Why on Earth Would We Let This Irresponsible Company Even Set Foot on U.S. Land, Let Alone Lay Shoddy Pipeline?
The time has come for U.S. pipeline regulators to do their own due diligence into questions of TransCanada’s safety practices. Moreover, as the next administration considers TransCanada’s proposal to build Keystone XL, a 830,000 barrel per day tar sands pipeline across the Ogallala aquifer, it needs to consider whether TransCanada should be allowed to build any pipeline anywhere.
TransCanada Whistleblower’s Safety Complaints Validated by Regulator
Audit confirms company failed to meet federal standards.
You can’t say that pipeline whistleblower Evan Vokes didn’t warn North Americans that something was wrong with TransCanada’s pipeline safety system.
In one of several forthcoming audits on the company’s management practices, released this week, the federal pipeline regulator confirmed that the company is not complying with the law on a number of safety issues.
Prompted by Vokes’ complaint and several media investigations, the NEB found that the company was “non-compliant” on issues designed to prevent and predict pipeline failures, including hazard identification, risk assessment, operational control-upset, inspection and management review.
The audit arrives just two months after an explosion at a TransCanada gas line in Manitoba. It sent a fireball into the sky and left 4,000 residents without heat during a bitter cold snap. The company is still trying to determine what caused the explosion.
Vokes, an expert on pipeline welding practices, worked for TransCanada for five years and was fired without cause in 2012 after persistently raising concerns about the company’s safety practices with senior management.
Problems have popped up on other TransCanada lines. In 2013, for example, the NEB ordered the company to repair corroded equipment on a gas line in Grand Prairie. Since 2009, the U.S. Transportation Safety Board has also investigated the company for three pipeline malfunctions and ruptures in Ontario.
So many dents, bad welds and “anomalies” have been identified along the southern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline in southern Texas that the U.S. pipeline regulator issued TransCanada a number of blunt warning letters last year.
In his complaint to the NEB, Vokes specifically highlighted issues on two of three TransCanada lines that experienced major incidents in 2013.
Vokes told the NEB about problems at the Pelican Relocate gas line in Fort McMurray. The oilsands service line later ruptured and closed down Highway 63 in 2013. Neither the NEB nor the Transportation Safety Board posted any notice on the incident.
Vokes also detailed welding issues on the North Central Corridor, another oilsands service line, which blew up last year. That rupture forced oilsands companies to scale back production. The NEB later ordered TransCanada to reduce pressure on the line to protect public safety.
The NEB is also investigating the company’s use of more than 600 steel pipe and fittings installed on the Keystone pipeline on both sides of the border “with the potential to exhibit lower than specified yield strength.”
TransCanada Whistleblower Evan Vokes Details Lack of Confidence in Keystone XL
Environmental groups have been pressuring President Obama to reject the Keystone XL pipeline, a high capacity, high pressure line that would transport diluted bitumen from the Alberta tar sands to the Gulf of Mexico. Tar sands crude is more carbon intensive than conventional crude oil, as well as more corrosive, creating the potential that dilbit will erode pipelines faster. Spills can cause irreparable damage to water supplies, land values and ecosystems.
Vokes, in the pro pipeline camp, has grave reservations about this too. But he is primarily concerned about the pipeline itself, so shoddily built that it may well poison aquifers and harm people’s health. President Obama has told the nation that his decision on the Keystone XL pipeline will be based on whether or not it significantly increases carbon emissions.
Vokes hopes that after TransCanada’s code violations become public knowledge, the President will also give weight to the project’s integrity and address the risks of catastrophic consequences.
TransCanada was already in trouble with Canada’s National Energy Board when Vokes started working for them in 2007. Three court orders had been served compelling the company to comply with pipeline construction regulations they had been caught violating.
Part of Vokes’ job as a pipeline materials engineer was to insure the company complied with the court orders. To comply, the company had to adhere to the accepted codes of pipeline construction set by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. Straying from the adopted code is not only illegal, it can compromise the integrity of a pipeline.
During his five years with the company, Evan Vokes did his best to get TransCanada to identify and solve its problems. Some of Vokes’ suggested changes were accepted; others were not. Vokes persisted: He urged compliance to regulation to insure quality and safety; however the company continued to emphasize cost and speed rather than compliance.
Despite his efforts on behalf of reform, in 2011 Vokes found himself observing failures in multiple projects, including the Bison pipeline that runs from Gillette, Wyoming to Morton County, North Dakota, and the Keystone 1, that runs from Hardisty, Alberta to Cushing, Oklahoma.
Faulty welds, defective parts and rushed preparation for the pipeline installations were causing problems.
