After Safety Concerns Over Its Southern Leg, Keystone XL Is Getting New Regulations

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"After Safety Concerns Over Its Southern Leg, Keystone XL Is Getting New Regulations"

President Barack Obama arriving at the TransCanada Stillwater Pipe Yard in Cushing, Okla.

President Barack Obama arriving at the TransCanada Stillwater Pipe Yard in Cushing, Okla.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez

TransCanada will have to meet two extra safety conditions if it gets the go-ahead to build the northern portion of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, due to concerns from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) that defects could occur during construction.

PHMSA slipped in the two conditions towards the end of the appendices of the State Department’s Environmental Impact Statement, released this January. They dictate that TransCanada hires a third-party contractor chosen by PHMSA to monitor Keystone XL’s construction and report any faulty construction techniques back to the agency. In addition, TransCanada will be required to adopt a quality management program to make sure that Keystone XL is “built to the highest standards by both Keystone personnel and its many contractors.”

As AP reports, PHMSA has reason to be worried about construction defects along the pipeline. Last year, PHMSA sent TransCanada two letters warning the company about defects on Keystone XL’s southern leg, which runs from Oklahoma to the Gulf Coast and began shipping oil in January.

In one letter from September, PHMSA said TransCanada had experienced a “high weld rejection rate,” with 72 percent of welds needing repair over the course of just one week. During another week, 205 out of 425 welds required repairs. PHMSA inspectors found TransCanada wasn’t using approved welding procedures to connect pieces of pipeline, and that the company had improperly tested the workers they hiring — meaning the workers building the pipeline weren’t qualified to do so.

TransCanada’s high weld rejection rates — described as “horrible” by one engineering professor — is sobering news. Robert Bea, professor emeritus of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, told the AP that if Keystone XL were held to the same standards as a nuclear power plant, a weld rejection rate of one-tenth of a percent would be alarming.

“In this case, you are talking about a pipeline that has requirements on its performance that rival those of a nuclear power plant,” he said.

PHMSA also sent a letter to TransCanada saying that government inspectors had noticed parts of the pipeline had been laid without properly clearing rocks away from pipeline trenches, and that a coating that protects the pipeline from corrosion had been damaged due to improper welding. That damage led to Keystone XL being dug up in 98 places for coating repairs.

TransCanada told AP that the company had “identified and addressed” the issues pointed out in the letters. “The fact that the anomalies on the exterior of the pipe were discovered in the first place is a direct result of the 57 special safety conditions we agreed to implement on this project and Keystone XL, many of which are not required by regulation but are standard practice on all TransCanada pipeline construction projects, ” Davis Sheremata, a spokesman for TransCanada, said.

The letters aren’t the only evidence of faults along Keysone XL’s southern leg, however. A November report found that TransCanada had dug up the pipeline 125 times to fix dents and sags, defects that can weaken pipelines and eventually lead to spills. And as Bloomberg reported last year, TransCanada won’t be using the most advanced spill detection technology, which employs infrared sensors or fiber-optic cables to find even tiny spills, on Keystone XL. That failure to include high-tech spill detection is concerning, especially when paired with news that PHMSA could be shrinking its staff by nine percent by mid-June, due to agency-offered employee buyouts. President Obama’s decision on Keystone XL isn’t expected until after November.

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