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Former Keystone Pipeline Inspector Says Construction Shortcuts Are Tied To Leaks

Keystone Pipeline

First Posted: 09/28/11 11:15 AM ET Updated: 11/28/11 05:12 AM ET

Michael Klink, a 59-year-old civil engineer from Auburn, In., says he reported a litany of problems when he was working as a construction inspector at several pumping stations along the Keystone oil pipeline as it was being built in 2009 -- from sloppy concrete jobs and poorly spaced rebar to bad welds and poor pressure testing.

For his diligence, Klink says, he was harassed, berated and ultimately fired. The experience has left him convinced that a controversial proposal to expand the Keystone pipeline matrix, which would ultimately deliver as much as 1.3 million barrels of crude oil a day from an oil patch in Alberta, Canada, to refineries in the Midwest and the Texas Gulf Coast, should never gain federal or public support.

"They didn't care, and that's why you've seen all these leaks already," Klink said. "And I worry that it's only a matter of time before there will be another disaster like the Deepwater Horizon -- only this time it won't be out on the water. It will be right in the middle of the country.

"I'm no treehugger," Klink added. "I just think things ought to be built right, and I have no faith that these guys can do it."

Evidence supporting his skepticism isn't hard to find. In just over a year of operation, the Keystone network's existing leg, which runs through the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri before terminating in Illinois -- has leaked more than a dozen times. In most cases, the amount was small, and federal officials have suggested that such hiccups are common to new pipelines. But two incidents in May, including one that spewed more than 20,000 gallons of oil, prompted regulators to briefly block Keystone from moving oil in June. Virtually all of the spills happened at pumping stations like the ones where Klink worked.

"I feel for the people living alongside that pipeline," he said.

Klink's concerns emerge against a backdrop of increasingly bitter debate over Keystone. The Federal State Department, which is responsible for issuing permits for pipelines crossing international boundaries, has already conducted two environmental assessments of the Keystone expansion proposal, known as Keystone XL, concluding both times that the impact would be negligible. This week, State Department officials are on a listening tour in the six states -- Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas -- through which the pipeline is expected to pass.

The project has drawn increasingly vocal opposition from environmentalists and clean-energy advocates, who argue that it would spur wanton development of Canada's oil sands, also known as tar sands -- an unconventional source of crude oil that requires vast amounts of energy and produces substantial amounts of greenhouse gases during processing. They also worry that the proposed expansion route would take the pipeline directly through a large portion of the Ogallala Aquifer, which provides as much as 30 percent of the nation's ground water used for irrigation, as well as drinking water for a wide swath of the American heartland.

Even so, in at least one previous public statement, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has indicated that she is inclined to approve the pipeline, to the delight not just of TransCanada, the Calgary-based company behind the Keystone network, but to supporters on both sides of the border who argue that the environmental concerns are vastly overstated and that Canada's oil sands will be tapped whether or not the Keystone expansion is built. They also say the pipeline represents tens of thousands of potential jobs, and that it provides an important stepping stone on the road to American energy security.

As for the leaks on the existing leg of Keystone, a spokesman for TransCanada, Terry Cunha, said they were mostly attributable to a bad batch of metal fittings, and that the company has since made the necessary repairs. "We take the safety of our system very seriously," he said.

Klink says he's not so sure. He filed a complaint with the Department of Labor last year, under whistleblower provisions of the Pipeline Safety Improvement Act of 2002. His case is still pending.

In its final environmental impact statement for the Keystone expansion, which was issued at the end of last month, the State Department cites the federal body that oversees pipeline safety in the U.S., the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, in concluding that the spills that have plagued the first leg of the network are essentially "start-up issues that occur on pipelines and are not unique."

Anthony Swift, an attorney with the Natural Resource Defense Council's International Program in Washington who has testified before Congress about the Keystone network, says that's not entirely true. "For a new pipeline it's very unusual," he said. "Keystone is the newest pipeline in the U.S. to be given a corrective action order."

That order came in early June, after incidents on May 7 at the Ludden pump station in Brampton, N.D., where between 450 and 500 barrels were released after a "pipe nipple failure," and then on May 29 at the Severance pump station in Bendana, Kan., where about 10 barrels were lost. PHMSA's corrective action blocked TransCanada from resuming use of the pipeline after the second incident. That block was lifted the following day, after the company satisfied the federal agency's call for metallurgical tests on the pipes involved.

Cunha said these -- and the majority of other incidents over the pipeline's year-long operating history -- were attributable to a variety of pipe fittings that had some weaknesses. All of these, he said, have been replaced -- as have other pipe fittings at sites where no leaks were detected, out of an abundance of caution. "Unfortunately you may get 1,000 fittings and 999 will work as designed," he said. "But unfortunately, sometimes one fails. We work really hard with our suppliers to make sure we get really good equipment."

Klink says he pointed out repeatedly that the metal piping being deployed at the pump stations he inspected was of inferior quality, and that the impurities were making it difficult for welds to properly hold. His complaints, he said, were often rebuffed. He also suggested that any equipment, no matter the quality, is only as good as the people installing it, and he's convinced that other problems loom on the horizon.

The pumping stations themselves are large facilities -- a bit under an acre in size -- situated at 50 mile intervals along the Keystone conduit. Crude-carrying pipeline comes up out of the ground and into each facility, where the pressure is boosted by multiple 1,000-horsepower motors, sending the oil hurtling further down the line.

In March 2009, Bechtel made Klink a temporary inspector in North Dakota. TransCanada had contracted with the oil and gas services giant to supervise work performed by yet another company, TIC of Wyoming. Friction between the TIC construction crew and Bechtel inspectors was an issue even before Klink arrived, according to Klink's complaint with the Department of Labor.

In 2008, for example, a TIC crew member assaulted a Bechtel inspector, spitting tobacco at him and knocking him down, according to the filing. "Although that individual was later terminated," the document notes, "the attitudes of TIC employees did not change."

In an interview, Klink recalled other incidents. At the Niagara pump station site, just west of Grand Forks, N.D., for example, he says he came under pressure from his own supervisors to fudge tests designed to ensure that the soil underlying the facility was compacted properly. He did that, instructing the test takers, armed with nuclear density meters, to take four or five measurements near the driveway leading into the site where the soil was hardest. That was considered sufficient, Klink says, even though the larger part of the site never got a sufficient density reading. In his estimation, it never would have.

"It was too sandy," Klink said. "They were never going to get good readings."

Klink says he now worries that the foundation could slowly settle unevenly, causing pipes to twist.