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The Environmental Protection Agency is raising new concerns about tar sands oil. That's the heavy crude that Canada wants to ship to the U.S. through the Keystone XL pipeline. In the past, it's been treated like any other pipeline oil. But the EPA now says that should change because when it spills, tar sands oil is very difficult to clean up.

Here's NPR's Elizabeth Shogren.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN, BYLINE: The issue came up this week in the EPA's evaluation of the State Department's environmental review of the Keystone project. The State Department is in charge of the environmental review because the project crosses an international border. The route goes over an important aquifer in the northern plains. The EPA says the State Department should have given more consideration to other routes that pose less risk for major groundwater sources.

The thing is pipelines spill. And the EPA is learning, from a spill that happened three years ago in Michigan's Kalamazoo River, that when it's tar sands that spills, it's a lot harder to clean up. Michigan State Professor Stephen Hamilton is the independent science adviser to that cleanup. He says unlike normal petroleum, a lot of this heavy stuff from Canada sinks when it gets in water.

STEPHEN HAMILTON: We haven't finished yet on the Kalamazoo River. We're coming into the third year of intensive cleanup activity, and now, we're looking at very intrusive and expensive dredging to try to get it out of the worst places where it's accumulated behind three dams.

SHOGREN: Already, the cleanup has cost about $1 billion. It's the most expensive onshore cleanup ever. The EPA stresses in its letter to the State Department a tar sands spill releases harmful air pollution that puts people at risk. And as Professor Hamilton says, it's a lot stickier than conventional crude, so everything it touches needs to be thrown away, even rocks.

HAMILTON: The consequences and costs of the cleanup once it gets into surface water systems, as we've seen in the case of the Kalamazoo River, are incredibly high. And, you know, we'll never get it all out.

SHOGREN: The EPA's letter urges the State Department to set special standards to prevent pipelines that carry tar sands from spilling and to make sure any spills that happen are rapidly contained. Up until now, the United States has the same rules for all pipelines. Environmentalists, like Beth Wallace from the National Wildlife Federation, were glad to hear that the EPA thinks that needs to change.

BETH WALLACE: This is the first time that an agency has come out and said that that needs to happen. And we applaud them for that.

SHOGREN: Shawn Howard is a spokesman for TransCanada, the company that wants to build and operate the Keystone. He says the project already includes 57 new safeguards.

SHAWN HOWARD: We're talking about building the newest, safest pipeline that has been built to date in America.

SHOGREN: Howard says all the issues raised by the EPA have been studied thoroughly by the State Department in this and in previous reviews. But Michigan State Professor Stephen Hamilton says even after all the damage he's seen from the Kalamazoo spill, there are bigger environmental risks from producing new sources of oil.

HAMILTON: Oil spills as ugly as they are in the short term, ecosystems do eventually recover. And it's quite different for the carbon that we're pumping into the atmosphere. That's going to be with humanity for centuries with its negative implications. So that's a much more worrisome issue.

SHOGREN: It takes a lot more energy to produce tar sands oil, so it has a bigger greenhouse gas footprint than conventional oil. The EPA did say in its critique that the U.S. should work with Canada to figure out ways to reduce the greenhouse gases that come from getting tar sands out of the ground. Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, Washington.

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