"Texas claims to be very sympathetic to property rights. On the other hand, they support oil and gas. What this project has exposed is that these two priorities are not equal."
GILLESPIE COUNTY, Texas—On a mid-morning in August, Andy Sansom plods up a steep hill, wading through thigh-high grass.
“An allegory for why protecting property is so important”<p>Hershey Ranch looks untouched, but with one exception. Sansom points to a historic right of way, which cuts straight across a hill. Between 1928 and 2011, a much smaller pipeline, one used to transport crude oil, ran through this passage.</p><p>"It's an allegory for why protecting property like [Hershey Ranch] is so important," Sansom said. </p><p>"Twenty years ago, you could have crossed 35 in a lot of places. It's a lot harder right now and it's going to get harder and harder as people move to Texas," Lon Shell, the Hays County Commissioner, told EHN, referring to Highway 35.</p><p>But today, "It's hard to get across the state of Texas without going through some fairly populated areas."</p><p>To install the Permian Highway Pipeline, Kinder Morgan would need to widen the right of way to 150 feet. Sansom says he was shocked to learn how easy it was for them to get approval.</p><p>As a first step, Kinder Morgan needed a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers. The Army Corps streamlines the permitting process for projects they see as routine, including pipelines. To be eligible, a company must claim to have a minimal impact on the environment. Typically, a company submits its plans for installation and includes a list of endangered species living in the area.</p><p>Most importantly, the Army Corps only looks at waterways, where the pipeline would cross a creek or other body of water.</p><p>"In terms of a rough estimate, that only covers 2 to 3 percent of the entire length of the pipeline at most," David Smith, an attorney representing an earlier lawsuit against Kinder Morgan, told EHN. "The Corps puts on blinders…they say, from a regulatory standpoint, 'we're not going to look at the entire 400 to 500 miles of pipeline.'"</p><p>Smith represented Hays County, along with citizens and conservation groups, in a lawsuit filed in July against Kinder Morgan, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The <a href="https://spectrumlocalnews.com/tx/san-antonio/news/2019/07/23/second-round-of-lawsuits-targeting-permian-highway-pipeline" target="_blank">lawsuit would have required</a> Kinder Morgan to also apply for an incidental take permit through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service— instead of only going to the Army Corps as part of a streamlined process.</p><p>The permit would cover harm to endangered species, including the golden-cheeked warblers. To receive the permit, Kinder Morgan would face scrutiny for the entire length of the pipeline, not just the 2 to 3 percent crossing water. Currently, the lawsuit is in limbo; it will continue if Kinder Morgan forgoes applying for a separate permit through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.<br></p><p>It isn't the first lawsuit: In April, a coalition of landowners, along with Hays County and the City of Kyle, <a href="https://www.houstonchronicle.com/business/energy/article/Judge-tosses-out-lawsuit-against-Kinder-Morgan-s-14048749.php" target="_blank">filed a lawsuit against Kinder Morgan</a> and the Texas Railroad Commission (RRC), challenging the way that RRC grants eminent domain. In the lawsuit, plaintiffs argued that the process of granting eminent domain was unconstitutional— it lacked safeguards and standards that the constitution required. Judge Lora Livingston, however, ruled in favor of Kinder Morgan.</p><p>"As noted by previous courts, Texas's eminent-domain laws are longstanding," Livingston wrote <a href="https://www.kxan.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/40/2019/06/20190625-Judge-Livington-Letter-Ruling.pdf" target="_blank">in a letter</a> explaining her decision.</p>
“Creating pathways for contaminants”<p>Opponents aren't just concerned with the overwhelming authority granted to pipeline companies; they also question the environmental impact of a natural gas pipeline running through Hill Country.</p><p>Beneath the oak trees and grasses, a network of caves and porous crannies run below the surface of the earth. This invisible landscape is called karst, and it forms when soluble rocks dissolve over long periods of time.</p><p>In August, Watershed Protection Department and Environmental Officer Chris Herrington <a href="http://www.austintexas.gov/edims/pio/document.cfm?id=326074" target="_blank">published a report</a> looking at potential impacts on water quality. The report's conclusion was clear: it is "highly likely" that the pipeline will cross over underground karst features, "potentially altering flow pathways within the aquifers and creating pathways for contaminants to spread along underground conduits."</p><p>A pipeline transporting natural gas can collect condensation, which would become a liquid contaminant in the event of a leak. "Accidental release of hydrocarbon liquids to surface water or groundwater could occur," Herrington writes. Without more analysis, it would be impossible to know which chemicals would condense, and at what concentrations. But in general, liquid hydrocarbons pose a threat to both wildlife and human health.</p><p>With a pipeline leak, "contaminants will move into the ground," George Veni, executive director of the National Cave and Karst Research Institute, told EHN. "Some contaminants might show up in your drinking water literally in a matter of hours, before anyone is aware that a spill or leak has happened. Other parts of the system might not show up for years or decades."</p><p>Realistically, Veni notes, it would be difficult for the pipeline to avoid karst features altogether. The Edwards Plateau is vast, covering more than <a href="http://swvirtualmuseum.nau.edu/wp/index.php/cult_land/environments/edwards-plateau/" target="_blank">37,000 square miles</a> in the center of Texas. If Kinder Morgan went south, they would be in Mexico. Rerouting the pipeline north would add many more miles to the pipe.</p><p>David Harro, an outside expert who specializes in investigating sinkholes and other karst features in Florida, thinks optimistically about gas pipelines and the available technological precautions. "Pipeline companies usually do a pretty good job in monitoring these things," Harro told EHN. "Pipeline companies really don't want a failure. It's very expensive for them."