A three-hour drive south from Hardisty took us to an intersection where Douglas Brunning, a TransCanada project manager for the Keystone XL pipeline showed us a spot where the company has already drilled 70 meters (nearly 80 yards) under the Red Creek River where the new line would cross. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

Leaks and spills, especially those into rivers, are one big concern about the Keystone XL pipeline. And people worried about that point to a series of incidents over the past 14 months, including four in less than two months. Canadian newspapers have been full of stories about the issue. “Spate of spills pushes Alberta to harder look at pipeline safety,” The Globe and Mail reported June 21. Inside it used a quote as its headline: ‘What’s happened is starting to put doubt in people’s minds.’

This month alone, there have been two incidents. On June 7, Plains Midstream Canada spilled as much as 120,000 gallons of oil, some of in the Red Deer River at Sundre northeast of Calgary, from a pipeline built in 1966. On June 18, Enbridge (which has drawn up its own pipeline proposal to take oil sands to the western coast of Canada) spilled as much as 62,000 gallons of oil from its Athabasca pipeline at Elk Point, east of Edmonton.

TransCanada says that new pipelines are better than aging ones and that it has taken precautions. It has been cited about a dozen times for leaks in the existing Keystone pipeline United States, but the company says they were valve leaks at pumping stations where the spills could be controlled quickly.

A three-hour drive south from Hardisty last week took us to an intersection where Douglas Brunning was waiting in his car. Brunning, about 50 years old, is TransCanada’s project manager for the Keystone XL pipeline. Nearly 30 years earlier, Brunning had worked here for the railroad. TransCanada’s chief executive Russ Girling had urged us to have Brunning show us a spot where the company has already drilled 70 meters (nearly 80 yards) under the Red Creek River where the old Keystone crossed the river and where the new line would cross, too. By drilling horizontally so far under the river, TransCanada hoped to ensure that the big oil pipelines would never be exposed to scouring even as the river bottom changed.

Brunning drove us past more open plains. Brunning pointed to white painted pipe on an abandoned rail bed and said that it was one of five locations for stockpiling pipe for construction. He explained that the area had once been given to homesteaders, but that the modest amount of rainfall made it hard to farm and that during the Great Depression – or “dirty ’30s” as Brunning put it – people left and it all became Crown land. The government has since leased out much of the land for grazing. That makes it somewhat easier for TransCanada to negotiate right of way, but Brunning said that leaseholders have rights similar to owners.

Eventually we arrived at a spot where TransCanada had cleared a strip of land and packed down a dirt road about three or four cars wide. This is where the new pipeline would go about four feet below the surface. A bit further up, a 36-inch black pipe poked through a mound of dirt, with a nub of pipe sealing it off. Brunning pointed to the river, which to the dismay of Post photographer Michael Williamson and Post videographer Whitney Shefte, was barely visible.

Last September, TransCanada starting drilling a hole 1,400 meters (seven-eighths of a mile) long. First it drilled a hole 10 inches in diameter, then widened it to 34 inches and finally 42 inches, a bit larger than the pipeline. Then it pulled the pipe through.  By January, it was done. Far away on the green hill above the opposite shore, a marker was barely visible, showing the other end of the pipeline. Brunning said the deep hole was far “less intrusive” than other techniques, which can involve disturbing and repairing the walls of the river.

As with the tanks at Hardisty, TransCanada was taking a bit of a chance by doing construction work before receiving final permits. But Brunning said that drilling deep under the Red Creek and South Saskatchewan rivers — the biggest crossed in Canada — TransCanada could keep on schedule if and when the permits are issued. “This part will be off the critical issues list,” Brunning said.