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Congress Should Investigate Construction Problems on Keystone XL Southern Segment

Public Citizen today called for congressional oversight hearings and a thorough investigation of the southern segment of the Keystone XL pipeline because of reports of serious flaws and a warning by a federal agency that nearly half the welds in one section of pipe required repairs.

In a letter sent to Congress today, we said startup of the southern segment of Keystone XL, which runs from Oklahoma through Texas, should be delayed until the inspection is complete and the public can be certain that the pipeline is safe.

This letter comes after a review of two September warnings letters from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA). The Sept. 26 letter, first reported by CBS News, warned pipeline owner TransCanada that on a section of the southern segment knows as Spread 3, “205 out of the 425 welds, or 48.2 percent” required repairs.

The letter describes how TransCanada employed a welding process that was not a “previously qualified procedure” and “failed to use properly qualified welders.”

“If there were 205 weld problems in a single section, there could be hundreds more in the rest of the 485 miles of the southern segment,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith, director of Public Citizen’s Texas office.

“There must be an investigation and crude shouldn’t flow until it is done. 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.”

In an earlier, Sept. 10 warning letter, PHMSA said field inspectors found dents in pipe that appeared to be the result of rocks in the backfill used around it. The letter said TransCanada did not ensure that the pipe was installed “in a manner that minimizes the possibility of damage to the pipe”

After reviewing the September PHMSA letters and other PHMSA warning and corrective action letters, Public Citizen spoke with a Washington-based PHMSA public affairs analyst.

The official confirmed that PHMSA had conducted inspections since the letters were sent but could not provide dates of the inspections, confirm that they focused on the problems identified in the letters, or give an approximate time frame for providing information on the results of the inspections.

The PHMSA letters were reported by CBS as part of a broader story aired last week on the southern section of the pipeline. The CBS report cited Public Citizen’s own investigation on the southern segment, which documented 125 excavations to remedy possible “anomalies,” welds, dents or other problems in the southern segment of the pipeline.

In light of the problems identified in the PHMSA letters and the Public Citizen report, Public Citizen calls for several actions:

  • PHMSA should enforce correction of the problems identified in its letters, inspect the corrected work, and make the process and results publicly available and readily accessible.
  • PHMSA should inspect all of the “anomalies” indicated by the Public Citizen report and make the process and results publicly available and readily accessible.
  • Because of the high number of problems identified in the PHMSA letters and the Public Citizen report, PHMSA should inspect the entire southern segment of Keystone XL. PHMSA should conduct a quality assurance review, and since the quality of the welds is critical to ensuring that the pipeline won’t leak or rupture, another hydrostatic test and caliper inline test should be completed before it is filled.
  • Congress should conduct oversight hearings to ensure that the pipeline is safe for the public and the environment.
  • All of the above should be completed before the pipeline is filled with tar sands crude and put into use.

Smith also pointed out that the problems are particularly alarming because of TransCanada’s poor safety record. TransCanada’s Bison natural gas pipeline exploded within the first six months of operation, and the first phase of Keystone XL spilled 14 times in the first 14 months of its operation, according to the State Department’s August 2011 report on the pipeline (“Final Impact Statement for the Proposed Keystone XL Project,” United States Department of State Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs).

“TransCanada’s history with pipeline problems speaks for itself,” Smith said. “TransCanada can claim that it is building a ‘state of the art’ pipeline, but what we have seen is far from it.”