A former TransCanada engineer says he reported its substandard practices to the federal energy regulator because he believed the company’s management, right up to the chief executive officer, refused to act on his complaints.

In an exclusive television interview with CBC News, Evan Vokes said he raised concerns about the competency of some pipeline inspectors and the company’s lack of compliance with welding regulations set by the National Energy Board (NEB), the federal energy industry regulator.

"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."

Vokes said he refused to back down and the workplace friction eventually took its toll.

"It was unbelievable the effect it was having on my health," Vokes told CBC News chief investigative correspondent Diana Swain. "I was certainly on my way to a heart attack, or a stroke, for sure. There is no doubt about it."

Vokes said he met with the Calgary-based company's vice-president of operations, and he also wrote a detailed letter to TransCanada Corp. chief executive officer Russ Girling. Frustrated, he finally made a formal complaint to the NEB, a version of events confirmed in an interview by the board's chief engineer.

"We understand he went right through the chain of command to the top in [TransCanada Pipelines Ltd.]," Iain Colquhoun said in an interview.

"Evan Vokes took the initiative to try and resolve the problem using the internal procedures and we would encourage people to do that,” Colquhoun said. "But having not got there, he took the extra step of involving the regulator, and we would certainly encourage that."

TransCanada reprimanded

Vokes went on stress leave in November 2011. In March 2012, he met with top National Energy Board officials and on May 1, he filed a formal written complaint with the NEB. TransCanada fired him on May 8.

Vokes, 46, had been a machinist and a welder before he returned to the University of Alberta at age 30 to become a metallurgical engineer. Barry Patchett, a retired metallurgy professor, said he knows his former student as an engineer who is technically proficient, honest and responsible.

Patchett said if Vokes made a complaint, "you can take that seriously; take it to the bank, because from what I know, he takes his responsibility, his work seriously."

Last Friday, the NEB issued a public letter to TransCanada. Without naming Vokes, it said "many of the allegations of regulatory non-compliance identified by the complainant were verified by TransCanada’s internal audit."

The NEB said it was “concerned by TransCanada’s non-compliance with NEB regulations, as well as its own internal management systems and procedures.”

Pipeline safety of 'paramount importance'

The regulator warned the company it would not tolerate further infractions of regulations related to welding inspections, the training of pipeline inspectors and internal engineering standards. It also announced a further audit of the company’s inspection and engineering procedures.

"Pipeline safety is of paramount importance to the NEB, and it will take all available actions to protect Canadians and the environment," the regulator stated.

The board, however, said the deficiencies "do not represent immediate threats to the safety of people or the environment.”

In an email statement to CBC News, TransCanada said “our reviews concluded that the items raised by the former employee were identified and addressed through routine quality control processes well before any facilities went into service.

"We are confident that any remaining concerns the regulator has about compliance and pipeline safety will be unwarranted," the TransCanada statement said.

The NEB is continuing its investigation of TransCanada and warned that if the company doesn't fix the identified problems, it "will not hesitate to impose appropriate corrective actions."

Lack of independent inspection questioned

Many of the complaints by Vokes focused on TransCanada's practice of allowing its pipeline and fabrication contractors to hire the inspectors that would be inspecting the contractors' work.

In 1999, the NEB imposed a regulation which requires the companies contracting the work, such as TransCanada, to supply independent inspectors to inspect the contractors' work.

"There is an inherent conflict when a prime contractor does his own inspections," Vokes said, especially when the project involves gas pipelines under high pressure because the consequence could be greater since it relates to public safety.

"In pipelining, there is a huge amount of stress for a very thin pipe," he said. "You certainly should be paying attention to what is wrong with your pipe, making sure nothing happens to it, and there are no injurious defects to your pipe as it is being put into the ground."

Vokes said the NEB regulation ensures contractors can’t pressure inspectors to sign off on work that is not up to code.

TransCanada has publicly admitted it did not always follow this regulation in the past, but said it was industry standard. Vokes said TransCanada believed independent inspection slowed production, driving up construction costs.

Keystone XL pipeline a U.S. election issue

These latest revelations about TransCanada's substandard practices come in the midst of a U.S. presidential election campaign in which the proposed Keystone XL pipeline is an issue.

A subsidiary of Calgary-based TransCanada Corp. is proposing to build the controversial $12-billion pipeline to transport 830,000 barrels a day of mostly Alberta oilsands crude to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast.

U.S. President Barack Obama rejected the application by TransCanada in November 2011, saying more time was required to assess its environmental risks.

The firm resubmitted its proposal for an altered northern segment of the route in May. It said the proposal addressed concerns about potential damage to a massive aquifer beneath the environmentally sensitive Nebraska Sandhills. The pipeline, however, is also facing strong public opposition in Texas from landowners and others.

