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Report: PHMSA Documents Reveal Abysmal Inspection of Keystone XL Gulf Coast Segment

Update: this report is now available for download as a PDF here.

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Documents recently obtained from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), the federal regulatory agency tasked with overseeing and inspecting millions of miles of pipelines across the US, show that the Keystone XL Gulf Coast Project has not been adequately inspected.

The inspection documents are available here (see “References” below) for public scrutiny and perusal. For construction and inspection purposes, KXL-South was split into 3 “spreads”. Included below are links to “inspection reports” for each spread, as well as a spreadsheet (no pun intended) listing repairs done on faulty welds on spread 3 (4) and a general welding document listing failed weld rates for various welders of the pipeline. (5)

In what follows, we offer comments on the general nature of the inspection reports, followed by comments on specific noteworthy aspects of them. As we’ll be repeatedly referencing the documents, we encourage you to open them and see them for yourself!

General Comments

Looking at a typical inspection report (1, 2, 3), you’ll see entry fields for “Date”, “Hours Worked”, “Weather”, “Temp” (low and high), “Owner/Operator”, “Spread” (usually), “Owner”, “Contractor”, and “Observed Activity”. Below these are 3 boxes that establish location, namely “Station #”, GPS location, and approximate MP (mile post). And below that is an open space for comments. Finally, below this space is (sometimes) a line for the inspector’s name and signature.

That’s pretty much all there is to these inspection reports. PHMSA apparently sees measurements such as the day’s weather as more meaningful than measurements that actually establish code compliance during pipeline construction. And in these documents, a lot of the useful information isn’t even there. Looking at the boxes that establish location, you’ll notice that they’re almost never filled out in any of these inspection reports. Spread 2 has at least a few mile post markers listed here and there, but Spreads 1 & 3 are virtually devoid of any useful geographical data. So what good are these inspection reports if they can’t be meaningfully tied to where they were done?

The most substantial section of these reports (and calling them substantial is giving PHMSA a lot of credit) is the comments section, but this section is embarrassing, too. Looking through the comments, they read like “we did this”, “we saw that”, “we came to inspect but it was raining so people weren’t doing anything”, “I warned them that so-and-so was unsafe”. There’s sadly a grade-school level of rigor in these reports… save for some technical jargon here and there, one couldn’t be too blamed if these inspection reports were confused with the hypothetical journal entries of middle-school students visiting a pipeline construction easement on a field-trip. One of our favorite examples is below.

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“Escorted Mr. Butters back to Dallas.”

In short, these documents completely lack the technical rigor one would expect in adequate inspection reports, and actually read more like the inspectors’ diary entries than anything that would actually leave the public confident that PHMSA’s doing its job. Are these really the documents that PHMSA will present to a court to defend itself from scrutiny should Keystone South spill?

Lousy Inspection Habits

Our observations of comments in these reports reveal tendencies ranging from disturbing to downright alarming. They show that inspectors are often on-site not really doing anything useful or relevant to being on-site, inspectors offering passive advice concerning code violations rather than actively enforcing them and holding pipeline constructors accountable, and alarming negligence when faced with construction failures.

You’ll notice a few of the comments in these reports indicate that the because the site was rained out, workers were mostly not doing anything, so there was nothing to inspect. On page 3 of Spread 2, the inspector indicates that they went out, saw that most activities were stopped due to rain, had a few conversations, and then went to another site and also noticed that activities were stopped due to rain. This inspector recorded 12 “hours worked” essentially for chit-chatting and for “escorting Mr. Butters back to Dallas”. Uhh… really? On page 6 of Spread 3, all the inspector had to say was “conditions were very muddy and wet. Could not get around some areas due to getting stuck.” Great job!

Comments in Spread 2 show inspectors passively advising on apparent code violations instead of taking more stern code enforcement action. For example, on page 1, the inspector said they “expressed a concern that it appeared adequate[sic] inspection of the field joint to assure clean and bare metal was free of debris and blasting sand before spraying of field joint”. This sentence isn’t coherent but it’s clear that the inspector “expressed a concern” regarding spraying being done on metal which was not clean and bare, free of debris and blasting sand. On page 7, an inspector noted that “no documentation to prove instruments used to record activity was actual instrument used,” but merely “advised to use better documentation in the future”.

Both PHMSA and TransCanada are claiming that Keystone XL will be the “safest pipeline ever built”. From such comments, one would expect pipeline construction crews to exhibit a level of care comparable to a well-trained surgeon. Instead, they’re more like children casually playing Hasbro’s “Operation”. And PHMSA inspectors are the construction crews’ caring guardians, there to advise them to be more careful lest they hear buzzes from the game board for messing up. But KXL isn’t a game, it’s a real pipeline that constantly threatens the well-being of those along the pipeline route due to its shoddy construction.

