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TransCanada has a 'culture of non-compliance': engineer to Senate committee

Evan Vokes, a pipeline safety whistleblower and materials engineer, told a Canadian Senate committee yesterday that TransCanada Corporation "has a culture of non-compliance," but the company says it takes "great exception" to Vokes' claims that it does not take safety and compliance issues seriously.

Calgary-based TransCanada is the proponent of the Keystone XL pipeline to ferry raw bitumen to the Gulf of Mexico.

The multi-billion dollar pipeline would accelerate tar sands production, which on a per barrel basis creates three to four times more climate-changing emissions than conventional oil.  

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.

In particular, 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 is now studying the safety of pipeline transportation in Canada.

During the construction of a natural gas line feeding one oil sands 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."

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.

Problems with a brand new U.S. natural gas line, Bison, resulted in a major rupture and explosion in Wyoming in 2011, added Vokes who worked on parts of both projects.

During the construction of another gas pipeline, Vokes and the welding team "found that generally over 100 welding procedures were signed off" by senior engineers "when they did not meet code. Welding is the core competency of a pipeline company, so these events created a crisis within engineering as senior management still did not step in to stop the practices that were exposed."

When Vokes finally raised persistent violations of code with senior management, the engineer testified that management tried to pressure him "to step into unsound practice."

Vokes blamed what he called the company's culture of noncompliance on a "mix of politics and commercial interests that has resulted in false public claims of exceptional industry practice when the reality is that industry struggles to comply with code and regulation."

Vokes' testimony directly contradicts remarks made by TransCanada executive Don Wishart, as well as National Energy Board chairman Gaetan Caron. Both said that Canada's pipeline industry operated under the best practices.  

Last February, Wishart, TransCanada's senior operations and major project advisor, told the committee that Vokes' complaints provoked an internal investigation but "none of the allegations had to do with anything that represented a risk to people or to the environment. It was more administrative quality control issues that were raised."

Vokes told the Senate that his complaints were not administrative but substantive, and that "the documentation proves TransCanada took significant public safety risks… the National Energy Board's voluntary compliance model has moved compliance backwards in the last 10 years." 

In a statement, TransCanada responded to Vokes' testimony by noting that it originally took his concerns seriously and treated him fairly. For legal reasons it can't comment further.

The statement added that there is a difference between building a pipeline safely "versus someone suggesting it be done differently."

Added the statement: "We can always make up lost dollars but we can't ever repair the damage and devastation of a catastrophic event. That's why we take great exception to the claims by Mr. Vokes that we do not take safety and compliance issues seriously -- our track record and the safety of our energy infrastructure network shows that we do.

TransCanada says that its Keystone proposal to transport diluted bitumen to U.S. coastal refineries will be technologically advanced.

The company has spent tens of millions on political lobbying in Canada and the United States.

Just prior to being fired without cause from TransCanada in May 2012, Vokes lodged a detailed and lengthy complaint with federal pipeline regulators in Canada and the U.S., the prime minister's office and the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta (APEGGA) that alleged that TransCanada had failed to uphold rules on weld inspections.

Last October, the National Energy Board confirmed that it had investigated and verified two parts of Vokes' six-part complaint on regulatory non-compliance against TransCanada.

"I believe the only reason for the enforcement letter on the (National Energy Board) website was as result of media queries investigating my complaints," Vokes said in his testimony.  

The Board, which regulates some 70,000 kilometres worth of interprovincial pipelines, said TransCanada is now taking "remediation measures" to uphold the law on pipeline safety.

Critics have long described the National Energy Board as a captive regulator that, until recently, rarely published enforcement letters and didn't fine companies for violations of code. The federal regulator had no provision for imposing fines on pipeline law breakers until this year. 

After his testimony, Vokes told The Tyee that the primary issue for the industry is not risk but compliance with the law.

"The US National Transportation Safety Board reported after the 2010 Kalamazoo rupture that Enbridge had a 'culture of deviance' when it came to complying with the law. I'm saying the problem is not just confined to Enbridge. It's a widespread industry problem in Canada.

"But the Senate committee wanted to talk about risk of spills. That's not the issue. It's all about compliance."

Two months ago, the National Energy Board warned Enbridge that it was not abiding by federal safety standards at 117 pumping stations along its extensive crude oil network in Canada.

A 2011 federal inspection of the Edmonton, Westover and Sarnia pipeline terminals and at the Westover and Terrebonne pump stations found that Enbridge didn't have proper emergency shut-down systems or emergency back-up power in the event of a rupture or accident.

Vokes told the Senate committee that problems on Enbridge's Southern Lights pipeline, Enbridge Line 14b and the Keystone XL line under construction in Texas "are demonstrations of the breach of social responsibility the public can expect in the future. These pipelines are examples of lack of enforcement during construction resulting in brand new pipelines that need integrity work either before or shortly after placed in service."

Award-winning journalist Andrew Nikiforuk has been writing about the energy industry for two decades and is a contributing editor to The Tyee.

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