TransCanada has begun its initial start-up process on the southern half of the Keystone XL pipeline despite hundreds of reported anomalies in the pipe. Grassroots activists are calling on regulators to issue a corrective action order that would halt the start of commercial operations.
After years of struggle on the part of grassroots activists, advocacy organizations and landowners threatened by the southern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline across Oklahoma and Texas, TransCanada has begun the preliminary start-up processes by injecting the pipeline with oil - despite hundreds of reported anomalies in the pipeline.
The start-up comes after two letters from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) warned that the company was in violation of safety regulations in September.
TransCanada announced it began injecting the pipeline, known to the company as the Gulf Coast Project, with oil last weekend. The company will be injecting about 3 million barrels of oil into the pipeline from Cushing, Oklahoma, in the coming weeks as it prepares for the official start of commercial operations.
But the official start date is still up in the air, because TransCanada is not releasing any further information about additional start-up processes to anyone, not the landowners, first responders or government officials. But it is providing “general guidance” to its customers.
“We are not going to be in a position to provide an update on when the Gulf Coast Project will go into commercial service. We have provided general guidance to our customers, based on the contracts we have in place with them,” TransCanada spokesman Shawn Howard said in statement.
Howard maintained that TransCanada is injecting “both light and heavy blends of oil” into the pipeline but declined to identify the exact blend because of confidentiality clauses in the commercial contracts the company maintains with its customers.
The 485-mile pipeline is expected to carry more than 700,000 barrels per day of Canadian tar sands diluted bitumen from Cushing, Oklahoma, to Port Arthur, Texas, by mid-January. President Obama announced he would expedite the construction of the pipeline during his "all of the above" energy speech in Cushing in March 2012.
But in two warning letters to TransCanada in September, PHMSA identified hundreds of anomalies with the pipeline, including flaws in the welds and with pipeline coating. PHMSA states in one letter that 205 of 425 welds in one section of the southern segment needed repairs. In another letter, PHMSA found problems after the pipeline was inspected and stated that 98 sites were excavated because of other damages and flaws to the pipe. PHMSA cited rocky backfill in trenches used around the pipeline that may have caused dents found in the pipe.
The letters state that TransCanada is subject to a civil penalty fine not to exceed $200,000 per violation per day the violations persist, but the PHMSA has so far failed to assess any such fine.
Kathy DaSilva is a grassroots activist in Nacogdoches, Texas, who has documented much of the damage and other anomalies to the pipe. She organizes with Nacogdoches County STOP (Stop Tar sands Oil Permanently) and the Tar Sands Blockade.
DaSilva documented how in one section of the pipeline, the pipe was sagging because of inadequate support. She said that as the pipe began to sag, increased pressures caused the welds to split open in some areas. She said many of those issues were corrected by the end of September, around the same time the warning letters were issued from PHSMA. But DaSilva said that when activists went back to observe places where the pipeline had been dug up, many of the same issues remained, such as rocky trenches, inadequate welds and support structures.
“They did address the anomalies, the things that failed the testing, but they were addressed in a way that was like patching it back together, cutting a section out that included a dent and welding in a new piece of pipe. The new pieces did not have to be hydrostatically tested because of the expense to the company,” she said.
Public Citizen also documented the flawed pipeline infrastructure in a separate report. That report discloses that TransCanada had undertaken 125 excavations for problematic welds, dents and other issues that could lead to leaks and spills.
Public Citizen also has made several open records requests to PHSMA for information regarding the anomalies in the pipeline and any attempts to correct them, but the agency was unable to meet the requests before the weekend pipeline start-up.
Tom Smith, director of Public Citizen’s Texas office, told Truthout that PHSMA declined to confirm to Public Citizen whether or not the agency was investigating the pipeline’s construction beyond the two warning letters the agency sent in September. “They used bureaucratic language in such a way that it wasn’t clear how much they ever did [follow up on the warning letters],” he said.
A PHSMA spokesperson provided the following statement in an email message Truthout:
PHMSA's safety inspectors have spent over 150 days inspecting the construction of the Gulf Coast Pipeline project overseeing welding, coating, installation, backfilling, testing and all other construction activities to ensure that the newly constructed pipeline will operate safely. Now that the construction phase is complete, PHMSA will continue to monitor TransCanada's compliance with federal pipeline safety requirements and keep the public updated on our safety activities.
Public Citizen, alongside other advocacy organizations and grassroots advocacy groups including the Tar Sands Blockade, are calling on PHSMA to issue a Corrective Action Order that would require the southern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline to be reinstalled correctly, according to current regulations, or permanently shut down.
While a legal challenge to the Gulf Coast Project by the Sierra Club recently was denied by the US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, another landowner’s legal challenge over eminent domain has been presented by petition to the Supreme Court.
The pipeline crosses Julia Trigg Crawford’s farm in Direct, Texas, and she is holding out hope that the high court will take up her case challenging the seizure of her land by eminent domain.
“[The line’s start-up is] pretty much a kick in the gut, because we’ve been trying to bring to light the shoddy construction, the non-transparency on what the products are and how landowners were treated. So it’s disappointing to see, even when the president brings all these things up in his latest statements, that the jobs were not there and the product is probably going outside of the country,” she said. “So it’s disappointing to see the start-up, but that does not in any way diminish my desire to get the Supreme Court on my case. I am still maintaining [TransCanada] did not have the right to take my land for this thing.”
The southern segment of the Keystone XL is all that is needed for TransCanada to have a direct line from Alberta to pipe tar sands down to Gulf Coast refineries for export to the global market - and that’s with or without the Keystone system’s northern leg, which would serve as an expansion to a pre-existing pipeline system that has the capacity to deliver hundreds of thousands of barrels of tar sands crude every day.
The Keystone’s system’s first two phases of construction established the Keystone I pipeline, running from Alberta and making a stop in Steele City, Nebraska, before turning and heading east to Patoka, Illinois. The pipeline was finished in June 2010 and has since spilled more than 35 times. Shortly after completion of Keystone I, the company finished a much smaller extension of the system, phase two, from Steele City to Cushing in February 2011.
The Gulf Coast Project continues from Cushing down to Gulf Coast refineries.
“The thought that as I’m standing here this sludge may be starting to ooze across my property ... it’s a very strange feeling. It’s like an unseen monster. Is it out there? How long does it take to go 100 miles? I don’t know. I’d like some information. It’s not like a thermometer where it starts turning red as it comes across my property,” Crawford said.
Full Disclosure: In the beginning of the Tar Sands Blockade’s campaign, this reporter initially supported some of the media outreach activities of the organization. She no longer engages in those activities.