Lastly, we note that on Spread 1 page 4, the inspector indicated that 8 welders were being tested on site that day. The inspector indicated that he observed that the first two welds “busted out” and that he didn’t observe the other six. No indication of corrective action is there at all… the inspector merely ends by saying “I left to travel back to headquarters”.

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Busted Welds

Suspicious Lack of Transparency

Comments appearing in inspection reports for Spread 1 indicate that on-site TransCanada officials were unwilling to show documents to the inspectors. Page 1 shows that PHMSA inspector Jim Arnold met with TransCanada’s site construction manager Lance Johnson, asked for 26 different documents from TransCanada, and “was met with strong resistance to revel[sic] documents”.

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TransCanada refuses to show documents to PHMSA inspectors.

About two weeks later, possibly the same inspector met with Keystone “Compliance Specialist” Erik Hughes, requested documents, and was allowed to review documents, but forbidden to take them with him.

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TransCanada: “Okay, look but don’t touch.”

I guess it’s important to remind ourselves that this is TransCanada we’re dealing with here, not Transparency. Jokes aside, this lack of transparency, directed at a pipeline inspector at that, is nothing less than criminal.

Does PHMSA Fear Environmental Activism?

One of the most interesting comments for environmental activists came on pages 8 and 9 of Spread 1. Nine hours were logged in on March 20 and 21 (18 hours total) by inspector Jim Arnold for allegedly driving some distance, hearing that protestors might be on-site in Oklahoma, and turning back around. Read it for yourselves:

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“Enviromental” protestors rule!

It is worth noting that Tar Sands Blockade called for a week of action to stop tar sands profiteers March 16-23rd, 2013, and that a group known as Great Plains Tar Sands Resistance had an action camp in Oklahoma that week particularly against KXL south. The inspector was likely referring to said camp, though no protestors were ever known to have actually stood on an easement or even intended to do as much on the specific days in question.

Still, is it appropriate for a pipeline inspector to excuse themselves from their job due to a perceived fear that people might come to make sure they’re doing their job correctly? And then to log in 18 hours for doing nothing?

Are They Really Spending All Those Hours Inspecting?

We’d like to note that while many of the inspection reports do not appear to be signed by any inspector, two names do appear a few places: Jim Arnold and Agustin Lopez. According to this chart of PHMSA employees (9), both inspectors appear to be based out of Houston, Texas.

We saw in the previous section that Jim basically admitted to doing nothing and yet clocked in 9 hours for it, both on Wednesday March 20th and Thursday March 21st, for driving some distance, and then turning around for fear of activism. How he rationalized this stretches the imagination, but it also reveals a disturbing possibility: namely, that PHMSA allows inspectors to count the time they spend driving to easements as “inspection hours”.

It takes about 7.5 hours to drive from Houston, Texas, where PHMSA’s Southwest regional office is based, to Cushing, Oklahoma, the northern end of KXL-south. Averaging over all possible inspection sites, one would expect it to take 7-8 hours to drive to an easement and come back. It’s therefore reasonable to expect that of all the hours that PHMSA inspectors clock in, the majority of those hours are just spent behind a wheel.

It was already shown a few months back, thanks to a Freedom Of Information Act request by PEER, that PHMSA spends more time schmoozing at fossil fuel industry conferences than inspecting pipelines. It’s not unreasonable to suppose that PHMSA would misrepresent the hours they say they’ve inspected KXL South. Indeed, it appears they’ve done so before:

“PHMSA’s safety inspectors have spent over 150 days inspecting the construction of the Gulf Coast Pipeline project overseeing welding, coating, installation, backfilling, testing and all other construction activities to ensure that the newly constructed pipeline will operate safely,” Jeannie Shiffer, PHMSA’s Director for Governmental, International, and Public Affairs told DeSmogBlog.

It tortures the imagination to figure out how 150 days spent inspecting KXL South could have led to these 35 lousy inspection reports.

Weld Rejection Rates

Issues surrounding weld rejection seem pretty ubiquitous in the inspection reports of Spread 3. Spread 3 inspectors (possibly just Agustin Lopez) repeatedly noted abnormally high weld rejection rates. The gist you get from reading the comments are that welders were exhibiting generally high weld rejection rates, and that welders with unusually high rejection rates were being let go or quitting on their own.

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High Weld Rejection Issues

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Weld Rejection

Take a look at the spreadsheet detailing repairs made on rejected welds in spread 3. (4) The sheets list a little over 1,100 rejected welds. On the right, the rejected welds are repaired, and assessed for adequacy. Approximately 200 of those 1,100 repairs were themselves rejected (see for yourself, count all the X’s on the far right column!). That’s a rejection rate of 17% on repair welds… i.e. 1 in 6 welds done because they couldn’t be done right the first time were themselves rejected. Most importantly, it’s not known whether these 200 “double jeopardy” welds were adequately addressed.

