Very early, before dawn on Monday, December 3rd, Glen Collins, Matt Almonte, and Isabel Brooks climbed into a mile long segment of the Keystone XL pipeline and barricaded themselves inside. At sunrise, they were shocked to find light shining through a weld precisely where they were resting. With the damning photos in tow, a group of blockaders, including Matt, recently paid visit to the family homestead where the protest occurred.
The backyards of Tina Osby, a 63 year old lifelong resident of Winona, her mother Annie Bircher, 85, and her aunt Lily Holmes, are now home to the lethally compromised segment of the Keystone XL pipeline, now buried. Lily has six grandchildren whose swing-set rests just a few yards away from the pipe that was buried with visible holes. The rest of the family all live within the spill zone of the pipeline and yet were never informed of this fact.
Bullied, Condemned, Poisoned
Annie, Lily, and their other sister Levonia were only offered $600 for the destruction of their inherited, lifelong homestead. Lily refused to sign with TransCanada, but their family’s land was condemned through eminent domain proceedings and awarded to TransCanada anyway for its Keystone XL right-of-way. Annie and Levonia received $200 a piece for their share of the award while Lily refused to take any money.
MacArthur Evans, a family friend who was over from Tyler, Texas during the visit noted, “When people are hungry for money, they don’t ask questions. When it comes to eminent domain, they’ll take your land either way.”
TransCanada’s first visits were a familiar story to pipeline opponents. The multinational corporation came to the family to request use of their land and seek their signature on a contract. When Lily Holmes made her disinterest clear, the company informed her plainly that if she didn’t sign, the company would just take the land through the eminent domain process it had acquired fraudulently. The company, of course, failed to disclose the fact that the pipe would carry tar sands/diluted bitumen and maintained it to be a crude oil pipeline and neglected to fully explain what the family was being asked to sign.
Annie recounted, “I didn’t think much about it at first, and it wasn’t until after construction started that I began to wonder.”
One of Tina’s primary concerns was for her health. Now having knowledge of the shoddy weld and of what is truly going to be flowing through their backyard, the entire family is concerned for their health.
Tina offered a word of advice in saying, “Be careful about people wanting to come through your property; they’ll only tell you what they want you to hear.” Unfortunately, as many TSB supporters realize, this is not an isolated incident.
A Veteran Chemist with a Mission
Mike Bishop of Douglass, Texas has been saying nearly identical things for years. Bishop’s fraud lawsuit against TransCanada has garnered international media attention, and he had filed another challenging the Texas Railroad Commission’s clerical granting of governmental eminent domain condemnation powers to TransCanada, a multinational for-profit corporation, contrary to the spirit of the law and most common private property attitudes.
Bishop, is empathetic with Tina and her family’s situation. In an email statement, he stated, “I, too, am sitting about 100 feet from the Keystone Pipeline XL and am in complete harmony with other landowners and communities when I say ENOUGH IS ENOUGH. Our grandchildren deserve a future, too. What will it take for the nation to wake up and do something to protect folks like us?”
Accounting for Tar Sands Blockade being 1-for-1 as shoddy weld inspectors, even if this segment of KXL pipe is repaired, if KXL South is simply allowed to come online, a spill is all but inevitable elsewhere along its toxic path. People like Tina and Mike all up and down KXL South’s route will be simply biding their time until disaster strikes their families.
A Tale of Two TransCanada Whistleblowers
Public accounts from multiple TransCanada pipeline inspection whistleblowers have revealed that this type of reckless and dangerous circumvention of pipeline weld inspection is commonplace on TransCanada’s pipeline construction sites. Almost concurrently, pipeline welding engineers and inspectors for TransCanada, Evan Vokes and Mike Klink, were raising concerns to their superiors about systemic negligence and malfeasance in the corporation’s internal inspection and auditing process.
In a December, 2011 editorial to the Lincoln Journal Star, Klink warned, “When I last raised concerns about corners being cut, I lost my job — but people along the Keystone XL pathway have a lot more to lose if this project moves forward with the same shoddy work.”
