TransCanada Whistleblower’s Safety Complaints Validated by Regulator

February 27, 2014

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An NEB audit released this week found that TransCanada was ‘non-compliant’ on a number of issues designed to prevent and predict pipeline failures.

You can’t say that pipeline whistleblower Evan Vokes didn’t warn North Americans that something was wrong with TransCanada’s pipeline safety system.

Almost two years ago, the former TransCanada employee filed a lengthy complaint against the proponent of the Keystone XL line with the National Energy Board (NEB).

It claimed the Calgary-based company routinely cut corners, let business decisions undermine engineering practices, and did not uphold the law governing pipeline safety, such as Onshore Pipeline Regulations-99 (OPR-99).

In one of several forthcoming audits on the company’s management practices, released this week, the federal pipeline regulator confirmed that the company is not complying with the law on a number of safety issues.

Prompted by Vokes’ complaint and several media investigations, the NEB found that the company was "non-compliant" on issues designed to prevent and predict pipeline failures, including hazard identification, risk assessment, operational control-upset, inspection and management review.

In particular, the board found that TransCanada’s NOVA Gas Transmission Ltd. system, which is 23,500 kilometres long, was plagued with over-pressuring incidents and was "not conducting sufficient inspections or audits of its customer installations to ensure that the system is operated in compliance" with OPR-99.

Furthermore, the NEB found that the company gave "inadequate consideration" to the board’s safety advisories and regulatory requirements. It also chastised the company for ignoring Vokes’ concerns about pipeline safety while he worked for the company.

It said the company provided "ineffective implementation of internal practices to address the complainant’s issues prior to Board notification."

The audit arrives just two months after an explosion at a TransCanada gas line in Manitoba. It sent a fireball into the sky and left 4,000 residents without heat during a bitter cold snap. The company is still trying to determine what caused the explosion.

Vokes, an expert on pipeline welding practices, worked for TransCanada for five years and was fired without cause in 2012 after persistently raising concerns about the company’s safety practices with senior management.

The pipeline materials engineer told The Tyee that he does not feel vindicated by the report’s findings. He also described the NEB audit as a "political" document with no teeth.

"I am not impressed. My complaint was only a brief sketch, and they didn’t investigate some very serious issues. The company should have been fined for breaking the law and somebody in management should have been fired. . . The whole report is political."

The NEB’s audit concludes that "TransCanada has now developed and implemented actions to correct and prevent similar occurrences for the confirmed issues."

Critical report on 2009 incident buried

Earlier this month, the CBC revealed that the NEB buried a critical report on TransCanada’s safety policies after a trouble-plagued gas line ruptured and blew up in northern Alberta in 2009. Prior to 2009, the 31-year-old line had experienced 16 leaks and six ruptures.

But the NEB, which until recently did not post its company audits and has yet to fine a company for breaking the law, did not publish the report until November 2013.

In that report, the board found problems with the company’s management safety culture such as "inadequate field inspections" and "ineffective operation control."

Along with filing a formal complaint to the NEB and the Prime Minister’s Office as well as the U.S. regulator, in June 2013 Vokes provided the Standing Senate Committee on Energy, the Environment and Natural Resources with a number of documented violations of welding and pressure testing codes. (The committee briefly studied the safety of pipeline transportation in Canada last year.)

During the company’s construction of a natural gas line feeding one oilsands project, Vokes alleged shoddy workmanship resulting in "a 100 per cent repair rate." When the engineer identified the code violations to the company, his superiors forced him to "retract" his statement, Vokes told the committee.

"Coercion were the TransCanada management tools I experienced in my first months at TransCanada, as the written communications were very different from the oral instructions," he said at the time.

In addition, engineering shortcuts associated with the first phase of the Keystone XL project "resulted in substandard material being used in Keystone pump stations," he alleged.

In 2012, the NEB found "that the pump stations on the Keystone system are not equipped with an alternate source of power capable of operating each station’s Emergency Shut-Down (ESD) system" and that the company was not complying with Onshore Pipeline Regulations.

Other line issues

Problems have popped up on other TransCanada lines. In 2013, for example, the NEB ordered the company to repair corroded equipment on a gas line in Grand Prairie. Since 2009, the U.S. Transportation Safety Board has also investigated the company for three pipeline malfunctions and ruptures in Ontario.

So many dents, bad welds and "anomalies" have been identified along the southern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline in southern Texas that the U.S. pipeline regulator issued TransCanada a number of blunt warning letters last year.

In his complaint to the NEB, Vokes specifically highlighted issues on two of three TransCanada lines that experienced major incidents in 2013.

Vokes told the NEB about problems at the Pelican Relocate gas line in Fort McMurray. The oilsands service line later ruptured and closed down Highway 63 in 2013. Neither the NEB nor the Transportation Safety Board posted any notice on the incident.

Vokes also detailed welding issues on the North Central Corridor, another oilsands service line, which blew up last year. That rupture forced oilsands companies to scale back production. The NEB later ordered TransCanada to reduce pressure on the line to protect public safety.

The NEB is also investigating the company’s use of more than 600 steel pipe and fittings installed on the Keystone pipeline on both sides of the border "with the potential to exhibit lower than specified yield strength."

Fittings are used where pipelines turn corners. If not made with the proper hardness, they pose a hazard to the operation of the line.

Vokes says the NEB has known about that particular problem for four years. "They knew about it before my complaint and I explained the problem to them." 

Andrew Nikiforuk

Andrew Nikiforuk has been writing about the oil and gas industry for nearly 20 years and cares deeply about accuracy, government accountability, and cumulative impacts. He has won seven National Magazine Awards for his journalism since 1989 and top honours for investigative writing from the Association of Canadian Journalists.

Andrew has also published several books. The dramatic, Alberta-based Saboteurs: Wiebo Ludwig’s War Against Big Oil, won the Governor General's Award for Non-Fiction in 2002. Pandemonium, which examines the impact of global trade on disease exchanges, received widespread national acclaim. The Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of the Continent, which considers the world’s largest energy project, was a national bestseller and won the 2009 Rachel Carson Environment Book Award and was listed as a finalist for the Grantham Prize for Excellence In Reporting on the Environment. Andrew's latest book, Empire of the Beetle, a startling look at pine beetles and the world’s most powerful landscape changer, was nominated for the Governor General’s award for Non-Fiction in 2011.

Tags: keystone pipeline, pipeline safety, Transcanada