Naked City

Problems Down the Pipeline

Last week, Longhorn Partners Pipeline LP shrugged off the city of Austin's refusal to issue the company a permit -- and continued replacing portions of its pipeline in Southwest Austin as though nothing had happened. In truth, nothing had happened. As Longhorn pointed out in a terse response: "We appreciate the city meeting the permit decision deadline that was in [U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks'] order." Longhorn would "voluntarily comply" with the Save Our Springs Ordinance and other local rules and regs relating to this type of project, the statement continued.

In other words, voluntary compliance trumps regulatory compliance each time the city tries to enforce certain environmental and safety laws on a 1950s-era pipeline that may (or will, depending on which side you're on) someday move gasoline and other volatile fuels across 11 miles of South Austin. Judge Sparks, in fact, ruled last month that many portions of the Austin City Code cannot be applied to the pipeline. In so doing, he strongly advised the city to drop its charges against Longhorn for performing pipeline work without a permit (which the city did), and ordered the city to either approve or deny the permit by Jan. 31 -- the day the city announced its decision to deny.

"We don't usually deny a permit," said interim City Manager Toby Futrell. "Normally one of two actions occur -- the city clears all comments [resolves questions and other matters that come up during the permit process], or the permit simply expires with unresolved comments." The unresolved comments, in this case, concerned the SOS-related matters involving the city's desire to hire a third-party engineer to study Longhorn's trench design. But as Sparks ruled, SOS cannot be applied to the pipeline.

Still pending in Sparks' court is a lawsuit the city and Hill Country ranchers brought against Longhorn in 1998, challenging the aged pipeline's safety and environmental aspects. (The Lower Colorado River Authority, initially a plaintiff, has since pulled out after resolving its own issues with Longhorn.) The lawsuit, which Sparks refers to as a "mutant progeny of a case," includes an inside-outside team of lawyers representing the city, and Austin attorney Renea Hicks representing a number of West Texas ranchers and other landowners along the pipeline route. The city team includes Wickliff and Hall, an outside law firm with pipeline expertise, plus former assistant city attorney Connie Ode, as well as in-house lawyers David Smith and John Bedingfield.

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