Naked City

Blazing Controversy

If you thought the anti-pipeline coalition fighting the Longhorn Pipeline in Austin would make political hay out of last week's natural gas pipeline explosion in Jollyville, you'd be wrong. Last Wednesday afternoon, a work crew digging near Hwy. 620 ruptured a pipe, and when the repair crew arrived, it set off an explosion that sent flames more than 20 feet into the air and burned for nearly four hours. Graphic footage hit the television news at around the same time that Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader attacked the pipeline plan during his Austin stop. But when Mike Blizzard, a local political consultant who works for Protecting Individuals Protecting the Environment (PIPE), was asked this week whether his group planned to capitalize on the explosion, he said simply: "I saw the television news, but all I could think was 'Here we go again.'"

Not everybody is feeling quite so blasé about the blaze, which drew crews from Jollyville, Cedar Park, and Austin. Jollyville Assistant Fire Chief John Kirachofe says the workers at the site and the TXU crew that first responded to the call for assistance are lucky to be alive. According to Kirachofe, a crew was digging a trench to lay fiber-optic cable for Southwestern Bell when workers hit a six-inch natural gas pipeline with a steam shovel. The crew called the utility company but not the fire department, allowing gas to continue leaking for nearly an hour. When the repair crew arrived at the scene, it inadvertently set off an explosion that, remarkably, didn't hurt anybody, but did destroy a TXU work truck worth about $150,000.

Fortunately, says Kirachofe, no homes were nearby, and the trees in the area had already been burned in a fire over the Fourth of July weekend. "We should have been notified at the time of the break," Kirachofe says. "They were very lucky nobody got hurt in that explosion."

John Turner, district manager for TXU, says company policy doesn't require crews to report pipeline breaks to local fire departments. Although Wednesday's incident is still under investigation by the Dallas-based utility, Turner says there's no evidence of wrongdoing so far. "Whenever there is a gas leak, unless we are concerned about a specific danger and need them there to help, we don't call the local fire department," he says.

Recent pipeline explosions from Abilene to Bellingham, Washington, have drawn the ire of the PIPE coalition, which cites federal statistics stating that the incidence of major pipeline failures -- those resulting in death or over $50,000 in property damage -- is increasing at an annual rate of nearly 4%. A deadly pipeline explosion involving a 50-year-old pipe last summer in New Mexico killed 12 campers, and prompted further scrutiny of the Longhorn proposal, which would also use a pipeline that has been around for half a century.

Blizzard maintains a circumspect attitude about Jollyville's recent pipeline explosion. "It's hard to form a response when these things happen so fast and furious," he says. "I think that this basically reflects the decaying infrastructure of the nation's pipeline system, and a lack of federal control and oversight when it comes to these matters."

Despite the fact that the Longhorn Pipeline itself exploded during a test in a Houston neighborhood in 1998, Longhorn spokesman Tony Proffitt says the company has resolved all safety concerns about using a 50-year-old crude oil pipeline to send gasoline and refined fuels from Houston to El Paso. He notes that the current plan calls for increased human and electronic surveillance, as well as additional shutoff valves along the length of the pipe.

Proffitt also notes that before anything moves forward, Longhorn will test the pipe and show that these measures are more than promises. "Redundancy is our strongest suit," he says. "The best way to keep an accident from happening is to make sure all the safety measures have been taken."

If approved, the pipeline would move up to 250,000 gallons of fuel daily from Houston to El Paso. Austin environmental advocates say that between the neighborhoods crossed by the pipeline, and the fact that it bridges the sensitive Edwards Aquifer, which provides drinking water for nearly 45,000 city residents, the risk of a leak or deadly accident remains unacceptable. Both sides are awaiting word from the Environmental Protection Agency and federal Dept. of Transportation on whether the Longhorn plan will require a formal environmental assessment. That announcement is expected in the very near future.

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