Latest TransCanada spill is why President Obama rejected Keystone XL – Updated and Corrected

* The following is an opinion column by R Muse *

Although it has been out of the news for a while, the Keystone XL pipeline reared its ugly head again and the corporate media never paid attention because Republicans championing the ecological disaster were not the source of the news. One of the primary concerns to landowners in near proximity to the proposed pipeline was a tar sand leak that has dangerous levels of benzene and a tendency to sink through soil until it saturates the ground and percolates back to the surface. There was “an event” in South Dakota over the weekend in a TransCanada pipeline that the company tried to keep quiet and no South Dakota Republican said a single word. The conservative media has been silent on the “event” as well.

On Saturday afternoon past, the thing local residents and landowners feared most about the Keystone XL pipeline was realized by a Hutchinson County, South Dakota land owner.  The landowner, Loren Schulz, noticed there was something different about the appearance of the water and quickly discovered there was oil in the surface water near the Keystone pipeline’s right-of-way and reported the spill.

It took an entire day, but Canadian corporation TransCanada finally arrived on the scene and shut down the portion of the Keystone pipeline which originates in Alberta, Canada and goes to Steele City, Nebraska. This part of the pipeline was not the embattled northern Keystone XL route rejected last year by President Obama; TransCanada has been transporting tar sands crude through its extensive renamed “Gulf Coast” pipeline network for some years. The Keystone pipeline, as a project, was split into sections to provide TransCanada a more fortuitous route to move Canadian tar sands bitumen to the Gulf of Mexico to be refined and exported around the world; it does not stay in America.

If not for landowners noticing the oil flowing on area surface water, TransCanada would still be counting its oil dollars because its pipeline pressure sensors were not reporting what was an obvious leak. It took a day to get a representative at the spill site and likely only because the foreign company learned that the media had been informed there was a spill. However, after local media did break the news about the spill, TransCanada reacted instantly and blocked all access to the affected area to prevent anyone from seeing or documenting the contamination oozing up from the ground.

To demonstrate the power a foreign oil corporation wields over America, as reported by Julie Dermansky of the DeSmogBlog,

“It was impossible to document by photography the spill site or contaminated soil and water from the sky according to Bold Nebraska. Jane Kleeb told DeSmog that The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)forbade the pilot she hired to  fly over the site because it was deemed closed airspace” until May 8. As of April 6, the FAA lifted the airspace restriction;” probably due to what little pressure the non-mainstream media coverage applied.

According to Bold Nebraska’s Jane Kleeb;

To have the FAA close off airspace for a foreign corporation is a big problem. We want to take our own pictures. With 100 clean-up workers on site, we have a right to be taking our own pictures and finding out our own information.”

According to a report by DeSmog Blog; “If the public isn’t able to take their own pictures of the site, they shouldn’t expect to see any for several years, if at all. Any photos of the contamination made publicly available will come either from TransCanada or the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA); the agency responsible for regulating interstate pipelines.”

Even then, whatever photos or documentation PHMSA has access to is precisely what TransCanada turns over about its pipeline spills. Due to the agency’s rules, it cannot and does not share any information with the public until its investigations are finalized; a task that can take years. Even then there is no guarantee a report on an investigation will include accurate photographs; especially if TransCanada does not provide pictures of their pipeline’s damage.

A former TransCanada materials engineer-turned-whistleblower, Evan Vokes, said “If there is an oil spill the probable source of the spill is at the site of a bad weld. And bad welds are inevitable when welding is not done to code.” Mr. Vokes also refuted TransCanada’s claim there was very little tar sand crude that spilled because there were not thousands of gallons on the surface. Vokes said, “It can take a lot of oil to leak before enough of it percolates up to the surface level for someone to notice.”

Vokes also said he is relatively certain that much more oil spilled than TransCanada estimated, or admitted publicly, because when oil leaks underground,

It moves along wherever subsurface water moves making even a rough estimate of the spill’s size incredibly difficult. TransCanada’s leak detection equipment can’t pick up a leak until 2% of the pressure in a pipeline drops. Which is what makes small leaks like this dangerous since they can go undetected for a long time. It is possible the Keystone pipeline has many other small leaks that have not been identified yet at the sites of other bad welds. It is impossible to know where they are until someone notices them, and by that time the damage could be catastrophic.”

Even Though TransCanada confirmed its leak detection system did not pick up the spill, it refused to confirm if the product in the line was diluted bitumen or regular crude. But it is likely that if product came directly from Alberta Canada and spilled in South Dakota it is diluted bitumen, also known as dilbit; and it is extremely toxic to the air, water, soil and all life. It is “dilbit” that the big Keystone XL pipeline was going to carry across America and a major drinking water source for tens-of-millions of Americans. It was also planned to traverse across “America’s breadbasket” that even a moderate spill would have decimated for a decade; and Keystone was going to leak, if not rupture, according to TransCanada’s horrible record.

For example, Canadian regulators have documented 21 major incidents in the Keystone pipeline’s first year of operation. On the American side, U.S regulators identified 62 deficiencies in TransCanada’s pipeline operations according to a letter PHMSA sent to TransCanada just last year. Although the U.S. PHMSA has fined the company for blatantly and deliberately violating rules, it has never taken the appropriate action to stop Keystone’s construction; even when inspectors caught the company red-handed breaking the rules. Although there is no excuse for PHMSA not fulfilling its responsibility as a regulatory agency, it is worth noting that Republicans have spent no small amount of time and effort slashing the budgets of all manner of regulatory agencies.

It is a travesty that this latest, but not the last, Keystone spill was not any part of any recent news cycle to remind Americans what lay in store for the nation if that ecological disaster was built across one of the largest agricultural areas in the nation. It is also reprehensible that regulators are will to levy fines on TransCanada and yet have not shut down the pipeline until it meets each and every safety standard.

What is criminal is that if not for an observant landowner, it appears that TransCanada would have ignored the spill if it was not picked up by local media. If nothing else, TransCanada failed to have adequate and required safety measures in place to know there was a leak, but safety is about as important to a foreign corporation as regulations they willfully refuse to conform to.

h/t DeSmogBlog

Updated and corrected: A previous version of this article contained inaccurate information consisting of mis- and un- attributed quotes. Apologies to DeSmogBlog and Julie Dermansky