It's A Gas, Gas, Gas For Longhorn

Looks like the Longhorn Pipeline is about to begin pumping gas.

Next month, the Longhorn Pipeline will begin moving 72,000 barrels per day of gasoline across South Austin neighborhoods. That's not exactly a comforting prospect for the students who'll be attending the 16 schools within two miles of the pipeline. But U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks says he has neither the power to stop the line nor the authority to force an intensive environmental impact analysis of the operation. In his July 19 ruling, Sparks effectively voided a lawsuit brought by the city of Austin, two landowners, and the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District that called for a closer examination of the pipeline by means of an Environmental Impact Statement. Such an analysis, plaintiffs argued, should go well beyond the federally backed environmental assessment that rendered a "finding of no significant impact," called a FONSI for short. The plaintiffs argue that the federal agencies were arbitrary and capricious in issuing a FONSI instead of proceeding to a more extensive study.

Early this week, city officials were weighing the possibility of an appeal. David Smith, an assistant city attorney assigned to the Longhorn case, said he expects that decision to be made by the first week of August, if not sooner. Said John Bedingfield, another assistant city attorney on the case: "We felt like the evidence was pretty solid, and we felt that the judge understood everything we said. But in the end, he believed he didn't have the legal authority" to stop the pipeline and force an EIS. The Save Barton Creek Association has drafted a resolution urging the city and the conservation district to appeal the ruling. "This is a setback, but not the final ruling," SBCA President Jon Beall predicted.

The ruling hit many residents especially hard. Marguerite Jones, a leader of the Austin Safe Pipeline Coalition, said she was "just sick all weekend" after the decision came down late Friday. "I'm really disappointed that he ruled in favor of Longhorn, and even if he thought the Environmental Impact Statement would not have changed much, it would have given us more time to figure out what we can do to stop it." Jones said her children and others fear starting the school year at Southeast Austin's Langford Elementary, knowing that the pipeline lies just 1,000 feet away. "I don't know what kind of triumph this could be for Longhorn," Jones said.

But Dallas-based Longhorn Partners Pipeline Ltd. had long expressed confidence that its case would prevail. In a statement issued moments after the ruling, company officials said, "Longhorn not only exceeds the requirements of current laws and regulations, but also exceeds the additional safety requirements currently pending before Congress."

On another front, the reality of the pipeline may force the city of Austin to rethink its zoning powers in relation to new development, an issue that political consultant Mike Blizzard raised last week during a hearing on Stratus Properties' proposed development in Southwest Austin. Blizzard's research indicates that the city has the authority to create a 600-to-1,000-foot radius around a pipeline to restrict density and ensure the safety of residents and the environment.

In a 40-page ruling, Sparks expressed his personal concerns about the pipeline's safety, but also cast doubt on what, if anything, could be gained from an EIS. Such an undertaking, he said, "would provide essentially nothing more to ease the fears of the plaintiffs and Austin residents." Had he been granted more discretion, however, Sparks said he would have ordered Longhorn to replace the 52-year-old pipeline once used to transfer crude oil, but out of commission since 1995. "Time will only tell if the mitigation measures will be sufficient to contain the dangers inherent in this decrepit pipeline," Sparks wrote, "and the people and critters in its threatening shadow can only hope and pray that they will."

But not even the gloom-and-doom eloquence of a federal judge can convince Marguerite Jones to simply throw up her hands in despair. "To tell me that the federal government can't do anything about the pipeline -- that makes me more determined than ever to try to change the law," she said.

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