Evan Vokes never gave any thought to whistleblowers before realizing he would need to blow a shrill blast against his former employer, TransCanada, the company behind the Keystone XL pipeline.
As an engineer, Vokes took an oath to protect public safety before the interests of the company. Vokes was motivated by the consequences an industry’s reckless actions can have on society. But Vokes hasn’t yet had the satisfaction of seeing the insider information he shared have an effect on the pipeline building industry.
Environmental groups have been pressuring President Obama to reject the Keystone XL pipeline, a high-capacity, high-pressure line that will go from Alberta, Canada, to the Gulf of Mexico, transporting diluted bitumen known as tar sands, a fuel that creates more carbon emissions than crude oil. They are concerned that tar sands will erode the pipeline faster and that any spills can cause irreparable damage. Vokes is not concerned with those issues. He believes pipelines are the best way to transport tar sands. But he has denounced the pipeline because it is so shoddily built that it may well poison aquifers and kill people.
Obama has told the nation that his decision on the Keystone XL pipeline will be based on whether or not it significantly increases carbon emissions. Vokes hopes that after TransCanada’s code violations become public knowledge, the President will also give weight to the project’s integrity and address the risks of catastrophic consequences.
TransCanada was already in trouble with Canada’s National Energy Board when Vokes started working for the company in 2007. Three court orders had been served compelling TransCanada to comply with pipeline construction regulations it had been caught breaking. Part of Vokes’s job as a pipeline materials engineer was to ensure the company complied with the court orders.
During his five years with the company, Vokes did his best to get TransCanada to identify and solve its problems. Some of Vokes’s suggested changes were accepted; others were not. Vokes persisted. However, the company continued to emphasize cost and speed rather than code compliance.
Despite his efforts, in 2011 Vokes found himself observing failures in multiple projects, including the Bison pipeline, which runs from Gillette, Wyoming, to Morton County, North Dakota, and the Keystone 1, which runs from Hardisty, Alberta, to Cushing, Oklahoma. Faulty welds, defective parts, and rushed preparation for the pipeline installations were causing problems. The Keystone 1 failed shortly after it began operating, sending an eighty-foot oil geyser into the air for forty-five minutes till the landowner alerted TransCanada. Approximately 21,000 gallons spilled before the line was shut down. An automatic safety feature failed to detect the spill when the line’s pressure started spewing oil. The Keystone 1 had fourteen leaks in its first two years of use. Shortly after the Bison pipeline was put into use, it ruptured and suffered an explosion because of construction failures.
Pressure mounted as Vokes resisted signing off on flaws. When his manager ordered him to stop his investigations in March 2011, he persisted, uncovering an ever-increasing scope of wrongdoing. In October 2011, he wrote to TransCanada CEO Russ Girling, offering his mid-year assessment after Girling welcomed employee input.
“I have to quit or fight,” Vokes told his boss. “It is with great mirth that I see the quarterly mention of the disappointing project, and yet no one at the corporate level makes mention of why did these projects fail and who was held accountable. Instead, we see promotion for those that say yes as we make the regulator madder. We task those who were instrumental in the failure with investigating themselves, and if you dare speak of what happened it is classed as personal attacks on fellow employees.”
A few days later, he was put on what TransCanada deemed stress leave. Nevertheless, Vokes felt compelled to finish what he started. He sent damning evidence of code violations to the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta, Canada’s National Energy Board, and the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. He was fired when he returned to work.
Though the National Energy Board has acknowledged the validity of Vokes’s claims, little action has been taken to compel TransCanada to impose corrective measures. So Vokes blew his whistle in other directions: to the Canadian Senate and the U.S. State Department, to the press, and to the landowners directly affected. For anyone who wants to understand the dangers of a pipeline not built to code, he offers a crash course.
Vokes’s actions prompted the Canadian Senate to invite him to participate in their study of the current state of pipeline safety.
“TransCanada Pipelines has a culture of noncompliance and deeply entrenched business practices that ignore the legally required regulation and codes,” Vokes testified on June 6 of this year. “The mix of political and commercial interests allows industry to claim they exceed federal requirements when they are building substandard pipelines with no enforcement or accountability in the process.”
He gave the governing body evidence: copies of TransCanada reports, company e-mails, photos, and the National Energy Board’s own court orders that still had not been followed.
On June 13, the Canadian Senate called Iain Colquhoun, the chief engineer of the National Energy Board, and TransCanada’s vice president Dan King to testify, asking them to answer Vokes’ charges. Colquhoun skirted the questions, avoiding many of them. King claimed that since a part of Vokes’s job was to identify any problems, it was only natural that he found code compliance issues. Once they were identified they were fixed, King said, but Vokes’s evidence refutes this position. King also stated “There is no benefit to TransCanada, financial or otherwise, of cutting corners on safety or compliance.”
But there is. Cutting corners by focusing on speedy construction can substantially reduce construction costs in a very expensive game.
