The Keystone XL tar sands pipeline leak detection system would have likely missed the 63,000 gallon Norman Wells pipeline spill

TransCanada has admitted that Keystone XL’s real time leak detection system will not detect pinhole leaks and can’t be relied upon to detect leaks smaller than about 700,000 gallons a day. Despite this significant shortcoming, the only route that the State Department has seriously considered for Keystone XL would take it through the heart of the Ogallala Aquifer, our nation’s largest underground water source. Enbridge’s recent 63,000 gallon spill on its Norman Wells pipeline in Canada provides an indication of the types of leaks that can go undetected for weeks on pipelines like Keystone XL that rely on conventional leak detection systems to identify leaks. What is really surprising about the Enbridge spill is that 63,000 gallons of oil leaked from a hole in the pipeline that was “about the size of a pinhole.” The Enbridge spill shows what a big deal a small leak can be.

A spill on Keystone XL in the Ogallala Aquifer would be far worse. Keystone XL would be an 830,000 bpd tar sands pipeline placed underground, actually running through the Ogallala Aquifer itself in many places. The Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement (SDEIS) for Keystone XL states that the water conductivity - or the rate that water moves through the soil – in the Ogallala Aquifer can be as high as one hundred feet per day. This proves a substantial point, as the SDEIS concedes Keystone XL does not have the technology to detect a single leak that is less than 1.5 - 2% of the pipeline’s flow-rate in real-time. It also mentions that a pinhole leak could go on for weeks before discovery.

You can imagine the level of contamination that would occur if a similar situation occurred on Keystone XL in the Ogallala Aquifer – an undiscovered three week spill could contaminate a large three dimensional chunk of the Ogallala Aquifer nearly half a mile long. And responders will not be able to simply remove the contaminated soil – they will have to pump contaminated water out, which will draw more water into the area of the contamination. In short, a Keystone XL tar sands spill in the Ogallala Aquifer would be a disaster.

The SDEIS for Keystone XL states that several small leaks on the Keystone XL pipeline could leak as much as five percent of its capacity, or 1.7 million gallons a day, without triggering its leak detection system. TransCanada employees will not walk the pipeline route to identify these types of spills – the company will not send people out to do ground patrols unless they already know there’s a spill. TransCanada will have aerial flyover once every three weeks – just like the Enbridge flyovers that missed the Norman Wells pipeline leak.

The last line of defense will be landowners and nearby residents themselves, the ones that identified the 840,000 gallon Enbridge Kalamazoo tar sands spill, the 21,000 gallon Keystone I spill and the latest 63,000 gallon Normal Wells spill. The same landowners who aren’t being informed of the diluents used in raw tar sands, who were only given 45 days during spring planting season to comment on the SDEIS, and who thus far have been deprived the opportunity of hearings to discuss the SDEIS with decisions makers before the environmental review process has been finalized.  

If the officials at the State Department and regulators at the Department of Transportation are waiting for the right time to take these concerns seriously, now would be good.

About the Authors

Anthony Swift

Director, Canada Project, International program

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