The Keystone 1 failed shortly after it began operating, sending an 80-foot oil geyser into the air for 45 minutes until the landowner alerted TransCanada. Twenty one thousand gallons spilled before the line was shut down. An automatic safety feature failed to detect the spill when the line’s pressure started spewing oil. The Keystone 1 had 14 leaks in its first two years of use. Shortly after the Bison pipeline was put into use, it ruptured and suffered an explosion blamed on construction failures.
Pressure mounted as Vokes resisted signing off on flaws which went against his moral fiber and the engineering code of ethics that requires putting public safety before the interests of the company.
When his manager ordered him to stop his investigations in March 2011, Vokes persisted, uncovering an ever increasing scope of wrongdoing. In October 2011, he wrote to TransCanada CEO Russ Girling, offering his own mid-year assessment after Girling welcomed employee input.
” I have to quit or fight,” he told his boss, writing the following:
“It is with great mirth that I see the quarterly mention of the disappointing project and yet no one at the corporate level makes mention of why did these projects fail and who was held accountable. Instead we see promotion for those that say ‘Yes’ as we make the regulator madder. We task those who were instrumental in the failure with investigating themselves and if you dare speak of what happened it is classed as personal attacks on fellow employees.”
He listed all the things he was trying to do, the positive changes that TransCanada had embraced since he began, and the shortcomings which were still too large for Vokes to accept.
A few days later, he was put on what TransCanada deemed stress leave. Nevertheless, Vokes felt compelled to finish what he started, attempting to remedy the problems from the sidelines.
Vokes sent damning evidence of code violations to the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta, the Canadian National Energy Board and to the U.S. Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA).
He was fired when he returned to work.
Let’s take a look at TransCanada’s record
Keystone I, a pipeline moving primarily tar sands from Alberta to the Midwest and Oklahoma, was TransCanada’s first crude oil pipeline. TransCanada pitched it as a state-of-the-art pipeline which would “meet or exceed world-class safety and environmental standards.” In its environmental risks assessment, the company forecast that Keystone I would leak no more than 1.4 times a decade and noted that it had agreed to 51 special conditions that would increase its safety.
When construction on the project began in 2008, reality began to sharply diverge from TransCanada’s rhetoric. As the Keystone I was being built, a pipeline inspector working for a TransCanada contractor, was alarmed by what he saw – cheap steel prone to cracking, bad welds, sloppy concrete jobs, poorly spaced rebar, and fudged pressure testing. When he reported these issues to TransCanada, he was ignored and ultimately fired.
A whistleblower who has come forward with information about the Keystone pipeline is sure to have his message go unreported by CNN and the rest of corporate media. Mike Klink of Auburn IN was an inspector for the first phase of the Keystone pipeline and says that TransCanada consistently cut corners during construction of the first phase of the pipeline, always choosing to save money instead of resolving safety issues.
In an op-ed in The Journal Star of Omaha, Klink said, “What did I see? Cheap foreign steel that cracked when workers tried to weld it, foundations for pump stations that you would never consider using in your own home, fudged safety tests, Bechtel staffers explaining away leaks during pressure tests as ‘not too bad,’ shortcuts on the steel and rebar that are essential for safe pipeline operation and siting of facilities on completely inappropriate spots like wetlands.”
TransCanada says that the performance has been OK. Fourteen spills is not so bad. And that the pump stations don’t really count. That is all bunk. This thing shouldn’t be leaking like a sieve in its first year — what do you think happens decades from now after moving billions of barrels of the most corrosive oil on the planet?
Let’s be clear — I am an engineer; I am not telling you we shouldn’t build pipelines. We just should not build this one.
Because Klink, a civil engineer, called attention to how Bechtel, contractor for the TransCanada pipeline, was cutting corners and using shoddy materials, he was fired from his job.
“TransCanada didn’t appear to care. That is why I was not surprised to hear about the big spill in Ludden ND where a 60-foot plume of crude spewed tens of thousands of gallons of toxic tar sands oil and fouled neighboring fields,” Klink stated.
Keystone is simply another example of the necessity for strong, forceful regulation of corporate behavior to protect the rest of us from narrow-minded greed. And, Virginians better make sure that strong regulation is in place before letting Virginia Uranium and its Canadian backers open that uranium mine in Pittsylvania County. Beware, Virginia, the fix is already in, and only voter pressure can postpone that decision.
Keystone I started having problems as soon as it commenced operations in 2010. In its first year, the pipeline leaked 14 times, with the largest spill exceeding 21,000 gallons. Federal pipeline regulators were forced to intervene, issuing a Corrective Action Order (CAO) temporarily shutting the pipeline down as an imminent threat to life, safety and the environment. Keystone I became the newest pipeline in U.S. history to receive such an order – the previous contender was a 25 year old pipeline.
