About half the steel used in the new Keystone oil pipeline, which runs through the St. Louis area, comes from a foreign manufacturer that supplied defective steel to several other U.S. pipelines built around the same time.
The federal government's response has been inadequate, and regulators should order pressure reduced in several newly built pipelines, including Keystone, until more tests can be conducted to ensure their safety, according to a public interest law center study released this week.
"While pipeline ruptures don't happen every day, when they do happen, they can be fatal and create a difficult mess for people to deal with," said Paul Blackburn, a lawyer with Plains Justice who wrote the pipeline report. "If there's any kind of testing that can be done ahead of time to reduce those risks, it should be done."
Plains Justice reviewed more than 3,700 pages of documents from the federal agency responsible for pipeline regulation — the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. The documents show that pipeline safety officials first learned of problems with the steel while conducting tests on several projects built during a pipeline construction boom from 2007 to 2009. Five of the lines failed.
An investigation followed, revealing that the lines contained significant amounts of defective pipe that stretched under pressure. Additional testing was ordered, and the two companies building the lines removed and replaced hundreds of sections of pipe.
The problems were traced to defective steel produced by several mills, but mostly by Welspun Power and Steel, an India-based manufacturer.
In May 2009, federal regulators issued an advisory that warned operators of the potentially deficient steel. The documents, however, show no evidence that pipeline safety officials made a systematic effort to determine whether Welspun pipe went into other natural gas and hazardous liquid pipelines built during the same period.
"It is not possible to determine the full extent of the low-strength steel problem or trace all possible low-strength steel from particular steel and pipe mills to particular pipelines," the report concluded.
Almost half of the Keystone line was built with steel produced by Welspun.
The $5.2 billion Keystone pipeline stretches 2,151 miles from Alberta's Athabasca tar sands to the ConocoPhillips' Wood River refinery in Roxana, then on to Patoka, Ill. The pipeline, one of the longest and most expensive ever built in North America, began delivering crude to Wood River on Wednesday. The pipeline can carry about a half-million barrels a day, enough to supply about 2 percent of the country's daily demand.
TransCanada officials said they had not reviewed the Plains Justice report but offered assurances the pipeline was safe. They noted that TransCanada's contracts with mills outline specifications above industry standards, and the company reviews manufacturing processes and quality control tests conducted by the suppliers. In addition, the company performs its own quality assurance checks after manufacturing.
"Our pipeline has been fully tested, and it is safe," spokesman Terry Cunha said.
A spokesman with the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration said the agency was still reviewing the Plains Justice report.
The problems with the pipe surfaced during a time when energy prices skyrocketed, demand for steel soared and the miles of pipe installed by the industry doubled from just under 2,000 miles in 2007 to more than 4,000 miles in 2008, according to the report.
The center represents Dakota Rural Action, a South Dakota landowner group of mostly farmers and ranchers that sought improved pipeline safety and environmental protections from state regulators.
Among other things, Plains Justice is recommending that pipeline safety officials order that pressure be reduced in newly constructed pipelines such as Keystone until additional testing can be completed. Failure to conduct the test puts the public and the environment at risk, Blackburn said.
"We just think that they need to require TransCanada ... to make sure their pipeline didn't get any bad steel," he said. "This is like a compressed air tank. If there's a failure, it won't pour out, it will blast out."
TransCanada officials said they already are conducting the tests that Plains Justice is requesting at the directive of federal pipeline safety officials. The company has tested about 40 percent of the line and expects to complete the work by the end of August.
No anomalies have been found, said Jesse Bajnok, a Keystone project engineer. The pipeline is not yet operating at full capacity and will continue to operate well below maximum pressure until all testing is completed, Bajnok said.
TransCanada needed more than two years to acquire all the necessary state and federal permits for the pipeline. Construction took another two years.
The 30-inch-diameter pipe, which crosses about 280 miles and 10 counties in Missouri and 60 miles and four counties in Illinois, is buried about 4 feet underground in most places. In Missouri, almost all the pipeline route is privately owned and, except in Troy and St. Charles, runs through mostly agricultural areas. The pipeline cuts diagonally through Lincoln County from the northeast, then burrows across northern St. Charles County before plunging 65 feet beneath the Mississippi River and surfacing in Hartford, just a short distance from Roxana. It skirts Edwardsville on its way to Patoka.
In Highland, the pipeline runs beneath Silver Lake, the primary source of drinking water for the town's 10,000 residents.
"To be honest, we don't know if the pipeline under our lake is affected or not," City Manager Mark Latham said. "This pipeline is over 2,000 miles long. They should do the inspections necessary to make sure it's safe."
In St. Charles County, government officials said the gulf oil spill and a Post-Dispatch report about a long-ago oil pipeline leak on the Gasconade River already had prompted a review of the hazardous materials response plans for the pipelines running through the county.
Given the findings of the Plains Justice report, "there probably should be some further testing," said Don Boehmer, the county's director of intergovernmental affairs.
"If you had a rupture under the river, it would probably be more problematic than the gulf,'' he said. "You'd probably be polluting all the states in the Midwest."