</p><p>"For the most part, a thorough investigation of the area is really one of the key factors they have to rely on," he said.</p><p>Water quality is not the only concern; the project could also have a negative impact on wildlife in the system. Several salamander species, including the federally protected Barton Springs salamander and Texas Blind salamander, occupy waters downstream of the proposed pipeline. Others include the Coral Springs dryopid beetle, the Coral Springs riffle beetle, and the Fountain darter, a minuscule freshwater fish. They are species known for thriving in clear, well-oxygenated water. <a href="https://bseacd.org/uploads/Permian-Highway-NOI-10.16.19.pdf" target="_blank">Advocates fear</a> that any contamination from the pipeline will shrink their amount of viable habitat, putting them at risk for extinction.</p><p>In October, the cities of Austin, San Marcos and Kyle, along with the Wimberley Valley Watershed Association and Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District, filed a notice of <a href="https://www.chron.com/business/energy/article/Three-cities-two-groups-to-sue-Kinder-Morgan-14538416.php" target="_blank">intent to sue</a> the Army Corps and U.S. Fish and Wildlife, citing concerns over endangered species in the aquifer. Before filing the lawsuit, they must wait 60 days for the two government agencies to respond.</p><p>Kinder Morgan is planning to install sections of the pipeline in Hill Country as early as this month. By the time the lawsuit enters a courtroom, the pipeline could already be in the ground.</p><p><a href="https://www.statesman.com/opinion/20190529/opinion-why-permian-highway-pipeline-is-safest-route" target="_blank">In an op-ed for the Austin-American Statesman</a>, Allen Fore, Kinder Morgan's vice president of public relations, wrote that the company is "working with a karst expert to mitigate potential subsurface impacts."</p><p>"This route is based on detailed professional field surveys, desktop studies and literature and databases that locate sensitive features."</p><p>EHN called Kinder Morgan three times; the company would not make anyone available for an interview.</p><p>"I think we're throwing spaghetti at the wall to see if it sticks, to be honest," Mitchell, the mayor of the City of Kyle, said.</p>
Oak wilt and explosions<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjE5Mjk4OC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyMDI5Njk1NX0.75tOdgXJhvLuKdhEc716dUFUjDL4DJUXN7UuHfcI1Ho/img.jpg?width=980" id="03cf4" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="7bbfadc166c76873d1c9b2ae01a3ba7a" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Lucy Johnson at her Halifax Ranch. (Credit: Madeleine Turner)<p>Fifty-five miles to the southeast of Sansoms' property, I met Lucy Johnson on an early Monday morning at Halifax Ranch, which stretches more than 3,800 acres and is owned by Johnson's father and his two sisters. Johnson, a former mayor of the nearby city of Kyle, lives in San Marcos but visits the property two or three times a week.</p><p>Johnson's Jeep lurches over uneven terrain and winds between thick, low-hanging cedars and oaks. It's ideal habitat for golden-cheeked warblers, a bird Johnson hears but rarely sees. We stir up dust and the air is thick with pollen. </p><p>After 10 minutes of bobbing over uneven ground, we reach a circular clearing. A constellation of white and yellow wildflowers, leftovers from spring, sway in the breeze. We hear cars passing on highway 150 and the sound of grasshoppers whizzing past our shins. </p><p>"[Oaks] are very slow to grow, but they're very important for the soil," Johnson told EHN. "They keep it from eroding. They're part of what makes the Hill Country so beautiful to live in." </p><p>This clearing is technically a wetland; in rainy months, water saturates the soil and causes it to expand. </p><p>Johnson motions across the clearing. A circular, dark pond sparkles in the morning light. We see a flash of movement: a wild hog, about the size of a Labrador retriever, scoots through the vegetation. Johnson spots a couple more trailing behind and guesses they are the hog's babies. A host of wildlife use the pond as a watering hole.</p>
Lucy Johnson (Credit: Madeleine Turner)<p>According to Kinder Morgan's plan, the pipeline will run straight through this clearing. To make way for the pipe, Kinder Morgan would uproot old-growth oak trees and fill in the pond. Uprooted trees would spread oak wilt, a pernicious disease that weakens and eventually kills oaks after many years. "It's like if you had the flu for a decade and [it] was always contagious," Johnson said.</p><p>We drive past the ranch house. The Jeep rumbles over the top of a hill, which gives way to a ravine that descends to the Blanco River. The water is turquoise, a byproduct of an algae that thrives in the summer. Enormous cypress trees loom over the river.</p><p>Johnson motions to the slope we just came down. The pipeline would run within 400 yards from the river. "That's within the blast zone," she said. Johnson and other residents of Hays County are fearful of the pipeline exploding. In the United States and around the world, natural gas pipeline explosions are not unprecedented.</p><p>Between 1994 and 2013, <a href="https://www.phmsa.dot.gov/data-and-statistics/pipeline/pipeline-incident-20-year-trends" target="_blank">problems with gas transmissions</a> caused 41 deaths and more than $400 million worth of property damage in the United States. In 2000, a 30-inch natural gas pipeline in El Paso, Texas, exploded, killing 12 campers sleeping about 600 feet away. Residents in Carlsbad, New Mexico, saw the fireball looming 20 miles away, and the explosion left a crater 86 feet long and 20 feet deep. Ten years later, another 30-inch natural gas line exploded in San Bruno, California. The blast killed 8 people, and witnesses saw a "wall of fire more than 1,000 feet high."</p><p>The most recent major explosion happened in August, when a natural gas pipeline erupted in Lincoln County, Kentucky, killing one person and injuring five others. Flames billowed 300 feet high and melted a nearby railroad track.</p><p>"If anything happens here, it will ruin what we've tried for generations to preserve," Johnson said.</p>