Gasoline Alley

Proposed Pipeline Fuels Debate

Renea Hicks
Renea Hicks (Photo By John Anderson)

When the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Transportation's Office of Pipeline Safety released a preliminary environmental assessment of the proposed Longhorn pipeline a few weeks ago, opponents of the project scrambled to organize neighborhood protests, fill public meetings, and launch a letter-writing campaign to federal officials. With less than two weeks remaining until the end of the 30-day public input period on Nov. 29, pipeline opponents are running out of time to wade through the 1,300-plus-page report -- which includes myriad details collected by Radian International, the company contracted by the EPA to perform the environmental assessment -- to determine whether tests on the pipeline were conducted properly, whether the mitigation measures are sound, and whether enough consideration was given to the possibility of rerouting the pipeline. The 50-year-old pipeline runs underground through South Austin, over the Edwards Aquifer, and within rumbling distance of at least 17 local schools. Those factors generated a big crowd at an EPA hearing Tuesday (See "Huge Turnout Postpones Meeting," p.36). The EPA and the DOT have made a preliminary determination that once Longhorn Partners Pipeline Co. makes 34 adjustments, or "mitigation measures," to its pipeline plan, the project will be given full environmental approval to ship gasoline from Houston to El Paso. For pipeline opponents, that means that only three viable options remain: stay with the environmental assessment as it is, advocate revisions to the assessment to include more mitigation measures, or demand a complete environmental impact statement.

Officials with the EPA and DOT say that one alternative proposal, rerouting the pipeline around the Edwards Aquifer, was never an option at all, because neither agency had the power to enforce it. Rod Seeley, regional director of the DOT's Office of Pipeline Safety, says federal law does not allow the agency to prescribe the location of a pipeline facility. Lawrence Andrews, deputy regional council with the EPA, says his office doesn't have the authority, either. "We're bringing our expertise, our environmental protection, to the process," Andrews says. "Then we're determining whether the operation and construction would be detrimental to the environment. That's our only role."

That's not right, argues Renea Hicks, attorney for the plaintiffs, who include the city of Austin, the Lower Colorado River Authority, the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District, and eight Hill Country ranchers, in a federal lawsuit against Longhorn. When Longhorn lost a ruling in U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks' courtroom last March, the company offered a compromise to the plaintiffs: an environmental assessment monitored by the EPA and DOT. As a condition of the agreement, Hicks says, the EPA and DOT were required to look at an alternate route for the pipeline. "It is an absolute outrage" that the agencies are saying they can't dictate an alternate route, Hicks says. "It's nothing short of a fraud on the city of Austin and Judge Sparks."

Assistant City Attorney Connie Ode remembers the terms of the settlement stipulation the same way as Hicks, though not as vehemently. "They could require rerouting of the pipeline, pursuant to the settlement stipulation. That was my understanding, but I want to take a look at the language in the settlement again," Ode says.

In its report, Radian examined three alternate routes, but found them to be environmentally unsound, something activist and former SOS executive director Brigid Shea finds hard to believe. "This isn't an environmental assessment," says Shea. "It's a political assessment."

But Don Martin, a PR consultant for Longhorn, says opponents of the pipeline got what they asked for -- an environmental assessment from the EPA and DOT -- and now they're crying foul because they aren't happy with the results. "We believe this will be the single safest pipeline in the country, and I think these safety measures were won by Mayor Kirk Watson and his lawsuit forcing the environmental assessment," Martin says. "The pipeline is considerably safer than your local gas station."

The Long Haul

Dallas-based Longhorn Partners Pipeline is no stranger to pipeline battles. In 1995, Longhorn purchased the 450-mile Exxon pipeline, which stretches from Houston to Crane, Texas, and originally carried crude oil from West Texas to Houston refineries. Longhorn wanted to go the opposite way: build an extra 250 miles of pipeline from Crane to El Paso, along with another nine-mile extension from Houston to Galena Park, and distribute gasoline to West Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico. After securing the necessary permits and easements, Longhorn planned on starting construction on the pipeline around December 1998, if all went as planned.

