In a Corrective Action Order issued April 9, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration reports that TransCanada’s Keystone pipeline leaked about 400 barrels of tar sands oil south of Freeman due to a “girth weld anomaly at the 6:00 position on a transition weld.” “Transition” in this case means a spot where the pipeline changes from the thinner steel approved for most of the system to the thicker steel required under roads and in other areas where the pipeline might be subjected to greater weight.
DeSmog Blog says that’s exactly the sort of problem that whistleblower Evan Vokes (who has appeared in previous discussions of TransCanada’s unreliability) tried to warn his former employer TransCanada about:
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 [Julie Dermansky, “TransCanada’s Keystone Pipeline Resumes Operations Under Supervision After South Dakota Dilbit Spill,” DeSmog Blog, 2016.04.11].
Vokes also notes that those armed guards TransCanada brought to the spill site violated safety regulations:
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” [Dermansky, 2016.04.11].
(Guns around pipelines and kids—we just don’t have a lot of common sense this month, do we?)
The PHMSA Corrective Action Order notes that when TransCanada found the bad weld, it was leaking oil at two drops per minute. That’s with the pipeline shut down. The order limits operating pressure at the Freeman pump station to 797 psi. TransCanada says the maximum operating operating pressure of Keystone is 1,440 psi.
PHMSA says TransCanada submitted a plan to fix the defect by installing a leak repair clamp. PHMSA orders TransCanada to submit a plan within 90 days to shut down the pipeline again, remove the clamp and the failed girth weld, and install a new section of pipe. TransCanada must also submit a plan “to analyze data on other girth welds within the Affected Segment”—from the Freeman pump station to the Hartington, Nebraska, pump station—”to develop a plan for the inspection of selected girth welds with similar characteristics.”
If regulators had not allowed TransCanada to use thinner steel to save money, there would have been no transition weld, and the Freeman leak may not have happened. Now TransCanada has to fix this leak and inspect other transition welds for defects. Pennywise, pound foolish, eh, TransCanada?