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XL SOUTHERN PIPELINE ALREADY EXHIBITING WORRISOME FLAWS

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PIERRE — Federal regulators have placed two extra restrictions on TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline after learning of potentially dangerous construction defects on the southern leg of the Canada-to-Texas project.

The northern leg, which is being lobbied hard by Koch Industries and the political right, is planned for North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska and other states, despite stiff opposition from Indian tribes, farmers and ranchers, especially along the Ogallala Aquifer.

The southern pipeline’s defects—rampant bad welds, dented pipe, unfocused workmanship, and damaged pipeline coating—have been fixed, according to the company. But the federal Pipeline & Hazardous Materials Safety Administration wants to make sure similar problems don’t occur during construction of the controversial northern segment, which is on hold pending a decision by Obama administration.

One condition requires TransCanada to hire a third-party contractor chosen by the pipeline safety agency to monitor and make reports on whether the work is sound.

The second requires TransCanada to adopt a quality management program to ensure “this pipeline is—from the beginning—built to the highest standards by both Keystone personnel and its many contractors.”

The conditions are buried in back of the 26 appendices in a voluminous environmental impact statement on Keystone XL released by the State Department on Jan. 31.

Most of Appendix Z is devoted to 57 well-known “special conditions” that TransCanada agreed to three years ago. But conditions 58 and 59 are listed on an additional page.

“Everybody looked at that appendix and said, ‘Oh, 57 conditions. Move on.’ Well, there are a couple more there,” analyst Kevin Book said. “They just added them without saying anything.”

The new conditions were added four months after the pipeline safety agency sent TransCanada two warning letters last year about defects and other construction problems on the Keystone Gulf Coast Pipeline, which extends from Oklahoma to the Texas Gulf Coast.

“From the start of welding, TransCanada experienced a high weld rejection rate,” said one letter dated Sept. 26. Over 72 percent of welds required repairs during one week. In another week, TransCanada stopped welding work after a whopping 205 of 425 welds required repair.

Inspections by the safety agency found TransCanada wasn’t using approved welding procedures to connect pipes, the letter said. The company had hired welders who weren’t qualified because TransCanada used improper procedures to test them, the letter said. To qualify to work on a pipeline, welders must have recent experience using approved welding procedures and pass a test of their work, which TransCanada had ignored.

The weld failure rates are “horrible,” said Robert Bea, at the University of California, Berkeley. “The level of defects is indeed cause for alarm and indicative of something that is going on in the Keystone organization that isn’t satisfactory.”

In high-risk projects, even one-tenth of a percent rate of bad welds would be cause for deep concern, Bea said. He is a certified welder and was an expert consultant on the construction of trans-Alaska pipeline in 1970s.

“In this case, you are talking about a pipeline that has laudable, stringent requirements that rival those of nuclear power plants,” he said.

Another letter, Sept. 10, said a government inspector witnessed TransCanada officials investigating dents without clearing rock from soil used as backfill. The same letter said coating that protects pipeline from corrosion was damaged by weld splatter—a contractor hadn’t followed welding procedures. Pipeline had to be excavated in 98 places to make coating repairs.

Dents and damaged coatings are serious defects because they can weaken pipes and lead to catastrophic failures and flood fields and groundwater with dirty oil, Bea said.

Davis Sheremata, TransCanada, said to ignore any connection between construction problems in the southern leg between Oklahoma and Texas, and conditions in the northern leg, which will extend from Alberta to Nebraska’s southeast corner. The southern leg’s problems are “a separate matter,” he said.

“TransCanada had identified and addressed these issues prior to any oil being introduced into the pipeline and reported them voluntarily” to the government, Sheremata said. “The fact that the anomalies on the exterior of the pipe were discovered in the first place is a direct result of the 57 special safety conditions we agreed to implement on this project and Keystone XL, many of which are not required by regulation but are standard practice on all TransCanada pipeline construction projects.”

However, Book said the timing “would seem to suggest (pipeline safety agency) was uncomfortable with construction of Keystone south and that was part of their reasoning” for imposing additional conditions on the northern leg.

Damon Hill, of pipeline safety agency, said additional conditions resulted from “observations in the field during construction projects from several pipeline operators over the past few years,” as well as the agency’s general knowledge and experience.

Keystone is intended to transport oil from Canadian tar sands to oil refineries on the Gulf Coast owned by Koch Industries. Supporters say the pipeline will create thousands of jobs, aid energy independence, with zero leaks.

Environmentalists, however, warn of the real possibility of oil spills, based on simple history, that tar sands oil is especially “dirty,” that it will contribute to global warming by 5 degrees along the route, and that jobs will number in the low hundreds, not thousands.

The project has become a political flashpoint alongside the larger debate over carbon emissions, drilling policies and tax breaks for energy companies. According to polls, the country’s millionaires and billionaires gleefully predict the pipeline will make them even richer. Of less interest is concern for the planet, which they believe will right itself.

Ninety-seven percent of scientists now say global warming is largely influenced by humans.

The Obama administration said in April it was putting off its decision on the pipeline indefinitely. A decision now isn’t expected until after the November elections and probably not until after the first of the year.

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