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TransCanada shuts down Keystone pipeline over safety issues

The 2,100-mile Keystone pipeline, which hauls dilbit crude from Alberta, Canada, down to facilities in Illinois and Oklahoma, has some "possible safety

The 2,100-mile Keystone pipeline, which hauls dilbit crude from Alberta, Canada, down to facilities in Illinois and Oklahoma, has some "possible safety issues," and Canadian energy company TranCanada has shut down the line temporarily to check it out. 

Grady Semmens, spokesman for Calgary-based TransCanada, said the pipeline was shut down Wednesday evening as a precaution and was expected to restart Saturday."We found a small anomaly on the outside of the pipe after analyzing the data from an in-line inspection tool," Semmens said in an email. "As a precaution, we've shut down the line so we can go in and take a closer look."Once the pipeline is restarted the company expects "normal operations and flows" for the rest of October, but TransCanada may have to "make up some volumes in November," Semmens said.Heavy storms that have hit the area recently "are not helping" the operation, he said.

The much-contested Keystone XL -- the one Paul Ryan said Mitt Romney would approve on "day one" -- would be a $7 billion extension of this original line. The Canadian government recently took note of TransCanada's safety record, after a fired TransCanada employee claimed in an interview with CBC News that he was terminated after raising concerns "about the competency of some pipeline inspectors and the company’s lack of compliance with welding regulations." 

“I wrote a series of emails to a series of project managers saying, ‘We can’t do this practice, we can’t do this practice, we can’t do this practice,’” Vokes said. “And I received increasingly pressured emails about how things were OK to do it that way.”

The biggest safety concern over these Keystone pipelines is their cargo, diluted bitumen, or "dilbit," which is nothing like its conventional crude counterpart. 

Bitumen, the oil extracted from tar sands, is thick and sticky, and has to be diluted to flow through pipelines. The chemical mixture used to dilute it is a trade secret, but often includes carcinogens like benzene (pdf).

One million gallons of this same stuff gushed into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan in 2010 -- the biggest inland pipeline spill in US history -- and it is yet to be totally cleaned up. Watchdog groups have raised concerns that dilbit is more corrosive than conventional crude, which raises the possibility of leaks (the industry denies this, so pipeline technology has not changed). And once it leaks, as we saw in Michigan in 2010, cleanup of the unconventional material is a whole lot harder.

This past summer, TransCanada faced a new kind scrutiny from Nebraska environmental officials: they wanted to see the chemical information about dilbit that's currently protected by trade secret laws. "What are the characteristics of the products being transported?" a feedback report asked. "How toxic are the products being moved through the pipeline?"

With Keystone XL front and center in the campaign conversation, talk of pipeline safety has all but disappeared. Now might be the time to have another look at what happened in Michigan.