But those plans derailed in April 1998, when eight Hill Country ranchers filed suit in U.S. district court to keep the pipeline away from their land. The city of Austin, along with the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District and the Lower Colorado River Authority, joined the suit to prevent the pipeline from crossing the Edwards Aquifer, the Colorado River, and residential areas of Austin. The plaintiffs' demands were clear: Longhorn would have to either reroute the pipeline or distribute crude oil, which is less flammable than gasoline.

Longhorn fought its battle in court, but fell behind in the public relations war when a pipeline test went awry and caused an explosion in Houston. Although no one was injured in the explosion, pictures and video of the billowing smoke made useful fodder for Longhorn's opponents. Longhorn officials dismissed claims that the accident proved their pipeline was unsafe. "Essentially, it was a construction-related incident," says O.B. Harris, Longhorn vice president and pipeline manager. "Under normal operations this wouldn't happen. We learn from our mistakes."

One recurring theme in the pipeline debate has been El Paso's economic needs versus Austin's environmental ones. El Paso's city government and state representatives, as well as its chamber of commerce, want all the gasoline Longhorn can provide, and have been lobbying vigorously to get it. "With a better gasoline market, it will bring in more revenue to El Paso and create additional jobs in the state of Texas," says El Paso Mayor Carlos M. Ramirez.

Gasoline Alley

Bonnie Escobar, a lobbyist for the El Paso Chamber of Commerce, agrees. And, since she splits her time between Austin and El Paso, she has seen the price comparison firsthand. Despite a 9.5% unemployment rate and a lower per capita income, El Paso's gasoline prices run about five cents higher per gallon than Austin's, according to a price table compiled by Lundberg Survey Inc. In August, the price of a gallon of gas in El Paso was $1.22, compared to $1.16 in Houston.

But Karin Ascot, chair of the regional Sierra Club, doesn't think lower gas prices in El Paso are worth the risk of a gasoline pipeline through Austin. "Let's face it, El Paso has an air quality problem. Do they really need cheaper gas?"

At a town hall meeting held at Bowie High School in March, the public was introduced to Radian, the company the EPA selected to conduct the environmental assessment. Several speakers objected to Longhorn picking up Radian's estimated $1.5 million fee, claiming Radian would skew the results in the pipeline company's favor. EPA spokesman Tom Henderson counters that it's standard practice for a company to foot the bill for an environmental assessment.

After the town meeting, the pipeline issue all but disappeared from the public eye -- until a few weeks ago, when the environmental assessment was released and organized opposition took aim at the report.

With the addition of 34 mitigation measures and the blessing of the EPA and DOT, Longhorn could begin pumping 72,000 barrels of gasoline a day through Austin and the aquifer within a year. After Longhorn builds 19 proposed pumping stations, the number of barrels per day could increase to as much as 225,000.

Mitigation measures relevant to the Austin area include internal inspections of the pipeline and hydrostatic testing, a process in which water is released into the pipeline at higher-than-normal pressures to check for leaks. To protect the Edwards Aquifer, a leak-detection and monitoring system would run 24 hours a day, and thicker-walled pipe would be used over the three-mile aquifer recharge zone.

In addition, Longhorn says it would mark the pipeline with bright orange signs and launch a public education program to dissuade third-party destruction of the pipeline, which Radian identifies as the No. 1 cause of pipeline damage. If an accident did occur, Longhorn says it would guarantee an emergency response time of no longer than two hours. The area over the Edwards Aquifer would be visually inspected daily.

But are these safeguards good enough? The board of the SOS Alliance doesn't think so and decided at its last meeting to formally oppose the pipeline. The Sierra Club has also urged its members to write letters to government officials opposing the line, and Jeff Heckler, leader of a group called Protecting Individuals, Protecting Environment (PIPE) says that the mitigation measures are unacceptable. Heckler plans to lead a fight to reroute the pipeline. Attorney Hicks wants to fight that battle as well, probably in the courts. "As far as I'm concerned, they did not carry out the agreement we reached because they did not give serious scientific attention to the rerouting alternative," Hicks says.

