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.
Mary Jane and Blair Wright, who own 38 acres in Wood County, have always feared that a leak would destroy their groundwater. The Keystone crosses the Wrights' neighboring properties, which belong to their daughter and son. Mary Jane said her children only signed the contracts because they knew TransCanada could use eminent domain to obtain the right of way.
Part of the route runs through a piece of land where her daughter and son-in-law had planned to build a house, Mary Jane said, but the construction forced them to place their plans on hold. "They're upset about it—they hardly come out here to look at it."
When TransCanada finished installing the pipeline about two months ago, the Wrights thought they had put the project behind them. But the company returned three weeks ago without warning, and the noise and the equipment started all over again.
"Every time I see them out there, I make a point of stopping," Mary Jane said. "The contractors we've talked to have been pretty nice. I don't think they're supposed to expand on what they're doing, but as a homeowner and a landowner, I really want to know what's going on."
Whitley's relationship with TransCanada has shifted dramatically since the repairs began. Originally, he'd cooperated with the company and refused to let protestors onto his land. "My goal was to get [TransCanada] in and out as quickly as possible."
The situation changed several weeks ago, when employees from Michels Pipeline Corporation—a TransCanada contractor—began working on the repairs.
Whitley said he saw two workers drop a hose into a hole they'd dug, which had filled with groundwater. They placed the other end of the hose into a creek on Whitley's property, about 50 feet outside the pipeline's right-of-way. Whitley then heard them turn on a pump and realized they were pumping the groundwater into his creek. Then, as he watched, one of the workers turned away from the other one and urinated on the grass in full view of Whitley's porch.
"If my lady friend had been here it would've been in plain sight of her," Whitley said. "I was perturbed because they were trespassing on my property."
Whitley called TransCanada, and the workers soon took the hose out of the creek. But between the trespassing and the noise and not being paid for the disruption, Whitley decided he'd had enough. For the first time, he agreed to be interviewed and began working with Beving's group.
"I told TransCanada, 'I hate to do this but I'm sick of it,'" he told InsideClimate News. "I want to sit on my porch and not see heavy machinery. I want to take a nap during the daytime without [hearing] pounding pounding pounding. They haven't offered me any money. If they offered me enough money I'd terminate this call right now and I'd never do any more interviews."
Whitley said he hasn't asked TransCanada for compensation because he believes the company would "just tell me some BS and that will make me madder."
Howard said TransCanada handles compensation on a case-by-case basis, and would reimburse landowners for crop damage and lost productivity.
The unexpected excavation and replacement of the newly built pipeline has further aggravated tensions. Over the past year, dozens of activists have been arrested for disrupting construction of the 700,000 barrel-per-day project. They've staged treehouse sit-ins, chained themselves to machinery and blocked access to construction sites.
Howard said the repairs are a normal part of the construction process, and cited similar repairs that took place on another TransCanada pipeline, called the Keystone, built several years ago.
Pipeline segments are inspected before construction and tested again after they're installed, he said. Some of the recently-discovered dents are so small they can only be detected by in-line inspection tools, he said.
There are "no issues with the welds or the integrity of the pipe itself," Howard said, and he's not sure why some of the stakes on landowners' properties are labeled with the word "weld."
TransCanada X-rays 100 percent of its welds, he added, which exceeds U.S. pipeline regulations.
Kuprewicz, the pipeline consultant, said the company's commitment to X-raying all welds "is a good thing." The practice is required in Canada but not in the United States.
But Kuprewicz doubts the company is repairing dents that can't be identified by sight. "I find that to be not credible. If you can't see the dent, it's probably not a problem."
Given the controversy over the project, Kuprewicz said he understands why TransCanada is being cautious about the details surrounding the repairs. "The way you resolve that is to be a bit more transparent about what you're repairing...If they're not that big a deal, they should just tell the truth."
Construction on the section of the Keystone XL that passes through Oklahoma and Texas is now more than 75 percent complete. The Keystone's northern segment, from Alberta to Steele City, Neb., still needs a permit from the Obama administration before it can be built. A decision is expected by early 2014, with both sides lobbying fiercely in an attempt to sway the outcome.