After finishing Keystone I pipeline, TransCanada started a construction on its Bison natural gas pipeline in August 2010. However, soon after commencing the project, the company ran into troubles. In an internal memo in September 2010, the pipelines’ construction manager listed problems relating to welding and inspection, concluding “we are in trouble with the Bison project.”
Federal pipeline regulators inspecting the Bison project took issue with the quality-assurance of inspections, the qualifications of people working on the pipeline and the procedures used to test the coating on the pipe.
While aware of these issues, TransCanada touted the extra safety measures it was taking for its “state-of-the-art” Bison natural gas pipeline, claiming that the pipeline “will be in place for 20 or 30 years before they need any repairs.” *Two months after TransCanada avowed the safety of its Bison pipeline, it exploded, destroying a sixty foot section with a shock wave that could be heard thirty miles away*.
Evan Vokes, a TransCanada metallurgical engineer sent to sort out the problems with the Bison project, found examples of shoddy welding and poorly trained inspectors who were not identifying all of the welding problems. Moreover, he came to find similar shoddy practices through TransCanada’s operations. In response to his concerns, his supervisors sent him what he describes as “increasingly pressured emails about how things were OK to do it that way.”
At the invitation of Russ Girling, TransCanada’s CEO, Vokes provided documents to senior executives of the company that documented systemic failure to follow code and regulations in 2011. However, in the face of inaction by management and after determining that TransCanada was consistently placing budget and schedule considerations ahead of quality, he raised his concerns with Canadian pipeline regulators at the NEB. After an initial investigation, investigators corroborated many of Vokes’ claims and have launched a sweeping audit of TransCanada’s operations. NEB regulators cited concern with TransCanada’s non-compliance with NEB regulations and what may be an erosion of the safety culture at the company.
It is a recognition that there was something really wrong with TransCanada. Because in my letter to Russ Girling, I told him that [TransCanada’s] business plan doesn’t match the NEB regulations. Evan Vokes, Former TransCanada Metallurgist
Mr. Vokes actions have been laudable and NEB’s decision to investigate them should be applauded. Unfortunately, no such action has been taken in the United States in response to Mike Klink’s allegations.
*TransCanada initial argument that Kink was only one of many inspectors to allege safety shortcuts seems particularly feeble now that
1) Evan Vokes has made similar claims which have been corroborated by the NEB
2) U.S pipeline regulators have already taken issue with the lack of quality-assurance inspections on TransCanada’s pipelines
3) in the NEB’s investigation, TransCanada has publicly admitted it has pressured inspectors to sign off on work off to code.
Industry lobbyists claim that safety programs routinely protect the public and the environment from pipeline failures with scheduled in-line inspections that might include x-rays, machines called pigs, special monitors or aerial surveys.
Yet companies fail to detect problems on their pipelines all the time, says Vokes.
A recent review of U.S. pipeline data by InsideClimateNews found that 19 out of 20 pipeline leaks aren’t detected by remote sensing systems. Landowners and employees at the scene of ruptures report the majority of all incidents.
The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board also makes a similar point in its sweeping critique of Enbridge safety practices on Line 6B prior to the Michigan bitumen spill – the largest pipeline spill ever recorded in the U.S.
Given that the pipeline industry proposes to double the nation’s pipeline capacity over the next decade, the issues raised by Vokes deserve careful regulatory and political scrutiny.
History of Oil Spills Plagues Future of Keystone XL PipelineHistory of Oil Spills Plagues Future of Keystone XL Pipeline
The Center for Biological Diversity has created the time-lapse video below, America’s Dangerous Pipelines, highlighting pipeline incidents from 1986 to 2013, relying on publicly available data from the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. (Watch the video in the link below)
Only incidents classified as “significant” by the agency are shown in the video. “Significant” incidents include those in which someone was hospitalized or killed, damages amounted to more than $50,000, more than 5 barrels of highly volatile substances or 50 barrels of other liquid were released, or where the liquid exploded or burned.
According to Environmental Action, in August 2013, the Texas Observer reported that a former TransCanada pipeline inspector said shoddy construction and repair practices will certainly lead to devastating leaks.
After working as a TransCanada engineer for five years, Evan Vokes voiced concerns to his bosses over the competency of pipeline inspectors and the company’s lack of compliance with federal welding regulations. When his complaints went unacknowledged, Vokes filed a complaint with federal regulators and was subsequently fired in May 2012.
The problem, Vokes said, is that poor construction practices and a willful ignorance of engineering codes and regulations will make leaks more likely.
The Obama Administration is expected to finally make its decision in the near future on the fate of Keystone XL. While many are waiting with bated breath as to what the verdict will mean for them, pipelines around the country continue to burst, leak, spill and seep their toxic, corrosive content into the environment.