TransCanada received permission from federal regulators to re-start the Keystone Pipeline a week after a 16,800-gallon spill in South Dakota. The pipeline started back up on Sunday morning at a reduced operating pressure.
The incident has given ammunition to a group appealing the decision by the South Dakota Public Utility Commission (PUC) to re-certify TransCanada’s permit to build the Keystone XL Pipeline, despite President Obama’s denial of a permit needed to cross international borders.
The PUC reasoned that the next president could decide to issue the permit — a reminder that TransCanada has not given up on building the northern route of the Keystone XL. However, this most recent spill renews questions about the company’s ability to build safe pipelines.
When Evan Vokes, a former TransCanada materials engineer-turned-whistleblower, heard about a small spill along the Keystone Pipeline, he guessed that the leak would be found at a transition weld near where the pipeline crossed under a road. Transition welds connect thinner-walled pipe to thicker-walled pipe.
Places where the pipeline goes under road crossings require thicker pipe than the rest of the line, so wherever the Keystone goes under a road you will find transition welds, Vokes explained.
It turns out that Vokes’s prediction was right. In a corrective action order notice issued to TransCanada on Saturday, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), the agency that regulates interstate pipelines, indicated the probable cause of the leak was from a girth weld anomaly at a transition site.
Vokes warned his former employer and PHMSA about the transition welds, which he described as “inherently risky.” Welding different thicknesses of pipe together is harder to do than welding the same thickness, and it is more difficult to get accurate X-rays of welds.
“Even a seasoned welding inspector could miss imperfect welds when reviewing X-rays used to check the welds during the pipeline’s construction,“ Vokes told DeSmog. “And any less than perfect weld is more prone to crack when the pipeline moves, which happens when weather conditions change.”
Vokes felt so strongly about the risk of leaky transition welds that he sent an email to TransCanada’s CEO Russ Girling, warning that the transition weldsused on the Keystone Pipeline were a bad idea.
He pointed out to Girling that TransCanada was ignoring an advisory PHMSA issued in 2003 that warned against the use of such welds because they are prone to crack under stress.
He also emailed Kenneth Lee, a top PHMSA engineer who ran a workshop on “Pipeline Construction Challenges” in 2010, to inform Lee of his concerns.
Diagram of an improper weld transition part of a PHMSA presentation.
Lee responded by email: “We are in full support of efforts and technologies to improve pipeline safety, including many of those you have mentioned. The increased incidents of girth weld cracks are of great concern to us and we treat this very seriously.”
But Vokes believes his warning to Lee was ignored because no corrective actions were taken against TransCanada during the pipeline installation to stop the transition welds.
”Bad welds can result in a catastrophe, “Vokes explained to DeSmog. “A tiny crack in a weld can leak for years before it is found, because leak detection systems are only capable of detecting leaks when a pipeline’s volume drops by two percent in the course of a day.”
TransCanada’s detection system didn’t pick up the leak near Freemont, South Dakota, allowing the pipeline to spill at least 168,000 gallons of dilbit (refined Canadian tar sands oil) before a landowner noticed the spill.
It is impossible to say how long the pipeline was leaking, or how long it could have gone on leaking, had the spill taken place in a more remote area.
“There could be hundreds of cracks in welds along the Keystone Pipeline and TransCanada’s leak detection system wouldn’t locate them,” Vokes said. "The Enbridge Pipeline spill in Kalamazoo, Michigan, leaked twice as much dilbit before anyone noticed.”
The mounting failures of various TransCanada pipelines does not surprise Vokes because “the company often did not follow the code of construction.”
But he is surprised and dismayed that, when pipeline safety is at stake, regulators in Canada and the United States allow companies to continue to break the rules with few to no consequences.
Two other TransCanada projects that failed not long after they started operating are the Bison Pipeline in Wyoming, and the North Central Corridor Loop in Alberta, Canada, validating Vokes’s claims.
Vokes was fired by TransCanada before most of the changes he advocated took place. PHMSA did issue a corrective warning to the company related to the construction of the Keystone Pipeline, but it was for issues that did not include the transition welds.
Vokes believes that pipelines would be safe if the rules of construction were followed. But he is aware that the rules were broken repeatedly here.
While reviewing photos that Cindy Myers, a member of the Dakota Rural Action group, took near the spill site, Vokes noticed a person on the pipeline right-of-way carrying a firearm. “Firearms are not permitted on a pipeline’s right-of-way,“ Vokes said. “This shows that the company and the regulators are not taking pipeline safety seriously. To ignore safety rules even when the public is present shows a total disregard of public safety."
Man with reflective safety vest carrying a gun at the site of the Keystone spill in South Dakota 4/4/2016. Photo courtesy of Cindy Myers
Gary Dorr, a member of the Nez Perce Tribe, told DeSmog that TransCanada also ignores laws that say Indigenous peoples must be consulted before pipelines cross a tribe’s land. He is one of the legal challengers that includes members of the Dakota Rural Action, the South Dakota Keystone Consolidated Interveners, and several individual landowners who are challenging the South Dakota PUC’s decision to re-certify TransCanada’s permit. “The Keystone XL, if built, will cross tribal land without permission given to TransCanada by the tribes,” Dorr said.
The challengers filed an appeal against the PUC’s decision that is pending. ABC-TV affiliate KSFY in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, reported that the “circuit court judge in Pierre is expected to issue an order on consolidating the lawsuits against the PUC into one appeal next week.”
Dorr hopes this spill will make a difference in the court’s decision. “We were promised TransCanada’s pipeline won’t spill,” he told DeSmog, “and that is a promise that the company cannot keep.”
The PHMSA corrective order calls for more oversight on the Keystone Pipeline.
But Vokes told DeSmog, “The only way to find out if there are other slow leaks would be to dig up the pipeline everywhere a transition weld was made. There easily could be hundreds of undetected leaks in that pipeline.”
Photo credit: Keystone Pipeline spill site in South Dakota, courtesy of Bold Nebraska.