Six weeks ago, when the first EPA hearing on the environmental assessment for the planned Longhorn Pipeline took place, Mayor Kirk Watson and several Austin City Council members marched up to the Bowie High School stage, where the mayor announced, "As you can all see, we have a dangerous situation here." The crowd went wild, thinking the mayor was commenting on the proposed gasoline pipeline and its effects on Southwest Austin and the Edwards Aquifer. Instead, Watson was commenting on the size of the crowd -- some 1,500 people, who overflowed the auditorium and crammed the fire exits.
This Monday, nearly 2,000 concerned citizens, politicians, government officials, and oil executives filed into cavernous Palmer Auditorium for a reprise of that meeting, which was postponed due to the overwhelming turnout. And, while the building lacked the dramatic impact and intimacy of the previous venue, the crowd remained enthusiastic, as opponents of the proposed 700-mile pipeline clamored to have the project rerouted around Austin and environmentally sensitive parts of Central Texas.
Unlike on previous occasions, pipeline proponents acquiesced to the crowd's wishes and abandoned their usual preliminary presentations, which in the past took as long as 90 minutes to conclude. Instead, officials with the Environmental Protection Agency, the federal Dept. of Transportation, and executives from Longhorn Pipeline Partners listened to over five hours of protests. Only one person, Congressman Gene Green of Houston, spoke in favor of the project -- and no one was quite sure why he showed up at the Austin meeting in the first place.
Mayor Watson called for a new scientific study: a full-blown environmental impact statement. Congressman Lloyd Doggett went the city one better when he demanded the pipeline be rerouted around the aquifer -- period. Speaker after speaker lambasted the "no significant impact" conclusion to the EPA's environmental assessment, while federal officials and Longhorn managers watched in grave silence. "I think there's a broader concern here, and that's democracy in America," Council Member Daryl Slusher told the crowd. Addressing EPA officials, Slusher suggested that if Austin's opposition to the pipeline should fall on deaf ears, it might lead to new legislation that would ensure local input into federal decisions.
The city of Austin did not fight Monday's battle alone. Terry Cowan, mayor of Sunset Valley, read a resolution passed by his city council demanding that Longhorn Partners reroute the pipeline or face a lawsuit from the municipality (population: 327). Bastrop County also passed a resolution demanding that the pipeline be rerouted, and Blanco, Hays, and Travis counties are expected to follow suit. Officials from the Lower Colorado River Authority, one of the co-plaintiffs in the original suit against Longhorn, also objected to the EPA's report.
In the past, the conflict often has been portrayed as a struggle between El Paso's fuel needs and Austin's environmental concerns. But one El Paso woman, a member of a pro-pipeline coalition who spoke on condition of anonymity, said she saw no reason that both cities' concerns couldn't be fulfilled; she said she plans to relay Austin's concerns to the other members of her coalition.
But it appears unlikely that Longhorn will opt to reroute the pipeline around Austin. Longhorn CEO Carter Montgomery said his company has already looked into other routing alternatives and found southern routes to be environmentally dangerous, while a northern route "presents even more problems" (he didn't elaborate).
When pressed, Montgomery said he doesn't believe opposition to the project would end if the pipeline were rerouted around the aquifer. He said Navajo Refining -- along with its parent company, Holly Oil in Dallas -- has been helping fund some of the organizers of the opposition to prevent Longhorn from breaking into the El Paso market. "Navajo will just look for another way to defeat this," since it affects Navajo's bottom line, Montgomery said.
Money plays an important role on all sides of the equation. El Paso wants lower fuel prices, Navajo wants to protect its gasoline markets, Longhorn Partners wants a share of those same markets, and the city of Austin wants to avoid construction of a costly water treatment facility. Sarah Clark, a manager with Austin's Water and Wastewater Department, told Monday's audience that the only way the city could adequately prepare for an accidental gasoline spill was to build a new water treatment facility at a cost of $200 to $350 million. Clark also favors moving the pipeline away from the aquifer.
The decision on what to do about the project, for the time being, is up to the EPA. Now that the public meeting process has been completed, the agency will take a month to compare the environmental assessment against new evidence submitted throughout the process. The EPA can either 1) decide enough evidence has been presented by the public to warrant further study and order an environmental impact statement, or 2) allow the environmental assessment to stand as written. Either way, the final determination is likely to be decided where the challenge first started -- before Judge Sam Sparks in U.S. District Court.