Helen Besse, environmental coordinator for the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, says that many of the mitigation measures are too vague and raise more questions than they answer. If thick-walled pipe is required over the aquifer, why isn't it required near residential areas and schools? If hydrostatic testing is necessary, why are there no provisions to protect nearly 5,000 damaged areas already revealed in Radian's study? Why would construction equipment operators pay attention to new and improved pipeline markers when they ignored them in the past, a practice that led to the 1996 crude oil leak at Circle C? Finally, Besse asks, who is going to enforce the safeguards, if there are no provisions for third-party inspections? "The fox is watching the hen house," Besse says. "In the mitigation plans, they talk about hiring a third party to monitor surface water quality at stream crossings. But other than that, there's no third-party oversight of the mitigation measures."

Additionally, Don Deaver, an engineering consultant for the plaintiffs, questions the way the pipeline would be monitored and says Radian did not specify the need for accurate monitoring for an emergency response plan. "They're going to use meters to monitor operations and leak detection in Houston and El Paso. But what if you have a break at the midpoint? It would take 15 minutes before it was monitored in Houston and El Paso."

Gasoline Alley
Photo By John Anderson

El Paso Mayor Ramirez, who used to work for Texaco as a refinery engineer, has his own opinion of the pipeline. "We're not blind to the objections of the city of Austin, but with the mitigation measures from the environmental assessment, it will be the safest pipeline in the world, with more safety features than have ever been in place before."

Meanwhile, as the big guns fight it out in the media and behind the scenes -- lobbyist vs. lobbyist, flack vs. flack -- residents along the pipeline route are wondering just what the truth is, and how concerned they need to be.

Neighborhood Jitters

Kay Peck, CEO of the Brown Schools medical complex, looks out her window and doesn't like what she sees. Within 25 yards of the building sits a precariously close pipeline, and although it's empty now, she cringes at the thought of flammable gasoline running through it. She's heard the horror stories -- like the one about the three boys who were killed when the Olympic pipeline exploded last June in Bellingham, Washington -- and she's concerned for the safety of her 300 patients and staff. "We have brain-injured clients here, and at our residential treatment center, they're all adolescent males. Then we have our geriatric and special care center, which can't be evacuated quickly without staff assistance," Peck says.

Peck and members of her staff have been attending meetings, writing letters to the EPA, DOT, Vice President Al Gore, and anybody else they think can help. They are not alone. Marguerite Jones lives two houses away from the pipeline, near the South Boggy Creek Watershed off Dittmar Lane. She wants to see the pipeline rerouted around residential neighborhoods and the aquifer, and has been leading her own grassroots campaign -- knocking on doors, calling people on the phone, passing out fliers. She, too, has heard about recent pipeline explosions and fears for the safety of her three children. "Some people have never heard about the pipeline, because they don't speak English," Jones says, so she's helping to get the word out to the Spanish-speaking community as well. Unlike most of the movers and shakers in this battle, Jones isn't paid for her efforts.

Not everyone who lives near the pipeline shares Jones' concerns. Jim O'Reilly, president of the Circle C Neighborhood Association, says he hasn't heard one word from NA members, even though the association distributed fliers alerting neighbors to the pipeline proposal. Ken Rigsbee, chairman of the Circle C Political Action Committee, says he thinks the majority of his neighbors are convinced that the pipeline will be safe. "I've heard of no big uprising, and I sincerely believe people are being fanned into a panic over something that isn't that big a risk," says Rigsbee, a petroleum engineer. "As long as they're maintained, pipelines are safe. We know more about mitigating corrosion than ever before." Rigsbee says fear of pipeline explosions is as irrational as fear of an automobile with a full tank of gas, adding, "We put that bomb in our garage every night." Rigsbee says one advantage of running gasoline through the pipeline, as opposed to crude oil, is that gasoline eventually evaporates, provided it can be caught before it hits the water table, while crude oil stays in the ground and will eventually seep into underground wells.

