A Canadian company is repairing dozens of defects along the newly laid southern leg of the Keystone XL—the section of the oil pipeline that does not need approval from the U.S. State Department and is already under construction.
The Oklahoma-to-Texas pipeline is not yet operational, but landowners worry that the repairs hint at more serious problems that could someday lead to oil spills. The project will carry primarily Canadian oil—including diluted bitumen from Alberta's oil sands—from Cushing, Okla. to the Texas Gulf Coast.
David Whitley, who owns a small cattle ranch in Wood County, Texas, said he first heard about the repairs six weeks ago, when TransCanada—the company behind the project—asked to dig up a small section of the pipeline on his land for a visual inspection. Whitley said the work was described as part of a "random inspection."
Construction workers showed up with heavy equipment and dug a trench at least 30 feet long, he told InsideClimate News. They removed an eight-foot section of pipe and painted it with the words "DENT" and "CUT OUT." Later, Whitley said he found a construction checklist near the trench that labeled his property as work site 31 or 34. (He said the last digit was difficult to read.)
In a video produced by Public Citizen Texas, a nonprofit that opposes the pipeline, landowners say pipeline workers have told them there are at least 40 "anomalies" along a 60 or 70-mile stretch of the line in east Texas.
Photos taken by residents show wooden stakes in the ground labeled "weld" or "anomaly."
Mohammad Najafi, a civil engineering professor at the University of Texas at Arlington and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Pipeline Systems Engineering and Practice, said an anomaly "relates to something unusual" on the pipeline that could potentially cause a problem.
The presence of 40 anomalies over a few dozen miles is "very unusual" and "shows that something is wrong," he said. "That's not a good sign…it doesn't necessarily mean it's dangerous, but it means [TransCanada] may have missed something."
TransCanada spokesman Shawn Howard said the Keystone XL is being fixed "out of an abundance of caution" to ensure that it operates at a "much higher degree of design and safety than any other pipeline."
The company used "highly specialized inspection tools" to analyze the pipeline after it was installed, he said. "In this case, there are some minor dents I guess on the outside of the pipe that are the result of some of the backfilling activities… Sometimes a small stone may get pushed into that area and create a small mark on the pipe, but it's not something that's a safety issue."
Richard Kuprewicz, president of the pipeline consulting firm Accufacts Inc., said it's hard to tell whether the anomalies are problematic without more details. "There is no such thing as an anomaly-free pipeline, not even a new pipeline. The question is, are the anomalies of such nature that they could go to failure in the near future?"
"Just saying you've got a dent doesn't bother me," he said. "It depends on where they are and how deep."
Kuprewicz said the photos he has seen don't show "anything of undue concern." But he said he can't make an informed assessment without additional information.
"To be fair, if I were a landowner and you told me there were 40 repairs, I'd be asking questions too," he said.
Dozens of Anomalies
Local residents say they've received little explanation about the recent activity.
Whitley said that after TransCanada began digging up his property again, he contacted Rita Beving, a local activist who works with Public Citizen Texas. Beving told InsideClimate News that she drove to Whitley's property and struck up a conversation with a pipeline inspector whose nametag read "Nate Johnston."
Beving said Johnston told her there were at least 45 anomalies.
Another landowner who asked a TransCanada representative about the repairs taped their conversation. The landowner declined to make the recording public and requested to remain anonymous in order to avoid potential conflicts with TransCanada.
InsideClimate News obtained a copy of the tape through Beving. In it, a man can be heard talking about "70 anomalies" and the fact that TransCanada is digging up many sections of the pipeline in order to go above and beyond federal safety requirements.
Howard said he didn't know how many anomalies there are in total, but said the company is fixing nine separate sections in Texas. "By law, we are required to replace a minimum of nine feet—meaning that in total we are replacing about 81 feet of pipeline," he wrote in an email.
Beving said she's seen more than a dozen worksites while visiting landowners and driving along the pipeline's route.
Lives Disrupted Again
In addition to their safety concerns, the landowners are frustrated by the extra disruption to their lives.