TransCanada’s claim that the southern route of the Keystone XL Pipeline is the safest pipeline ever built in the United States is challenged by the release of new documentation confirming multiple code violations.
Daily inspection reports on the construction of the pipeline obtained by the Tar Sands Blockade, an activist group, renew questions about the pipeline’s integrity.
Mounting evidence that the pipeline was not built to mandated minimum requirements established by the American Petroleum Institute increases the chances the pipeline will leak or experience a catastrophic spill.
The reports — prepared by federal regulators with the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) — reveal some code violations not previously disclosed. The number of reports also account for less than half the number of days the agency claims it spent inspecting the pipeline while it was being constructed.
Last year President Obama denied TransCanada a permit to build the northern route of the Keystone XL pipeline across the U.S.-Canada border.But his administration had fast-tracked the construction of the southern leg of the project in 2012.
The Keystone XL's southern route, renamed the Keystone Gulf Coast Pipeline when the project was split into sections, goes from Cushing, Oklahoma to the Gulf Coast. In Cushing, the pipeline connects to TransCanada’s pipeline network that originates in Alberta, Canada.
After mandatory safety tests revealed potential problems with the integrity of the southern pipeline, TransCanada dug up 130 sites and made repairs before the pipeline was permitted to start up.
PHMSA noted in its final inspection report that 37 sections of pipe had to be cut out and replaced and many areas of the pipeline’s coating had to be repaired.
The Tar Sands Blockade, Public Citizen, and landowners living along the pipelines path monitored the repair work. They were joined by Evan Vokes, former TransCanada materials engineer-turned-whistleblower, who shared his technical expertise.
They requested PHMSA require TransCanada do a new pressure test on the pipeline to test the integrity of the repairs. But PHMSA turned them down at a private meeting held shortly before TransCanada started up the pipeline.
PHSMA explained that it had faith the repairs were done correctly and assured the group that its inspectors spent over 150 days inspecting the pipeline during construction — overseeing welding, coating, installation, backfilling, testing and all other construction activities.
That claim prompted Kathy Redman, a member of the Tar Sands Blockade, to file a request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for the daily inspection reports. In total 66 reports were released covering 70 days.
Of those reports, two recount a PHMSA inspector aborting his mission after being warned that protesters would be at the site he planned to inspect. Another recounts an inspector sitting in on a safety training session with contractors and interviewing personnel.
“Inspecting pipeline construction is a boots on the ground activity,” Vokes told DeSmog. “Any time not spent on the pipeline right of way cannot be considered time spent inspecting construction.”
Vokes believes it would have been prudent for regulators to spend as much time as possible monitoring the construction of the pipeline. TransCanada has been cited on more than one occasion by regulators in the U.S. and Canada for not complying with construction code.
A couple of the company’s latest projects blew up, not long after they started operating, including the Bison Pipeline in Wyoming and the North Central Corridor Loop in Alberta, Canada.
DeSmog asked PHMSA if it had documentation to prove more than 150 days were devoted to inspections.
“There would not necessarily be 150 reports for 150 days, and we’ve been trying to find another way to explain that,” an email sent to DeSmog by a PHMSA director stated.**
But PHMSA’s final inspection report for the Gulf Coast pipeline states, “Daily reports were submitted by each engineer/inspector to document the daily
construction activities observed during the inspections.” It also says that “A total of 165.9 AFO [away from the office] days and 53.35 non-AFO days were spent on the TransCanada construction project.”
“The discrepancy in the number of days the agency claims it spent inspecting to the number of daily inspection reports makes me doubt PHMSA’s credibility,” Redman told DeSmog. The reports she did get added to her concern that the pipeline is a disaster waiting to happen.
The reports include inspectors’ observations of TransCanada violating construction codes. A report dated 10/30/2012 describes a welder who had the wrong welding rods in his bucket.
“That is a fundamental fuck-up,” Vokes told DeSmog. “It could explain the high number of welding failures the pipeline suffered.”
A welding inspector is required at all construction sites during pipeline installation. Using the wrong welding rods leads to bad welds, and bad welds can lead to slow leaks.
“The welder and the welding inspector should have been fired on the spot,” Vokes said.
Vokes found it troubling that the inspection report makes no mention of PHMSA’s inspector taking immediate corrective action. He believes stopping construction after discovering the wrong rods in a welder’s bucket would have been an appropriate response.
In another PHMSA inspection report, dated 7/09/2013, TransCanada’s pipeline coating problems are noted. At a dig site where the company was assessing issues detected by a safety test, the inspector found damage done to the coating caused by a shovel.
Previously released warning letters PHMSA sent to TransCanada reprimand the company for hiring unqualified welders and not protecting the pipeline’s coating during installation. And PHMSA’s final inspection report reveals TransCanada received unsatisfactory marks on welding procedures and installation practices related to the pipeline’s protective coating.
PHMSA did not fine TransCanada for any of the violations it cited in warning letters or require a second pressure test after TransCanada repaired the pipeline, although it has the regulatory power to do so.
A repaired pipeline segment on the Keystone Gulf Coast Pipeline. Source: PHMSA FOIA 2016-0041_000077
”You can’t expect the pipeline to be safe if the basic rules of construction aren’t followed,” Vokes said. “’Get the bitch in the ditch’ is the best way to describe pipeline construction these days. Speeding up the construction process makes no sense because it is a lot cheaper to do things right in the first place.”
Because pipeline regulators in the U.S. and Canada are not using the full force of their regulatory power, Vokes points out, operators have little reason to change their ways.
Redman is skeptical she was provided all of the documents she requested. Regardless, the 66 reports she was able to obtain confirm her belief PHSMA didn’t spend an adequate amount of time acting as a watchdog of a company with a questionable safely record.
“Anyone who relies on a safe water supply along the pipelines route should be concerned,” she said.
PHMSA Daily inspection Reports Obtained by the Tar Sands Blockade in 2016
PHMSA Daily inspection Report Obtained by the Tar Sands Blockade in 2014
**Ed note: After publication of this article, a PHMSA public affairs specialist emailed DeSmog this statement: "The daily reports are essentially notes the inspector uses to document their observations over the course of the investigation. Our inspectors use them to complete the final construction report and don’t necessarily keep them once the final report is complete."
Image credit: Julia Trigg Crawford at a TransCanada construction site across from her farm in Sumner, Texas, on Oct. 14, 2012. She tried to stop TransCanada from taking her land but was unable to prevent the company from using eminent domain. ©2012 Julie Dermansky