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Disaster in the Making: Grave Warnings Issued That Keystone Pipeline Is Structurally Flawed

TransCanada is trying to get its Keystone XL pipeline approved, but a whistleblower is raising the alarm.

Inadequately trained welding inspectors and code enforcement puts communities at risk of spills says whistleblower Evan Vokes.
Photo Credit: The Tyee



Editor's Note: This is the first in a two-part series, read the second one here on the Tyee.

A pipeline materials engineer, who worked for TransCanada Pipeline for five years, says some of the nation's major pipeline companies are breaking the rules on pipeline safety and that National Energy Board is not adequately enforcing them.

Evan Vokes, a 46-year-old Calgary-based engineer and former TransCanada employee, has filed complaints with the National Energy Board, the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta (APEGA is a self-regulating professional group that represents engineers) and the Prime Minister's Office documenting repeated violations of standard safety regulations and codes.

The alleged offences include repeated violations of several sections of the nation's Onshore Pipeline Regulations (OPR-99) on issues as varied as welding inspections, the safety of materials and conflict of interest.

In addition Vokes also charges that engineers do not always make project and scheduling decisions during pipeline construction (a common lament) and that "unskilled practice by professional engineers in a hurry" is a routine problem throughout the multi-billion dollar industry.

National Energy Board investigating

In response to a Tyee inquiry the board replied that it is actively investigating the allegations. “Board Executives met with senior company representatives to describe the allegations and how seriously the board takes them." One company in particular has been asked to report on their internal investigation of allegations of non-compliance.

Added Erin Dotter, the NEB's communication officer: "The NEB investigation into this file is ongoing and we are thoroughly reviewing and assessing the information that has been submitted. It would not be appropriate to discuss this matter further while it is under investigation."

Vokes' concerns, shared to varying degrees by members of Canada's embattled pipeline industry, have already been partly corroborated by U.S. and Canadian regulatory bodies in a series of recent investigations and reports on pipeline spills.

The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), for example, categorized Enbridge as having a "culture of deviance" on safety matters after it investigated that company's 20,000-barrel bitumen spill on the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. The NTSB accused the company of taking advantage of "weak regulations" and not learning from previous incidents.

Enbridge employees also admitted to NTSB investigators that the largest oil spill in U.S. history was "a wake-up call" that highlighted problems associated with rapid growth including staff shortages "and that type of thing."

As a consequence the US Pipeline Hazardous Material Standards Administration (PHMSA),  fined the company last summer a record $3.7-million for a total of 24 violations of pipeline regulations jointly enforced by the both National Energy Board (NEB) and PHMSA.

U.S. regulators also caught Kinder Morgan, another big pipeline player with extensive Canadian properties as well as controversial bitumen expansion plans, violating welding codes and nearly a dozen sections of the US Pipeline Safety Regulations while building the  Rocky Express natural gas pipeline between 2007 and 2008. It fined the company $400,000 in 2012.

U.S. regulators aren't alone in finding routine violations of code. A 2009 National Energy Board investigation on the death of an electrician at an Enbridge pump station found violations of construction codes and  concluded "the safety culture at Enbridge Kerrobert [pump station] was not adequately developed."

NEB made pipeline safety top priority for 2012

Unlike its U.S. counterparts, which have long records of public transparency, The National Energy Board did not begin posting its safety and environmental actions till the fall of 2011. Since 2008 the Board says it has issued 24 Safety Orders against on pipelines owned by Enbridge, TransCanada and Kinder Morgan. None are available on its website.

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