LINCOLN — Speaker number 37 was the insider.
Evan Vokes joined about 200 people who testified last month in Grand Island at the State Department's public hearing on the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline.
Wearing a dark suit and speaking quickly, he was the only former employee of TransCanada Corp. to testify. The company wants to build the underground pipeline through Nebraska and five other states.
The materials engineer, who was fired by the company, said that TransCanada knew it couldn't guarantee the safety of welds at pumping stations on the existing Keystone oil pipeline that passes through Nebraska. He insisted that the problem could lead to undetected spills — a contention the company adamantly disputes.
“TransCanada has not been forward with this hearing and the stakeholders about the risks of the original Keystone, including the outage of October 2012,” he said. “I would call upon an ethical corporation to be transparent about this serious incident.”
The 47-year-old Calgary man's testimony outlined allegations similar to those he made one year ago to regulatory agencies in Canada and the United States.
So far, his complaints have resulted in no actions against TransCanada.
And the three-year-old Keystone pipeline keeps flowing with the same heavy tar sands oil as would be transported by its proposed larger cousin.
“Keystone has safely delivered over 400 million barrels of oil,” said Shawn Howard, a TransCanada spokesman. “The safety and integrity of that line speaks for itself.”
Vokes has given emails and other documents obtained during his five years with the company to regulators on both sides of the border — Canada's National Energy Board and the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.
In October, the Canadian agency released a letter addressing his allegations. It said they “do not represent immediate threats to the safety of people or the environment.”
The letter went on to state that many of the compliance concerns raised by Vokes were verified by the company's own internal audit. And the board said it would follow up with a separate audit to ensure that the company carried out fixes to the problems and decide if further corrective action is warranted.
“The board is concerned by TransCanada's noncompliance with NEB (National Energy Board) regulations, as well as its own internal management systems and procedures,” the letter stated.
The Canadian agency did not respond to a request for an interview, and it has yet to release further information about its investigation.
The U.S. pipeline regulating agency, referred to as PHMSA, acknowledged this week that it had received Vokes' complaint. But it will not confirm whether an investigation is underway, said Damon Hill, public affairs specialist with the agency.
“If there are any enforcement actions related to it, that would be released publicly,” he said.
The reviews come as the State Department prepares to determine whether the Keystone XL project is in the national interest. If the department decides that it is, the decision would most likely pave the way for a presidential permit for TransCanada, which the company needs because the pipeline crosses an international border.
The 36-inch diameter pipeline would carry 830,000 barrels daily of heavy crude mined from western Canada's tar sands region to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast.
Industry and some labor groups support the project, saying it will create jobs along with a safe way to bring in oil from a friendly trade partner. Environmentalists say that a spill poses a major risk to drinking water and that the pipeline would ramp up global warming by tapping into oil that releases more greenhouse gases.
In interviews since he gave his testimony, Vokes said he is not anti-pipeline. He said pipelines can safely transport oil if they are engineered properly and built following codes and design standards.
With TransCanada, Vokes specialized in engineering related to welds and pipeline fittings such as elbow joints, which are installed wherever the pipeline must change direction.
He worked on the first Keystone project, a 30-inch diameter line that carries 590,000 barrels of oil per day from Canada to Illinois. He was involved on the line in Canada and when pump stations were later added in the U.S. to increase the line's capacity.
When the existing line was built, the company used fittings that were improperly manufactured, he said. He alleged that the problem had to do with the rapid heating and cooling of the steel. When done properly, the fittings are fine. Done incorrectly, they are weaker and can expand under pressure.
He was also troubled by the practice of allowing company welders to do their own inspections in the field rather than having the work checked by separate inspectors. That was another violation of codes and best practices, he said.
“There's a huge amount of pressure to get things done to maintain schedule,” Vokes said.
Among many other allegations, he said the company used a method called “back beveling” to join sections of pipe with unequal wall thickness. The method is responsible for the largest number of pipeline failures during safety tests, Vokes said, and it results in cracks that are sometimes missed by inspection instruments.
As a result, the U.S. regulatory agency recommends a different pipe-fitting technique called “counter bore and taper.”
In a long email Vokes sent to TransCanada CEO Russ Girling in 2011, he brought up his concerns about the plan to let contractors use back bevels during construction of the Keystone XL pipeline in the U.S.
“I think the good folks in Nebraska have good cause to avoid a pipeline that has back bevels inspected with technology and techniques that have low probability of detections of serious defects,” he wrote.
Girling did not respond to the email, Vokes said. But in a blog post on the company's website, the CEO did address the engineer, saying an internal investigation into his claims was immediately conducted. The investigation included a review of some technical aspects by outside experts.
“Our investigation found that most of the items he raised had been identified and resolved at the time of construction through routine quality control processes,” Girling wrote. “This review also confirmed that the issues never compromised the safety or integrity of our pipelines.”
Vokes was fired from TransCanada a year ago, about the same time he filed his complaints with regulators. The company won't disclose why he was terminated but says it was not an act of retaliation for his speaking out.
Vokes said his firing took place after he was asked to take a leave of absence. He was never given an official reason, but he said he believes he was retaliated against.
In the roughly two years that the Keystone pipeline has been operating, it has leaked oil 14 times. Regulators classified most as “very small.” The largest spill, however, released 450 barrels — or nearly 19,000 gallons — which regulators classify as “substantive.” Two occurred at Nebraska pump stations.
PHMSA issued corrective action orders against the company for two of the leaks — one in North Dakota and one in Kansas.
All of the releases were blamed on faulty pipe fittings or seals at above-ground pump stations.
Opponents of the pipeline often mention the leaks as an indictment of TransCanada's ability to operate a major project safely. The company has said they resulted in no environmental damage and involved typical start-up problems for a new pipeline, a position supported by U.S. regulators.
Vokes said none of the leaks involved the welding concerns he has brought up.
But he again mentioned the “serious incident” that shut down the Keystone line for a few days in October. He said he can't share what he has heard about the incident, but he brought it up at the Grand Island hearing in an effort to get the company to disclose it.
At the time of the shutdown, the company described the reason for the it as a “small anomaly.” When asked Wednesday to clarify, Howard, the TransCanada spokesman, said in an email that it was part of normal operations.
“Anomaly is a general term and we used that word to demonstrate the minor nature of the shutdown,” he said.
The company also said in October that there was no leak detected as a result of the anomaly.
Vokes stood by his decision to go to the regulators. And he stood by his testimony in Grand Island.
“I fought this battle when I was at TransCanada and I'm not done fighting it,” he said.
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