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Satellite image reveals hidden danger lurking in remote river

A horrifying stench has blanketed parts of rural America after an oil pipeline leak that’s believed to be the country’s biggest onshore crude oil spill in almost a decade.

An estimated 14,000 barrels of oil, enough to fill an Olympic sized-pool, flooded out from the Keystone Oil Pipeline in Washington County, Kansas. The leak was first detected last week and crews from pipeline operator TC Energy continued to work through the weekend in near-freezing conditions to contain it.

Earlier, the county’s emergency management authority said on Facebook that residents were “ waking to what smells like gas”. In an update on Sunday, it said around-the-clock air-quality checks and environmental monitoring would continue.

An aerial view of Mill Creek.
Clean-up crews are stationed along a creek, trying to mitigate the impact of the oil leak (bottom right).Source: Reuters/Maxar Technologies

The company confirmed with Yahoo News Australia that its crew of more than 250 people is now “focused on response and recovery activities”. In an update on Sunday, it said it was working with farmers, tribal nations representatives and regulators.

Photos of the affected area show a deep scar of crude oil soaked into the hillside. Satellites have captured detailed images of Mill Creek which has been polluted by the leak. While human water reserves have not been affected, there has been a warning that livestock living on farms downstream should be given an alternate supply.

Oil can be seen flowing down the hillside into a creek.
Approximately 14,000 barrels of oil leaked from the pipeline. Source: Reuters

Efforts are underway to protect wildlife living in the region. Washington County is home to endangered birds and animals including the whooping crane, least tern, piping plover and the eastern spotted skunk.

Not the first major spill from controversial pipeline

The pipeline would ordinarily carry 622,000 barrels from Western Canada to US oil refineries and export facilities. TC Energy was unable to advise when flow will be restored.

Trucks parked near Mill Creek, as workers walk around in hi-vis.
Crews worked in near-freezing conditions to contain the spill. Source: TC Energy/Supplied

Environmentalist Jane Kleeb told PBS at least 22 leaks have occurred in the pipeline since it opened in 2010. One previous incident caused it to be shut for two weeks.

“All oil spills are difficult, but tar sands in particular are very toxic and very difficult, so I’m awfully concerned," she told the agency.

A proposal to extend the pipeline by TC Energy was shut down by President Joe Biden hours after being sworn into office. While former US President Donald Trump had backed the Keystone XL pipeline, Native American and environment groups had opposed it.

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