Note as well pages 9-12 of the “General Welding” document. (5) They show recent weld rejection rates ranging 2-24%, and overall weld rejection rates a little over 12%. These rates are unacceptably high for any pipeline, let alone the “safest pipeline ever built”. Just after that, the next 4 pages list the names of various welders and show their performance in terms of weld rejection rates. While some of them have fairly decent weld rejection rates which are less than 1%, some of them have absurdly high weld rejection rates ranging from 14-25%, and a majority of them have fairly high weld rejection rates which is definitely cause for concern.

It clearly wasn’t by any means an elite team of welders building TransCanada’s KXL-South… far from it. There seems to be a culture of lackluster performance amongst KXL-South welders, in strong contrast to TransCanada’s lofty claims of excellence. This culture may have been exacerbated by TransCanada’s desperate desire to build as quickly as possible.

Conclusion

We’re glad that PHMSA released these documents to us as a result of our October 2013 FOIA request, but they show disturbing trends of inadequate pipeline inspection. We’ve seen:

  • a completely non-technical and grade-school level of rigor in documenting observations;
  • an at best passive encouragement of construction teams that codes be followed;
  • a dubious lack of transparency on TransCanada’s part when PHMSA inspectors requested documents;
  • wasting time and energy going to sites merely to talk to workers, especially on rainy days when worker activity is reduced;
  • a clear and debilitating phobia of environmental activism;
  • the likelihood that a huge fraction of the time spent “inspecting” is actually just time spent driving to/from easements;
  • absurdly high weld rejection rates and a culture of lackluster performance on the part of welders

It is appalling that for a pipeline under construction to transport a highly toxic material, PHMSA only made 35 inspection visits. Most of these inspections would not be considered real inspections, so much as observations of ongoing work. There seemed to be no follow-up visits when problems were documented. Then, in September 2013, long after anomaly repairs were done at over 125 sites along the KXL-South route, PHMSA wrote two warning letters (7,8) to TransCanada concerning known code violations and the cases were closed on the same dates the letters were written, with no follow-up action taken and no response even requested from TransCanada to prove that they were responding and acting upon the warnings.

While PHMSA has spent many of its alleged inspection hours feigning inspection and wasting time, others with a greater stake in the safety of KXL-South, such as the East Texas Observer, Tar Sands Blockade, Public Citizen, and landowners along the pipeline route, have spent countless hours documenting code violations during the construction process. In this regard, Evan Vokes, former TransCanada pipeline inspector, said “I find it unusual the landowners, journalists and activists can document more non-compliance than a regulator that is supposed to serve the public interest.” Evan was fired by TransCanada in late 2011 when he raised concerns about what he called a “culture of noncompliance” towards federal safety regulations amongst higher ups in TransCanada.

After spending months documenting anomalies and repairs of this pipeline, and having strong concerns about the viability of this pipe to transport toxic diluted bitumen without catastrophic leaks into our aquifers, a group of landowners and concerned citizens requested and received a face-to-face meeting with PHMSA officials in early January of this year. They requested more testing on this pipeline before it was put into use but were told PHMSA had “faith” that the pipeline was satisfactory and ready to begin operation.

Based upon TransCanada’s prior record of building inadequate, leaky pipelines, based upon the lack of any real inspection oversight provided by PHMSA and PHMSA’s admitted knowledge of code violations committed during the construction phase of this pipeline, it is reasonable and imperative that the southern leg of the Keystone XL be shut down and thoroughly re-tested before irreversible damage is done through a leak or a spill.

If not, and if/when KXL-South spills, here are the documents that prove to the world that everybody at PHMSA was doing their job and that KXL-South was adequately inspected.

REFERENCES

1) Spread 1: http://www.tarsandsblockade.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/foia-spread-1.pdf
2) Spread 2: http://www.tarsandsblockade.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/foia-spread-2.pdf
3) Spread 3: http://www.tarsandsblockade.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/foia-spread-3.pdf
4) Repairs Spread 3: http://www.tarsandsblockade.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/multipageproject.pdf
5) General Welding: http://www.tarsandsblockade.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/GeneralWelding.pdf

Other documents:

6) Kathy DaSilva’s original FOIA request: http://www.tarsandsblockade.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/foia_pdf.pdf
7) PHMSA’s Sept. 10th, 2013 warning letter: http://primis.phmsa.dot.gov/comm/reports/enforce/documents/420135017W/420135017W_Warning%20Letter_09102013_text.pdf
8) PHMSA’s Sept. 26th, 2013 warning letter: http://primis.phmsa.dot.gov/comm/reports/enforce/documents/420135021W/420135021W_Warning_09262013_text.pdf
9) Chart of PHMSA employees: http://www.phmsa.dot.gov/staticfiles/PHMSA/DownloadableFiles/Files/PHP_Program_Chart12-30.pdf
10) This report: http://www.tarsandsblockade.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/abysmal-inspections.pdf

Permanent link to this article: http://www.tarsandsblockade.org/abysmal-inspections/