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Keystone XL Study Warns of Defective Segments on Pipeline's Southern Leg

Report by advocates says at least 125 sections on the southern portion of the Keystone have had to be repaired. Expert says concerns exaggerated.

Nov 12, 2013
Replacement work on the southern leg of the Keystone XL

Story updated on Nov. 13 at 2:30 a.m. EDT to include content of warning letters obtained by CBS from federal regulators to TransCanada.

Story updated on Nov. 12 at 3:20 p.m. EDT to include comments from TransCanada.

A group of environmental advocates and Texas landowners is urging federal regulators to block TransCanada from starting the southern leg of its Keystone XL pipeline, while new inspections are conducted and the company's construction and safety practices are investigated. The Oklahoma-to-Texas oil pipeline is nearly completed.

The activists, led by the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, allege in a report released Tuesday that shoddy construction on the new line has caused more than a hundred defects that TransCanada has had to fix. They believe the "anomalies," even after repairs, could leave the pipeline vulnerable to breaks and spills.

They called on the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, or PHMSA, to require comprehensive retesting and reinspection of the line before its scheduled startup around the end of this year.

The critics also want regulators to investigate TransCanada's construction and quality assurance records to see why so many repairs were needed and whether the company's practices, which have been criticized by Canadian regulators in the past, met safety standards. They are urging Congressional committees to hold oversight hearings into the matter.

"What appears to be problematic construction and corner-cutting raise questions not only about the chances of a spill, but also about the quality of TransCanada's in-house inspection system, as well as the ability of the federal government to oversee the process," according to the report.

The report said the pipeline should not be allowed to carry fuel until it has been retested with high water pressure, as well as reinspected using robotic devices known as "smart pigs" that can spot flaws and weaknesses.

But Richard Kuprewicz, president of the pipeline consulting firm Accufacts Inc., called the critics' concerns exaggerated.

"There is no such thing as an anomaly-free pipeline," he said after reviewing the report. "These are valid issues. But what I see does not rise to the level that in my opinion and experience would require a full hydrotest and another series of smart pig runs."

TransCanada said the repairs show that the company is being diligent in meeting and exceeding safety standards.

"If you use more stringent measures to find anomalies as we are doing, you going to find more anomalies," wrote spokesman Davis Sheremata in an email.

"Making sure that each weld, each section of pipeline and all of the facilities are built to the higher standards we have agreed to is what the public would expect of a responsible company," he wrote. "The public expects us to build this pipeline safely and to get this done right. We agree, and that's what we are doing."

The $2.3 billion, 485-mile pipeline would carry Canadian oil from Cushing, Okla. to the Texas Gulf Coast—primarily diluted bitumen (dilbit) from the tar sands, which is unusually hard to clean up when it spills into water.  

The pipeline would cross more than 630 streams and rivers in Texas, where Public Citizen concentrated its attention. People who live along the route, the report said, "face a big risk to their land and livelihoods should this pipeline leak or rupture."

David Whitley, a Texas landowner cited in the report, said TransCanada returned to his 88-acre cattle ranch in May to dig up a stretch of the pipeline. He let TransCanada cross his land willingly, he said in an interview, but is now concerned that "this thing might not be as safe as they are telling me."

David Whitley stands near his fence in front of a piece of removed pipe labeled "Dent Cut Out." Credit: Public CitizenDavid Whitley stands near his fence in front of a piece of removed pipe labeled "Dent Cut Out." Credit: Public Citizen "I was one of those go-along guys," he said. "The pipeline is here, and I know darn well there is nothing I can do about it as an individual. I'm just kind of going to hope for the best." Whitley believes the original pipe was dented because it was put down on a large rock in the original trench, and that an inspection detected the flaw.

Whitley said he has not yet read the Public Citizen report, but said the group's demands reflect his wishes. "I would like to see the pipeline tested again, and see some real oversight."

The southern segment does not need approval from the Obama administration because it doesn't cross an international border.

Public Citizen urged the administration to consider the alleged problems on the southern portion as it decides whether to approve the Keystone XL's northern section. If built, that pipeline would carry dilbit through Nebraska and cross one of the nation's largest and most important water sources, the Ogallala aquifer.

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