Jane Kleeb vs. the Keystone Pipeline

Terry Van Housen had a question. What he wanted to know from the 30 or so other Nebraska farmers and ranchers gathered in February at the York Community Center was this: What do you do with 10,000 dead cows?

That was the number of cattle Van Housen figured could be at risk if the Obama administration permitted the proposed 1,700-mile XL leg of the Keystone pipeline to cut across their state. Bulldozers would dig a trench not far from Van Housen’s feedlot, completing the final phase of the Keystone project and streamlining the current flow of oil from the bitumen mines of Northern Alberta toward refineries on the Gulf Coast of Texas. If the pipe were to leak, Van Housen said, his cattle could die.

“Can we put [those cows] on trucks and send them to Canada?” suggested Max Nelson, a stooped retired rancher who raised his hand every 10 minutes to pose other hypothetical disasters: a spill polluting the water supply of West Omaha, say, or compromising the hydroelectric dams on the Platte River.

Trans­Canada, the $48 billion Canadian company that owns the Keystone, has repeatedly said the XL will be “the safest pipeline ever built on U.S. soil,” a technological marvel with automatic shut-off valves and satellite monitoring. The exact composition of what will flow through the pipeline is not publicly available, but it will include bitumen — a thick, semisolid petroleum product — blended with natural gas that has been pressurized to become a liquid. If the line is approved, it could carry 830,000 barrels a day of this “diluted bitumen” across Nebraska, over 275 miles and through 515 private properties. No one knows exactly what a leak would do, but evidence from past malfunctions suggests catastrophe. In 2010, a spill from Enbridge’s Line 6B dropped 840,000 gallons of bitumen to the bottom of the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. Four years and more than a billion dollars later, the cleanup continues. Last spring, Exxon’s Pegasus line burst near a residential area of Mayflower, Ark., spreading 210,000 gallons of bitumen through neighborhood streets, causing evacuations and leaving residents complaining of respiratory problems, nausea and headaches.

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