Thirteen days post-incident, on Monday, Nov. 11, driving a utility terrain vehicle slowly down the gravel road alongside the site of the Keystone pipeline spill, TC Energy Incident Commander Virgil Pfennig said it should be clear why roads remain closed to the public.
Yards away from the side of the road, an orange fence ropes off the five-acre "hot zone" of land contaminated by the Oct. 30 incident outside Edinburg, when more than 9,120 barrels of crude oil was sprayed into the air. Shortly beyond the orange fence, close enough to be visible from the roadway, in a crater more than 8.5 feet deep, is the controversial pipeline itself, which resumed functionality at a reduced pressure on Sunday, Nov. 10.
"It's safety first," Pfennig said. "We want to limit the number of people on the road because of all the activity that goes on. If this was still a public road, you can imagine how congested and how dangerous this would be."
Safety is a recurring theme on-site at the Edinburg spill. The site can only be accessed through four checkpoints guarded by TC Energy security. Every employee and contractor undergoes safety training before being allowed on the site. Only authorized workers are permitted to enter the hot zone, which is monitored around the clock to ensure nothing toxic or hazardous enters the atmosphere.
This is the third incident Pfennig has overseen: His first was an approximately 400-barrel leak in Freeman, South Dakota, in 2016, and the second was a 5,000-barrel leak outside of Amherst, South Dakota, in 2017.
"You always take the lessons learned from the previous incidents, and you can react quicker," said Pfennig, who in his "day job" is the TC Energy area manager of North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska. "You know what your resources are, you've got more training -- you take those lessons learned from the previous incidents, and you can apply them to your latest one."
But he said there are unknowns to every incident response.
"You're prepared, yes -- but you're not," he said. "There are all the little things. And that's where I think the incident command system is so important, because you run into those intricacies that you don't come up with in a training."
The cleanup efforts continue 24 hours a day, and with more than 200 workers on-site at any given time, TC Energy Public Information Officer Sara Rabern likened the incident response center to a small town. At night, in particular, she said that, with the flood lights on, the site looks like a football stadium.
TC Energy declined to let the Herald take photos of the site or the cleanup efforts citing legal concerns, chiefly the privacy of the workers, Rabern said.
Most of the people working on-site are contractors not employed by TC Energy. Though Rabern said she did not know exactly how many contractors were working at the Edinburg site, but, by Monday afternoon, the company was approaching 40,000 hours of manpower.
Pfennig said that not only is it hard to know how many contractors are on-site, it's difficult to know where they come from. TC Energy hires its contractors through a number of subcontractors, the biggest being National Response Corp, a Great River, New York-based subcontractor specializing in oil spill response.
As the cleanup progresses, Rabern said fewer workers will be required on-site.
"You can only do so much work, right?" Pfennig said. "You can only get so much heavy equipment in one certain spot."
By Monday afternoon, workers had finished vacuuming 7,400 barrels of oil off the surface and had turned their attention to "scraping" the contaminated earth into piles.
In a way, the unseasonable cold snap has made that job easier, Pfennig said. The frozen ground didn't allow the oil to migrate into the soil like it might have in warmer temperatures.
On the flip side, he said the temperatures make it more difficult for both humans and machines to do their work.
The next step in the cleanup process is to run a chemical analysis on the contaminated earth to determine the best way to dispose of it, Pfennig said. The dirt will then be sealed in "holding cells" until it is determined what to do with it.
As for the land itself, Pfennig said TC Energy will lay clean dirt and plant grass on the affected area. If the upcoming year is a wet one, they could see the habitat naturally restored within a year, he said.
In the meantime, the Pipeline Hazardous Material Safety Administration will conduct a full investigation of the site, a process which could take several months, he said. The portion of the pipeline that leaked also has been excavated and is en route to a third-party laboratory where it also will be investigated.
Pfennig said that, at least on-site in Edinburg, strategies for preventing this from happening again are not being addressed at the moment -- the only concern is cleaning up the incident on hand and keeping both workers and residents safe while it gets done.
"People are always first," he said. "The environment is always second. And the pipe itself and its infrastructure area always third."