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 University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of EngineeringOnline: Summer 2011
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Two Nebraska Engineering faculty regarded as water experts have called for further research as the U.S. State Department decides whether to let TransCanada build the Keystone XL pipeline across the Ogallala Aquifer.

Media have reported the 1,702-mile, 36-inch diameter underground line costing $7 billion would pump diluted bitumen from mines in Alberta, Canada’s tar sands crossing six U.S. states to reach Gulf Coast refineries, with 92 miles of pipeline set into the Nebraska Sandhills.

A June 6, 2011 letter from UNL’s Wayne Woldt, assistant professor of Biological Systems Engineering, and John Gates, associate professor with the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, called on U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to consider further study of Nebraska’s fragile Sandhills region before deciding on routing of the Keystone XL pipeline, currently proposed atop the Ogallala Aquifer.

“Hydrologic studies in the sandhills have already shown that all of the conditions are right for producing very short lag times between a pipeline crude oil release and water contamination,” Woldt and Gates wrote. “Because lakes and streams in the sandhills are fed almost exclusively by groundwater, risks are not limited to the aquifer, but extend to surface water as well.”

An analysis report by John Stansbury--professor of Civil Engineering, who researches water resources and serves as a risk assessment instructor for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers--suggests that the risks of catastrophic pipeline ruptures at Sand Hills river crossings has been underestimated by TransCanada.

 

The federal Clean Water Act requires TransCanada to estimate the potential worst-case discharge from a rupture of the pipeline and to estimate how it would respond to a spill.

"It is widely recognized that the environmental assessment documents for the Keystone XL pipeline are inadequate, and that they do not properly evaluate the potential environmental impacts that may be caused by leaks from the pipeline," Stansbury’s report said.

He estimated a worst-case spill in the Sandhills region of Nebraska could pollute 4.9 billion gallons of groundwater with a plume of contaminants 40 feet thick, 500 feet wide and 15 miles long.

"This plume, and other contaminant plumes from the spill, would pose serious health risks to people using that groundwater for drinking water and irrigation," according to his report.

State Department spokesman Harry Edwards said more than 100,000 comments were received in response to the department’s mid-April release of its supplemental draft environmental impact statement on Keystone XL, with a comment period through June 6.

As of August 2011, the State Department planned to issue public meetings in Washington, D.C., and in several states within 30 days of a final environmental review of the pipeline.

 

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