TransCanada’s Keystone I pipeline that Klink inspected is only the 49th pipeline in the last twenty-five years in the entire 170,000 mile hazardous liquid pipeline system in the United States to receive a Corrective Action Order (CAO) by the US Department of Transportation (USDoT). More illuminating is the fact that this highly-trumpeted tar sands/diluted bitumen pipeline was the youngest pipeline to ever be given a CAO — by more than 20 years! Keystone I was less than a year old at the time of the order and had leaked twelve times. The entire Keystone system has leaked extremely toxic tar sands/diluted bitumen at least thirty times since it came online
In the same editorial Klink rhetorically stated, “TransCanada says that the performance has been OK. Fourteen spills is not so bad. And that the pump stations don’t really count. That is all bunk. This thing shouldn’t be leaking like a sieve in its first year — what do you think happens decades from now after moving billions of barrels of the most corrosive oil on the planet?”
Vokes’ concerns caused a national scandal in Canada when its National Energy Board demanded a system-wide audit of TransCanada’s safety and inspection standards, which initially confirmed all of Vokes’ outrageous claims of safety and inspection code non-compliance. No action was taken by Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), the USDoT agency tasked with interstate pipeline oversight. Construction on KXL South continued unabated in Texas and Oklahoma despite the controversy in Canada except for the grassroots resistance expressed most clearly through Tar Sands Blockade’s work.
Vokes said, “TransCanada is moving so fast because they fear the public opinion. They don’t want public opinion; they only want to dig.” This is obvious in their haste in burying an unsafe pipe, without adequate inspection through the homes of dozens of families.
“Your Safety, Our Integrity” vs. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”
TransCanada has consistently claimed that “[d]uring construction, all welds are checked by an x-ray or ultrasonic
process to ensure the welds are sound.” They are required by Federal Law to perform these types of non-destructive testing through Smart Pipeline Internal Gauge (Smart PIG) machines designed to travel through pipes and test for irregularities from the inside out. Use of these machines are also required to be thoroughly accounted for in their use and results, so how could they possibly miss something as glaring as this?
Investigative journalist Greg Palast, famous for reports for the BBC and Channel 4 in Great Britain, has written about interviews he has conducted with two Smart PIG programmers who claim to have been forced to hide unconscionable programming code flaws with US Smart PIG software through non-disclosure agreements and overt threats of lawsuit. Incredibly, they were terminated for correcting the flaws without direction to do so by their superiors just three months into a year-long contract. These programming flaws allow “cracks, leaks and corrosion to go undetected – and that saves the industry billions of dollars in pipe replacements,” contends Palast. His whistleblowers agree.
As documented in Chapter 3 of his latest book, Vulture’s Picnic, linked from here, Palast’s whistleblowers’ claims are literally explosive and the legal threats against them all-too-common.
MOSES and Company
The Winona community has been dealing with the adverse effects of oil exploitation on their land since the 1950s. Annie Bircher recalls her father discovering oil in their water well when she was a child. Soon after, their house was connected to the municipal water line so the oil extraction could continue unabated.
In more recent years, the community has organized to undertake decades-long battles against the horrors of uncaring toxic industry and complicit government bureaucracies. In the 1990s, the community organized under the banner of Mothers Organizing to Stop Environmental Sins (MOSES) to shut down a hazardous waste deep injection well for which the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) actually had to scale-back existing regulations aimed at helping mitigate pollution to groundwater through adequate well casing. Despite the EPA’s assistance in poisoning their community, Tina and her family participated actively in MOSES’ resistance.
“I didn’t miss not one meeting, and people came from near and far, and we got what we wanted,” Tina told us. Now they’re facing yet another toxic battle against TransCanada and its powerful supporters who, again, occupy the Executive Branch and who, yet again, are dishonoring their vows of office for the benefit of industry. Tar Sands Blockade will be there with them.
Demographically, Winona is composed primarily of white residents — over 86% according to the latest census data, yet TransCanada’s pipeline route primarily runs through the properties of African American families. What’s happening in Winona, Texas illustrates the disproportionate toxic burden faced by low-income communities of color in the ruthless efforts to exploit increasingly inaccessible energy resources by the petrochemical industry. Environmental racism is an ugly, industry-wide trend that TransCanada and its business partners seemingly have no problem maintaining.
The Houston neighborhood of Manchester is a clear example of such attitudes. The primarily Latino community is forced to live with the toxic emissions from surrounding heavy industry including a Valero-owned oil refinery, which routinely violates Federal clean air standards to little or no consequence from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), the state agency tasked with the refinery’s oversight. Valero is the largest purchaser of the tar sands/diluted bitumen shipping contracts to be delivered by TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline should construction be completed successfully.
