can cause what’s known as “ephemeral gullies,” or temporary chasms in the land, which can send sediment-filled flows toward lakes and streams on lower ground. Following March’s flood, such gullies appeared all across midwestern farmlands: gashes a foot deep and multiple feet across. Once exposed, pipelines are susceptible to damage—from, say, speeding, 10-foot-tall ice chunks, uprooted trees, or in the case of a 2016 spill in Pennsylvania, slabs of a bridge washed away by floodwaters.

Pipelines that run underneath rivers pose an even greater risk to drinking water sources and ecosystems (something we’ve seen time and time and time again). Flooding can also exacerbate riverbed and riverbank erosion, potentially exposing pipelines to forceful currents and resulting debris. If that seems unlikely, consider that March’s floods were so strong that they created an entirely new channel for the Niobrara River.

As our planet heats up, the risks will only grow. A warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture, leading to heavier spells of precipitation, which climatologists at least partially credited for the recent flooding. According to the most recent National Climate Assessment, these heavy precipitation events could increase by more than 40 percent by the turn of the century in the Midwest (relative to the period between 1986 and 2015). Meanwhile, as seas rise, the nation’s floodplains are expected to grow by about 45 percent by 2100.

The field of pipeline safety is not catching up with the times. “Pipeline operators are required to protect against any ‘bona fide’ threat their pipeline faces,” Kuprewicz says, but he notes that the regulations don’t define what exactly “bona fide” means. “There may be an area that doesn’t get any real flooding, and all of a sudden we’re getting a 100-year flood every year. The pipeline operators could respond by saying, ‘We didn’t design for flooding because it wasn’t a ‘bona fide’ threat.’ ”

Groups like Bold Nebraska, which works with farmers, ranchers, and tribal communities to protect the state’s land and water resources, have started zeroing in on KXL’s flooding hazards. “Alarm bells went off for farmers and ranchers,” says Bold Nebraska’s founder, Jane Kleeb, in reference to conversations at a recent meeting. “Before, it used to be people talking about property or about rights and sovereignty of tribal nations. Now, the flooding is the first thing that gets brought up.”

Kleeb, like the Nebraska residents she works alongside daily, isn’t concerned just about the rivers. The Ogallala Aquifer, also called the High Plains Aquifer, runs from South Dakota to Texas. Almost two million people rely on the aquifer for their drinking water—84 percent of the people who live within its boundaries. It’s the nation’s largest freshwater aquifer—and in many places, it sits just a few feet below the region’s sandy, porous soil. A flood coupled with a pipeline spill could easily reach the Ogallala, where cleanup of the dense tar sands oil would be nearly impossible.

“I can dig a post hole and hit water almost any time of the year,” Art Tanderup says. “Our house well goes into it. We drink that water, irrigate with it. Livestock drinks it. If we need water, that’s where we get it. We’re very blessed—but we’ve got to preserve that.”

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