An investigation into the causes of the recent TransCanada Keystone pipeline oil spill on November 16 has raised serious questions about the widespread use of weights on pipelines, regulators have revealed.
To be more specific, a report from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration stated that the recent Keystone oil spill in South Dakota may have been caused by a weight that was put in place during the construction of the pipeline back in 2008.
Image via Josh Lopez (some rights reserved)
The report argues that while the use of weights as a means of stopping pipelines from moving and reducing the risk of damage when water tables are rising is widespread, it may also be a cause of damage, corrosion, and oil spills.
This damage from the use of weights “could happen on other segments of this pipeline and other pipelines,” commented Najmedin Meshkati, professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Southern California.
“If there are issues on how this pipeline was designed and constructed, we will certainly be concerned,” stated North Dakota Public Service Commission Chairman Randy Christmann.
Reuters provides more: “The regulator’s finding has implications for the 2,687-mile (4,324 km) pipeline and others throughout the world. The weights, which tip the scales at 7,000 pounds (3,175 kg) or more, are commonly used, but only the pipeline operators know where they are located. … US regulators do not have specific information on the types of weights or their locations because pipeline companies are not required to submit data, said Carl Weimer, executive director of the non-profit Pipeline Safety Trust.
“On Tuesday, PHMSA ordered TransCanada to clean up the site and analyze data on the location of other weights on the Keystone line where the land may have similar characteristics as where the leak occurred. TransCanada would not say how many weights were placed along the pipeline, which runs through several states and Canadian provinces, during construction.
Some industry figures have commented that given the installation date back in 2008, the type of weights used on the Keystone project were likely concrete — and that these weights may have damaged the pipeline and thus led to corrosion problems. During the Keystone construction, apparently, weighting was pursued owing to high water tables (ditches filled up with water).
The Reuters coverage provides a bit more: “Former TransCanada engineer Evan Vokes, a whistleblower, said spills occurred due to shoddy or outmoded construction techniques. He said little could be done to prevent leaks once weights are installed if they are not built in the right places.”
“The time to address this is when you put it in the ditch,” he explained. “It’s a pointless exercise to fix it afterwards. It’s like putting on a helmet and running through a shooting range.”
That’s no doubt true, but getting large companies to make the best decision with regard to long-term safety is seemingly impossible when there’s no real threat of accountability.
The fact that the now approved Keystone XL pipeline may well be built right over the agriculturally and economically vital Oglala Aquifer more or less demonstrates this reality. It’s worth noting, though, that that pipeline may well never get built due to the economic problems facing Alberta’s oil sands operations.
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