LINCOLN - Plenty of people argue the Keystone XL oil pipeline should not be built.

What makes Mike Klink different is he saw the construction of some of the first Keystone pipeline, running beneath 2,148 miles of middle-of-America states, including Nebraska. The civil engineer from Auburn, Ind., worked as an inspector on the project, which was finished in late 2009.

Some of the things he said he witnessed - and reported to federal agencies - raise questions about the safety of the pipeline.

Things like pipeline steel that cracked when it was welded.

Construction crews using the wrong rebar.

And a pervasive message to keep his mouth shut when he saw mistakes calling for costly fixes.

"The comments that were made to me were always 'Who the hell cares?'" Klink told The World-Herald. "'It's in the middle of nowhere.'"

A spokesman for TransCanada, the developer of both pipelines, said Klink lacks the professional background to support many of his contentions.

Klink's allegations are either inaccurate or false, said the spokesman, Terry Cunha.

And Klink is the only one of 800 inspectors to allege safety shortcuts, Cunha said.

"We are very clear to every contractor, supplier and employee: We do not compromise on safety - ever," Cunha said. "If issues were brought to our attention about construction practices, they were immediately investigated. If corrections were needed, they were made."

Klink said when he brought problems to the attention of supervisors, he was ignored, harassed, transferred and eventually let go, prompting him to file a retaliation complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor. The department has yet to complete its investigation.

If true, his claims pose new questions about the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, a project that touched off a routing battle in Nebraska. The battle was resolved last fall with a plan to keep the pipeline out of the environmentally fragile Sand Hills.

It's the same pipeline project that Congress recently said should receive federal approval with all due haste.

So is Klink a credible whistleblower or a disgruntled former employee?

In a phone interview last week, the plainspoken 60-year-old engineer said he is a husband and father of three adult children. For about 20 years, he owned a concrete business in Indiana.

He sold the business several years ago and took a job in March 2009 with Bechtel Oil, Gas & Chemical, a Houston-based construction company that employs nearly 53,000 people worldwide.

TransCanada hired Bechtel to perform engineering and construction work on the Keystone pipeline, built to carry 590,000 barrels of tar sands crude oil per day from Canada to terminals in Illinois and Oklahoma.

Klink's job, until he was let go after six months, was to inspect a subcontractor's work at the above-ground pumping stations spaced along the pipeline route. His inspections all took place in North Dakota and South Dakota.

Klink said he saw multiple problems with rebar, a steel rod used to reinforce concrete. In some instances, crews used the wrong size rebar or spaced it improperly.

"It's things you wouldn't want to happen in your home," he said. "You wouldn't want reinforcing steel to hang outside the concrete, where it would rust away, would you?"

In one example, detailed in the Department of Labor complaint, Klink said a construction supervisor went off on a profanity-laced tirade after Klink identified rebar problems at a site in North Dakota. Other workers witnessed the incident, Klink said, and he reported it to higher-ups.

Before long, Klink said, his supervisor labeled him a "problem inspector."

In May 2009, shortly after Klink said he spoke to a Bechtel official investigating his complaints, he was transferred to South Dakota. In August 2009, Klink said, his Bechtel supervisor vowed to fire him if he didn't resign.

The company laid him off on Sept. 22, 2009, though he was initially told he would be needed until the end of the year, Klink said. His termination came days before the U.S. Department of Transportation was to conduct an inspection of pipeline work.

In addition to the problems detailed in the labor complaint, Klink reported scores of other problems in a letter his attorney sent to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. The administration is the Transportation Department's division in charge of pipeline safety.

Among the most serious allegations are that TransCanada used defective Chinese-made pipe. Some of the pipe was "out of round" while other pieces split when welded, Klink said. In other cases, workers discovered failed welds, he added.

When leaks sprang during pressure testing, "all of the pipe flanges were supposed to be replaced according to specifications, but that did not happen," Klink said.

He said the problems he identified could have played a role in the 14 leaks along the Keystone pipeline in roughly its first year of operation.

Klink said Bechtel has refused to rehire him for other openings. He filed his retaliation complaint in March 2010, asking to be rehired and to be paid back wages, benefits and other compensation.

Michelle Michael, spokeswoman for Bechtel, declined to discuss the details of Klink's complaint but said any concerns he raised were taken seriously and addressed appropriately. She also confirmed that the supervisor Klink singled out in his complaint still works for the company.

"Mr. Klink was not the subject of any retaliatory practice," she said. "As is common in the construction industry, assignments end when a project phase is completed. This was the case with Mr. Klink."

Meanwhile, as the two-year anniversary of Klink's complaint approaches, the Labor Department still has not completed its investigation, said Rhonda Burke, a department spokeswoman in Chicago.

Asked whether a deadline applies to such investigations, Burke said the department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration must make a "reasonable cause" determination within 60 days of a complaint's filing. The administration then must complete the inquiry as soon as possible.

Details of the reasonable cause finding cannot be released to the public, Burke said.

TransCanada officials, meanwhile, find nothing reasonable about Klink's claims. Cunha, the company's spokesman, disputed Klink's allegations about the pipe.

All pipe installed in the Keystone project was manufactured in North America and India, not China, he said.

He said Klink lacks the professional expertise to speak about pipe quality standards, installation methods or the condition of welds.

"We need to ask ourselves what type of expert Mr. Klink is claiming to be," Cunha said. "First he is a civil inspector responsible for inspecting fittings, pourings, piles, etc. In no way is he a pipe expert."

The company disputed claims that inspectors were silenced or told to conceal construction or safety problems.

"Every fitting, valve, pump, weld, section of pipe and equipment is inspected at numerous points by independent inspectors before the pipeline is put into operation," he said.

Finally, Cunha addressed the 14 leaks. All involved valve seals and fittings at above-ground pump stations, he said. The spills have been cleaned up, he said, and the last one was in May.

The federal pipeline administration was asked for comment Thursday but did not respond by week's end.

It should surprise no one that TransCanada would disparage a whistleblower, said Billie Garde, a Washington, D.C., lawyer who represents Klink.

"The common industry practice is to attack the messenger," she said. "I think that is character assassination."

As an engineer, Klink said, he does not oppose pipelines. Nor does he hug trees. He said he has no agenda against the oil or construction industries, although he wants the president to reject a permit for Keystone XL.

He accepted a plane ticket and accommodations from an environmental group so he could testify against the pipeline at a U.S. State Department hearing in Washington. Otherwise, he's on no one's payroll, he said.

He thinks a lot about the farmers and ranchers he met in North Dakota and South Dakota.

"They didn't have a clue what was happening out there and what could happen to them," he said. "I just felt if I didn't say something, I would be just as guilty as everyone else."

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Copyright 2012 Omaha World-Herald Co. All Rights Reserved.

(Originally published January 8, 2012, in the Omaha World-Herald.)

Related Project
Keystone Gulf Coast Expansion Project (Keystone XL)
Facility Type: Pipeline Owner: TransCanada (developer and operator); ConocoPhillips
Scope: Expansion Location: Hardisty, Alberta to Port Arthur, Texas United States