In the United States, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration has Vokes’s evidence and a mounting pile of reports that detail incidents on the Bison and Keystone 1 pipelines, in addition to anomalies (the industry’s term for defects) found in the newly built southern route of Keystone XL. TransCanada insists these problems are routine and that they have taken corrective measures. However, such defects point to systemic quality control issues. For example, on October 17 of last year, during a mandatory test of Keystone 1, inspectors found a problem serious enough to force TransCanada to take the line out of production for almost a week. Despite repeated requests to find out what the problems were, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration has not provided the information to the press.
This spring, the first tests of the Keystone XL southern route detected anomalies. Vokes is not surprised because anomalies result when construction codes are not followed. TransCanada spokesman Shawn Howard disagrees. He insists that the increased number of anomalies found is normal, since they are building the pipeline to a higher standard than other pipelines, following fifty-seven special conditions they accepted to get this project an initial green light—another claim that remains unsubstantiated.
Vokes testified at a public State Department hearing in Nebraska this April.
“TransCanada keeps insisting the Keystone XL pipeline will be the safest pipeline ever built despite irrefutable evidence to the contrary,” he said. “In fact, they are building the southern portion of the Keystone XL to the lowest permissible standards, just as they have the Keystone 1 and the Bison Pipeline.”
In June, Vokes visited Texas to attend a conference called by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration and to investigate reports of anomaly repairs on the Keystone XL southern route. He still had hopes that the U.S. regulatory agency might act more aggressively than the Canadian National Energy Board. He left the conference discouraged after listening to representatives mislead concerned citizens about the real dangers they will face by having a defective pipeline run through their communities.
At the meeting, Vokes learned Obama had signed the Pipeline Safety, Regulatory Certainty, and Job Creation Act of 2011, a law that essentially deregulates the pipeline industry. The law states that standards based on code not available without cost online can no longer be referenced. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration uses the American Society of Mechanical Engineers code to regulate the pipeline industry. This code is not available at no cost online, so the regulatory agency will no longer be able to reference it even though it is their mandate to enforce it. In 2014, when the law goes into effect, the pipeline industry will have sole responsibility for determining and monitoring its own construction standards. “The risks they could take for every pipeline in the United States are staggering,” Vokes says.
While in Texas, Vokes visited some of the landowners directly impacted. He explained parts of the code to them and how what was supposed to happen differed from what actually was happening.
On David Whitley’s property where one anomaly was cut out, photos proved the pipeline had been laid in a ditch on top of a boulder, a practice that is not only contrary to code but is also a sure way to produce a dent. He also met with activists who have been documenting the repair process and reviewed their images to explain when, where, and how the code was not being followed and what the outcome would be.
In a statement to the media, TransCanada claimed it found nine anomalies that would need to be cut out of one eighty-one-mile portion of the pipeline. That figure contradicts the findings of activists who documented dozens of anomaly sites and multiple cutout sections of pipe. Vokes flew over the area and confirmed that much of the finished portions of the pipeline is now back under construction. He has never seen a project with this many repairs.
TransCanada’s Shawn Howard would not release the actual number of anomalies. Howard stated, “It doesn’t matter how many sections are fixed as long as they are fixed.”
But Vokes disagrees. Newly introduced segments of pipe lessen the integrity of the pipeline, he says. “The new welds required to replace pipe where sections have been cut out, known as final tie-in welds, will be the weakest links in the pipeline, much in the way that a chain is only as strong as the weakest link,” he explains. If the repair work isn’t done right no one will know until it is too late because no tests are required regardless of how many repairs are made.
In Beaumont, Texas, where the final section of the southern route of the Keystone XL is being installed, Vokes observed new pipeline sections whose coating was already deteriorating. Code requires that the coating on all pipelines must be damage free; the coating is there to protect the pipeline from corrosion. Despite all the construction issues, the Keystone XL southern route will be put into use whether or not the northern route is approved. The southern route will tie into the Keystone 1 pipeline in Cushing, Oklahoma. So even if Obama blocks the Keystone XL, that won’t stop TransCanada from moving tar sands from Canada to the Gulf through the questionably built southern segment.
Vokes was once optimistic that he could help make sure that Keystone XL would be built right. Even if there were problems, he was in a position to change the culture of TransCanada from the inside. But that proved impossible. Today he thinks it’s highly unlikely that anything will stop this flawed project. The risks of allowing the project to move forward are great, so he keeps trying to get the information he has already shared with the regulatory agencies out to the public.
“The United States is getting a substandard product, one with an undisclosed number of replacement parts, not a pipeline that exceeds safety standards, despite TransCanada’s repeated claims,” he says. “Think of it like this: If you bought a new luxury car and it had to go back under warranty because of several major drivetrain problems but they repaired it with used parts, would you have the best car or would you just have a lemon?”
Though his goal of convincing TransCanada to clean up its act has not been achieved, Vokes reflects that at least the authorities that could implement regulations to stop a faulty product from being put into use know the truth. They cannot claim ignorance when things start to go wrong. Once tar sands spill into an aquifer, it can’t be fixed. You can’t return your pipeline and have the environment restored. There’s no lemon law for pipelines.
Julie Dermansky is a multimedia reporter and artist based in New Orleans. She is an affiliate scholar at Rutgers University’s Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights. Her website is www.jsdart.com .