Idle No More!
Tar Sands Blockade’s possession of the shoddy weld photos were revealed by 29 year-old indigenous organizer and Tar Sands Blockade spokesperson, Ramsey Sprague, when he chained himself to a speaker tower during the Pipetech Americas 2013 Summit, interrupting a speech on pipeline safety by Tom Hamilton, TransCanada’s Quality and Compliance manager. The Summit, billed as “The premier event for senior executives within the oil pipeline and gas transmission industry,” was silent as Sprague surprised the event with his tirade.
Sprague told the nearly 300-person audience of the photos and about the indigenous uprising spreading around the continent called Idle No More, whose outrage has largely been fueled by the Canadian government’s active promotion of tar sands exploitation in Alberta, Canada and its heavy-handed response to indigenous sovereignty and environmental organizers’ calls for nation-to-nation negotiations on mega-projects like the tar sands.
Tar sands exploitation requires massive man-made toxic lakes, which have irrevocably damaged the fresh water sources for the First Nations communities living downstream from the projects. Some community members of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation have expressed that they are being forced to live through a “slow industrial genocide” due to the combine biological health effects of toxic exposure and the cultural disintegration that lack of access to traditional lifeways often implies.
When asked to be quiet so Mr. Hamilton could finish his lecture on TransCanada’s code compliance and safety standards, Sprague responded, “I don’t believe I can be quiet any longer. I will be Idle No More along with the indigenous residents of Canada who are standing up against toxic tar sands extraction, which will only be accelerated by the Keystone XL pipeline!”
“TransCanada shouldn’t be lecturing you on pipeline safety!” he continued reminding pipeline executives he passed while being lead away from the conference hall to be arrested.
Just Say “No” to TranSCAMada!
“Clearly, the dramatic and life-threatening weld discovered in Winona should be immediately investigated by PHMSA and the recurring themes of TransCanada’s systemic negligence of human health and environmental safety are considered within the broader scope of the Keystone XL Northern Segment’s consideration by the US State Department, but the entire discovery only confirms the deepest, most cynical fears of affected residents near the KXL route,” stated Ramsey Sprague in light of recent disclosures. “Construction of all tar sands pipelines should halt immediately until the clear inability for the petrochemical industry to construct, install, monitor, and maintain safe pipelines is remedied adequately in accordance with the common-sense sentiment that pipelines moving hazardous, toxic materials should not leak into peoples’ homes. Period.”
Today, Tar Sands Blockade forwarded the photos of the shoddy, life-threatening weld to the following regulatory agencies:
US Department of Transportation (USDoT)
US Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA)
US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
US State Department
Texas Railroad Commission (TRC)
Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ)
Texas Department of Transportation (TXDoT)
If you are as outraged as us, please sign our petition to PHMSA demanding that…
“In light of recurring whistleblower reports of systemic internal auditing failures throughout TransCanada’s pipeline systems and Tar Sands Blockade’s new photographic evidence of an already-buried bad weld on the Keystone XL pipeline system in Texas and Oklahoma, we demand that the Keystone XL pipeline be exhumed and every weld completely reinspected by technology that works and that regulators hold TransCanada and its contractors accountable for their negligence.”
Eye witness testimonies from Isabel Brooks and Matt Almonte recounting their discovery of the shoddy weld follow:
On December 3rd, I and two others crawled inside a mile long segment of the Keystone XL pipeline and locked down. It was an unprecedented action – no one had ever tried barricading themselves inside of a pipe before. It should be needless to say that we had no preconceived notions of what to expect, nor did we realize we could be looking for something…
The action deployed in the early hours of morning, leaving us an hour or two to remain quiet and unknown before workers arrived. The discovery of the faulty weld came at sunrise. I opened my eyes to find myself encircled in a wan but unmistakable light. It looked as if someone had taken a needle and poked many hundreds of small holes around the girth of the pipe. Like a seam, coming apart.
I was shocked. I thought for a moment that I might be seeing things, but there it was – still and unwavering and right before my eyes. I say to my comrade, “Matt…Maaaatt…I see sunlight”. I continue to tell him that it appears to be coming through the weld. Sleepily, he responds with a question. “Are you sure?”. Ask me that again today, and I will stand up a little taller and say: Without a doubt, I know what I saw, and I can still see it. I am a photographer; It is in my nature to recall memories like a picture.