Lauren Ross, an environmental engineer and consultant for the plaintiffs, scoffs at the idea that crude oil is more dangerous than gasoline. "If you can keep gasoline in an open container, it would eventually evaporate, but you'd still have a potential disaster from the fumes and vapors," she says. Unlike crude oil, gasoline contains 3,000 different constituent ingredients, Ross says, many of which dissolve in water. Benzene, one of the more carcinogenic and soluble components, appears at substantially higher levels in gasoline than in crude oil -- gasoline contains nearly 5% benzene, crude oil just 0.14%; and once it's in the water supply, it takes an expensive water treatment facility to get rid of it.

Some, including Jones, have wondered why trucks don't transport the gasoline, and have concluded it must be too expensive. But Longhorn consultant Martin says that although expense plays a part in that decision, risk is a bigger factor, since transporting gasoline by trucks would be 80% more dangerous than transporting it by pipeline. According to the Office of Pipeline Safety, pipeline accidents have caused 104 deaths nationwide since 1970 -- an average of 3.4 per year. Some might argue that this represents an acceptable risk, compared, for example, to the 50,000 highway deaths suffered each year. But pipeline opponents point out that people consciously assume the risk of driving a car when they get into one, but do not assume the risk of a pipeline explosion just because they happen to live nearby. Citing the Bellingham explosion -- triggered by a major pipeline leak and two boys playing with lighters -- Ascot says, "Maybe the kids shouldn't have been playing with matches, but they were at a creek. You wouldn't expect the water to explode."

The Office of Pipeline Safety also estimates that some 10.6 million gallons of oil and gasoline spill out of pipelines each year. Although the office does not supply statistics on how many people drink water contaminated by oil and gasoline from such leaks, the biggest risk comes when these materials reach the water table. Since the pipeline runs over sensitive areas such as the Blowing Sink tract in Southwest Austin, many pipeline opponents believe that gasoline leaching into the aquifer would be the highest risk in the event of a leak, since the response time might not be fast enough to stop the gasoline from piercing the porous limestone and contaminating the city's water supply.

Deaver, who worked 33 years as an Exxon engineer, says that one of the ingredients used in gasoline in an attempt to improve El Paso's air quality -- methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) -- is a dangerous additive that could devastate the city's water supply if it ever leaked through the aquifer and made its way to Barton Springs. A synthetic, non-biodegradable substance, MTBE is 100% soluble and has already been banned in some states. The state of California has set the health safety level for MTBE at 40 parts per billion. In other words, one or two tablespoons in a swimming pool would exceed the safety limits. Deaver has spent many hours in the Radian reading room scouring documents, as well as combing through the 1,300-page environmental assessment. He says Radian only tested the most at-risk areas of the pipeline, and adds that the ruptured Olympic Pipeline at Bellingham was inspected in 1995 using technology similar to Radian's, but inspectors missed the rupture because it wasn't in an area considered important enough to inspect.

Having once tested the 50-year-old pipeline himself when Exxon owned it, Deaver doesn't believe that it is adequate to the task, even with the 34 mitigation measures. "There have been close to 5,000 areas where there was metal loss or evidence of mechanical damage, and only 4% has been dug up and inspected to be determined if it should be repaired," he says, noting also that the Radian report projects 75 leaks and ruptures on the pipeline within the next 50 years, and 150 additional spills from the 19 pump stations, once they are built. Of the 225 total spills, Radian estimates 10 will be spills of 200,000 gallons or larger.

Still, Longhorn officials remain adamant about building the safest pipeline in Texas, one they hope will be a model for the rest of the nation. Longhorn VP Harris says he cares about the people on the pipeline route; and Longhorn president Carter Montgomery insists, "Longhorn's goal is to have 100% safe operations. We have taken steps well beyond those required by law to ensure our pipeline will operate safely."

But as sincere as Harris and Montgomery may be -- and given that most of the past leaks in the pipeline have come from third-party damage -- the 10,000 residents who live in the pipeline's path might be well advised to watch their backs. end story

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