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Pipeline spills oil into Kansas creek near Quivira National Wildlife Refuge

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The spill is 99% cleaned up, Kansas Corporation Commission says

Time will tell whether an oil spill upstream on Rattlesnake Creek will harm the birds that flock to Quivira National Wildlife Refuge, a migratory bird stop in Stafford County. 

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Its manager, Mike Oldham, said the refuge, owned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, had deployed absorbent barriers to catch any oil in case it made it downstream.

“We’re watching,” Oldham said. “We’re waiting. We’re monitoring.”

So far, the refuge hasn’t seen any oil reach its waters or contaminated birds fly in.

The spill took place earlier this month a few miles from the refuge where a lead line crossed Rattlesnake Creek. Linda Berry, spokeswoman for the Kansas Corporation Commission, which regulates oil and gas, said in an email that the wells using the line had previously been abandoned. When the wells turned back on, the line burst from the weight of the fluid.

About 10 barrels — or 420 gallons — of oil and 1,500 barrels of saltwater spilled into the creek.

Berry said the remediation is 99% complete, but staff will continue to inspect and take samples. She said no regulations had been violated in connection with the spill.

The spill poses another risk to the Quivira refuge, which is already threatened by insufficient water supply on Rattlesnake Creek.

Because of groundwater pumping upstream on Rattlesnake Creek, Quivira is not getting all the water it’s entitled to. Farm irrigation reduces the amount of groundwater that flows into the creek and becomes surface water.

The creek flows into the refuge, which contains more than 22,000 acres of grass, sand prairies and inland marshes.

The facility has a right to water under Kansas law that was established in 1957, making its water rights older than most others in the area. Under Kansas’ “first in time, first in right” policy, the refuge takes priority over junior water rights.

Quivira is entitled to more than 14,000 acre-feet of water each year, but has been impaired in about two out of every three years between 2008 and 2021.

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The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service filed a request to secure water with the Kansas Department of Agriculture in February, a move criticized by Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly and Republican members of Congress.

Because there is virtually no streamflow from Rattlesnake Creek into the refuge, Oldham said, the oil and contaminated water hasn’t made its way to the refuge.

Flows into the refuge have generally been less than a cubic foot per second, Oldham said. But in early September, the water stopped flowing at all.

“As far as how it’s going to affect us, we don’t really know right now until we start getting a little more flow coming down the creek,” Oldham said, “and we’ll see if any oil comes our way.”

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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