I was inside the pipe documenting the action from an internal perspective, as well as providing support for my two comrades who put their limbs on the line that day. Finding the inadequate weld was completely unexpected, and when I took the picture, even then, I knew that it would be subject to question. The weld let in only a very small amount of light, so to even have that register on a point and shoot camera took a few tries on a low light/long exposure setting. I’m sure a better image could have been taken, but that day was chaotic, and there was a lot else to worry about.
While Matt, Glen, and the barrels were being forcefully pulled from the pipe, I was recording with that same camera. The extraction was brutal and intense and it exposed me, crouching behind the last barrel, deepest inside. The camera was snatched from my hands by a SWAT officer inside the pipe, and before I would move I insisted for his word that I’d get it all back, memory card intact. I was given no assurance.
I spent the next 23 days in jail, isolated and aware that anything I said could be monitored. I said nothing to anyone on the phone, nor at visitation, for the safety of this information, and also because there was no telling that these images, the only proof beyond my word, were going to be there upon my release. Somehow, the camera ended up in my belongings, untouched and presumably unseen. Any other political protester in any other situation would have had the contents of their media devices searched or subpoenaed. I like to think that, for whatever reason, this image was meant to be seen, and nothing could stop it.
I inadvertently became witness to one of TransCanada’s biggest mistakes that day. I was silenced for nearly two months, with fear of a harsh jail sentence looming over my head, but now it is done so there is much to be said. I believe there are more welds that violate safety standards, and that they are probably already in the ground, undocumented and unknown. I would be surprised if there aren’t ten more faulty welds in this particular mile long segment, and hundreds more along the entirety of the southern leg. The chances of happening on TransCanada’s only falter are too slim, and it might be bold to say all these things, but I say them out of fear.
This pipe runs alongside homes, homes with children, not more than ten yards away. People live here. Children play here.
The proof is out there and it cannot be ignored.
- Isabel Brooks
On December 3rd, 2012, I and two others entered a mile-long stretch of the Keystone XL pipeline in Winona, Texas. I was joined by Glen Collins and Isabel Brooks, and our goal was to physically obstruct the construction of this pipe, with the preparation to occupy the space for up to one week. We deployed our action in the early morning hours, around 3AM, and spent roughly an hour preparing ourselves for the arrival of construction crews and police.
As I lay there awaiting the action to begin, I was tapped on the shoulder by Isabel and gestured to look up at a patch of pipe above our heads. There was the faintest bead of daylight shining through. At first, I couldn’t really believe what I was looking at: we had been tirelessly preparing to deploy this action for days prior, and this was the first stretch of rest I was able to get all night. Perhaps my eyes were playing tricks on me. But the three of us examined and analyzed that light for twenty minutes, and all reached the same conclusions about what we were seeing: TransCanada’s faulty welding work going directly into an east Texan’s backyard. When a spill occurs, this family’s lives and land will never be the same. Luckily, we had a camera in our possession to document this. Unfortunately, it was nearly pitch black inside the pipe and there were no tangible angles to work with to secure a top-notch photo. Our physical environment prohibited a glitzy, high-tech photo-op. But clearly, this needed to be shown to the world. We snapped the best pic we could manage and agreed to bring this documentation to the rest of our group as soon as possible.
What we couldn’t foresee was that it’d be quite a while before this discovery could come to light. For starters, after being arrested, we were given a bail amount of $65,000. This was an outrageous act of judicial extremism, and the judge who decided on that bail later recused himself from our case over allegations that he’d previously received money from TransCanada for a property that he owned. This ultimately led to our being incarcerated for nearly 30 days; and these pictures documenting the faulty welds were in the police department’s possession the entire time. Thus, a discovery of this magnitude was forced to stay under wraps for months.
At the end of the day, the evidence is here, along with whistleblower testimony from a former TransCanada welding engineer who speaks to his employer’s consistent regulatory violations, and collectively they present proof that TransCanada is endangering the lives of millions of people with their reckless actions. To not tell this story would be a disservice to the family whose backyard this segment of pipe was eventually buried in.
TransCanada should be held accountable for their lawlessness, plain and simple.
- Matt Almonte