Trouble on the Longhorn Pipeline?
Pipeline work proceeds in Bastrop Co. following rumors of a leak, extensive reconditioning
Questions about the Longhorn Pipeline's safety, its age, its proximity to neighborhoods, and its intersection with the Edwards Aquifer all raised repeatedly throughout six years of unsuccessful legal battles and public protest were revisited last week as unconfirmed reports that the embattled petroleum line might be leaking began emanating from Bastrop County.
Built in the 1950s to move crude oil from West Texas fields to Houston refineries, the pipeline, unused since the mid-1990s, was reactivated in mid-August, this time pumping jet fuel, diesel, and gasoline in the opposite direction from Houston refineries to El Paso. The pipeline passes near a high concentration of homes in South Austin. Lawsuits filed by the city of Austin, the Barton Springs-Edwards Aquifer Conservation District, and multiple landowners near the line failed to halt flow of fuel, as the courts ruled the pipeline owners had complied with all governing regulations.
At about 5:15am on a mid-September Sunday morning, Leonard Philipp was abruptly awakened by a truck barreling past his house down the private driveway on his Bastrop ranch. "I got my gun and went to see who it was," Philipp recalls. "Outside, I had a little confrontation." Philipp said the unannounced work crew explained they were contracted for the Longhorn Pipeline, and that their haste was due to an urgent necessity to locate a device, used to detect weaknesses in its metal piping, on its way through the line.
Philipp was troubled that the crews hadn't made prior arrangements to enter the property as maintenance crews always had. Weeks later, on a Friday, Philipp met the contractors to discuss a "small, two-day dig required to correct a problem that was found on the line." Philipp was told that work would begin the following Monday, and he left for business in Dallas. "Two hours later, at 11 the same day, my wife called me saying, 'You're not going to believe this." Janet Philipp described a piece of heavy machinery accompanied by a crew rolling down the driveway; to her amazement, the crew proceeded to dig a gaping 200-foot-long ditch around the pipeline. Philipp began to believe he wasn't being told the whole truth, and he summoned his lawyer, who is now closely monitoring the work.
The contractors told Philipp "they were replacing metal coating on the line." He says the workers also told him in passing that the type and grade of metal in the Bastrop portion of the line is below current federal regulations. Adding to the landowner's apprehension, parts of the problem area on the ranch lie on a rocky hill descending to a bend in the Colorado River. The gravelly soil's tendency to allow rapid leaching plus the site's close proximity to the river have Philipp especially concerned moreover, the flooded pipeline ditch is now an impassable moat separating Philipp from his barn.
Photos provided by Philipp show large sections of the pipeline unearthed and surrounded by heavy equipment. Last week Austin attorney Renea Hicks, who represented plaintiffs statewide in the earlier pipeline litigation, visited the rural Bastrop Co. site, about a half mile from the banks of the Colorado River, and he describes what appeared to be major work, including welding on the still fuel-filled line. Hicks says representatives of the contractors working on the line told him that close-interval surveys conducted to locate weaknesses in the line showed problems at that site as well as at two other locations in Bastrop Co.
Longhorn Pipeline LP spokesman Don Martin rejected any rumor of a leak. "I have checked and confirmed there is no leak today, or any other time at the area in question." He explained that Longhorn crews are doing "routine maintenance" work in the Bastrop area, along the right of way at milepost 138.08 of Highway 340, including operations such as digging, welding, and recoating the line. "This is part of the routine, ongoing maintenance," he continued, "including maintenance that Longhorn is doing as part of the agreed upon inspections and mitigation plan."
A representative of the U.S. Department of Transportation's Office of Pipeline Safety (who preferred to remain unnamed) described the work in Bastrop as "apparent low cathodic protection potential levels in the pipeline being raised to federally regulated levels." According to the OPS, cathodic protection is a way to mitigate corrosion that would eventually lead to pipeline deterioration; 10-feet-deep cathodic protection beds are laid at the areas in question. The representative said no leaks had been reported but that the OPS had communicated only with the contractors, not directly with Longhorn Pipeline.
"This comes as no surprise," says Marguerite Jones, a founding member of Austin Safe Pipeline Coalition, one of the groups that initially opposed the Longhorn's recommissioning. "But the fact that they're welding panics me a little, especially if there's fuel in the line," she said. Jones believes the implication of large-scale work on the line could be very serious, especially given the struggle necessary to compel upgrades to the section running over the Aquifer. "It's going to turn into another Bellingham," she said, referring to a 1999 disaster in Washington state where a ruptured pipeline spilled 280,000 gallons of gasoline into a creek running through residential communities; massive explosions left three dead and ravaged the landscape. "We asked them to protect people and habitats," she said. "Gasoline devastates the ecosystem as it seeps into the soil and water." Jones and her family, whose home was very close to the South Austin segment of the pipeline, have since moved away from the neighborhood.