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Keystone Report: Errors led to
Biggest Spill in Pipeline’s History
Operators TC Energy ignored defects

A new report has revealed that the owners of the Keystone pipeline, Canada’s TC Energy, were aware of structural problems a decade before the pipeline ruptured in rural Kansas on December 7, 2022. The resulting oil spill was the largest in the pipeline’s checkered history — worse in terms of volume than all prior spills combined. Furthermore, the report reveals that the disaster could have been prevented had a Pipeline Inspection Gauge been deployed after repairs and modifications were made.

The Keystone Pipeline And The Safety PIG That Was Muzzled — Palast’s 2017 report for Thom Hartmann
The Keystone Pipeline ruptured near Milepost 14 just south of Mill Creek in Washington County, Kansas. TC Energy estimated 14,000 barrels (588,000 gallons) of crude was released, polluting farmland and the nearby creek. Following the spill, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) issued a Corrective Action Order requiring TC Energy to submit an independent, third-party Root Cause Failure Analysis (RCFA). It is this RCFA report, prepared by RSI Pipeline Solutions, that was published on April 21, 2023, and subsequently released in a heavily redacted form.

The report reveals a series of construction issues, with defects in welds and a bend assembly (referred to as TAG 98) being documented in the section of pipe that ultimately ruptured as far back as 2010. In 2012, a caliper tool found a constriction or “ovality” in what should have been a round pipeline, which most likely occurred during its installation in 2010 when excessive bending loads were applied. It was severe enough to require excavation for further evaluation, but was “backfilled without any further interventions.” In 2016 and 2020 further modifications were made to increase the capacity of the pipeline. The report also noted that key safety inspections we not performed after repairs and modifications were made.

A pipeline pigging system being deployed.

These inspections are performed in the pipeline using a specialist piece of equipment industry professionals refer to as a PIG — short for Pipeline Inspection Gage. The RCFA report also noted that the sensitivity of a weld inspector tool that was sent down the pipe “was not enough to detect the shallow LOF features that initiated cracking.”

LOF — short for “Lack of Fusion” — is an evasive euphemism for a faulty weld.

The report ultimately concluded that the rupture happened because “the design of the TAG 98 bend assembly combined with the external bending load applied during construction was such that the stresses imparted to the weld were sufficiently high to initiate a crack at the shallow LOF.” In short: a crack in a weld, in a portion of the pipeline that had been stressed when bent during installation, was below detection thresholds.

Timeline from the Root Cause Failure Analysis report.

However, it’s often no accident that weld inspection tools are calibrated in a way that means that the PIG fails to squeal a warning when it passes a faulty weld — as disclosed by Greg Palast in his 2010 investigation for Britain’s investigative TV series Dispatches and again in 2017 in a report for Thom Hartmann [see video above]. Whistleblowers told Palast — who prior to turning to investigative reporting, directed the investigation of pipeline explosions for the Attorney General of Illinois — that the safety software used on major US pipelines contains deliberate errors.

“The PIGs are honest, but the software isn’t. They’ve essentially muzzled the PIGs by making the diagnostic software less sensitive,” says Palast. “These silenced PIGs save Big Oil billions of dollars in repairs, maintenance, and pipeline down time. But the cost to the environment and human life can be high and the combination of greedy corporate pigs and muzzled pipeline PIGs can be deadly.”

Writer, editor, photographer, videographer, social media consultant, and tactivist (tactical activist), Nicole Powers uses art and technology to share ideas that make the world a better place.

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