The New York Times published a letter to the editor in May from TransCanada Corp. CEO Russ Girling in support of its Keystone XL application. In it, Girling said TransCanada had “safely and reliably operated pipelines and other energy infrastructure across North America for more than 60 years."

"Our existing 2,154-mile Keystone pipeline from Alberta to Cushing, Okla., has delivered 240 million barrels of Canadian oil safely to American markets since 2010," Girling wrote.

TransCanada Corp. is one of North America's biggest pipeline companies, with approximately 57,000 kilometres of natural gas pipelines, plus storage facilities and power plants in Canada and the U.S.

If you have more information on this story, or other investigative tips, please email investigations@cbc.ca

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  • Trans-Alaska Pipeline Spill - May 2010

    In May 2010, several thousand barrels of oil spilled from the Trans-Alaska pipeline "during a scheduled pipeline shutdown at a pump station near Fort Greely," <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/05/26/alaska-oil-spill-trans-al_n_589974.html" target="_hplink">explained AP</a>. No injuries were reported and officials said the spill was likely "limited to the gravel on top of the containment area's line."

  • Red Butte Creek Spill, Utah - June 2010

    In June 2010, a Chevron pipeline ruptured and spilled oil into a creek near Salt Lake City, Utah. It was first estimated that over 400 to 500 barrels spilled into the creek, which leads into the Great Salt Lake, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/06/12/utah-oil-spill-500-gallon_n_610232.html#s99698" target="_hplink">reported AP</a>. Around 150 birds were "identified for rehabilitation." The <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/06/14/utah-oil-spill-officials-_n_611014.html" target="_hplink">oil did not reach the Great Salt Lake</a>, however. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/07/14/chevron-cited-for-oil-spi_n_646340.html" target="_hplink">Chevron was later cited for the spill</a>, which released an estimated 33,000 gallons in total. In March 2012, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/huff-wires/20120324/us-oil-spill-utah/" target="_hplink">a group of 66 residents of a Salt Lake City neighborhood sued Chevron</a> for damage caused by the Red Butte Creek spill and a smaller spill in December 2011.

  • Kalamazoo River Spill, Michigan - July 2010

    In late July 2010, an Enbridge pipeline in southwestern Michigan sprung a leak and <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/07/27/michigan-oil-spill-among_n_661196.html" target="_hplink">spilled over 800,000 gallons of oil into a creek</a> which flows into the Kalamazoo River. By August, a regional EPA administrator said that significant progress had been made at the site, but "the agency cautioned that it will take months to complete the cleanup," <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/08/02/michigan-oil-spill-epa-of_n_667556.html" target="_hplink">reported AP</a>. By the end of September, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/09/27/michigan-oil-pipeline-res_n_741233.html" target="_hplink">the pipeline -- which travels from Ontario to Indiana -- was back in operation</a>. The EPA later <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/huff-wires/20111116/us-michigan-river-oil-spill/" target="_hplink">reported that about 1.1 million gallons of oil were recovered</a>, but pipeline operator Enbridge said that it would stick with previous estimates that only about 843,000 gallons were spilled.

  • Xingag Harbor Spill, Dailan, China - July 2010

    In July 2010, China experienced what was reported as the "<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/07/21/china-oil-spill-grows-off_n_653852.html#s120708" target="_hplink">country's largest reported oil spill</a>" after a pipeline rupture near the northeastern port city of Dailan. Several days after the spill, cleanup efforts were underway over a 165 square mile (430 square kilometer) area of the Yellow Sea. The Chinese government reported that about 1,500 tons or 461,790 gallons of oil had spilled, but <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/07/30/china-oil-spill-far-bigge_n_665038.html#s120708" target="_hplink">experts contended that the spill could have been "dozens of times larger,"</a> reported AP.

  • Peace River Spill, Alberta, Canada - April 2011

    In late April 2011, a pipeline in northwestern Alberta began leaking, and created the worst spill in the province in 36 years, <a href="http://www.calgaryherald.com/news/alberta/Rainbow+pipeline+leak+largest+years/4720888/story.html" target="_hplink">reported the <em>Calgary Herald</em></a>. About 28,000 barrels of oil were reportedly spilled from the Rainbow pipeline, which is operated by Plains Midstream Canada. The <em>Globe and Mail</em> revealed that the pipeline operators "<a href="http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/oil-on-rainbow-line-halted-8-hours-after-problem-detected/article2013335/" target="_hplink">detected a potential problem nearly eight hours before halting the flow of crude</a>." A nearby school in a First Nation community was closed after residents reported "nausea, burning eyes and other symptoms," and several animals were found dead. In late July, Plains Midstream <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2011/07/28/alberta-pipeline-owner-as_n_912796.html" target="_hplink">requested to re-open the pipeline</a> and begin to ship oil to Edmonton again.

  • Bohai Bay Spill, China - June 2011

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  • Campos Basin Spill, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - Nov. 2011

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  • Nigeria Oil Spill - Dec. 2011

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