Letters From Regulators to TransCanada Do Not Inspire Confidence in Keystone Pipeline

Watchdog group Public Citizen and landowners along the Keystone pipeline's route through Texas have raised serious questions about the frequency with which TransCanada excavates sections of its line for repair. TransCanada told Unfair Park last week that it had indeed replaced some 700 feet of the 485-mile project, set to connect the Cushing, Oklahoma, oil hub with Texas' Gulf Coast refinery complex within days.

TransCanada explained the fixes as a consequence of the extra precautions it takes to ensure the safety of its pipelines. Warning letters from the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, however, seem to contradict the company's confidence in its quality controls. In a September 10 letter, the regulator identifies "probable violations" of pipeline safety regulations. In a follow-up letter two weeks later, PHMSA found still other potentially serious problems.

Public Citizen sent a letter to Congress Tuesday, asking for the delay of the pipeline start-up until oversight hearings can be held and a full inspection performed. "There must be an investigation, and crude shouldn't flow until it is done," says Public Citizen Texas director Tom "Smitty" Smith. "The risks of a disastrous spill are enormous for a pipeline that traverses hundreds of streams and rivers, and comes within miles of towns and cities."

According to its warning letters, PHMSA found sections of pipeline that hadn't been supported with enough soil, resulting in additional stress and dents. A contractor welding the sections didn't use weld blankets to protect the rust- and corrosion-proof coating from damage.

A second letter reveals integrity issues with welds along Spread 3 of the pipeline, from Polk County (east of Huntsville) to Nederland, on the coast. TransCanada halted welding on Spread 3 September 25 when nearly half of all welds required repairs. Regulators found the company used an unapproved welding process and "failed to use qualified welders..."

TransCanada says it voluntarily reported the defects to PHMSA. "All of these issues have been addressed," a company spokesman tells Unfair Park.

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Brantley Hargrove