Barton Springs, Austin-area water sources could be impacted by Kinder Morgan pipeline, city says

Austin (KXAN) — As construction is set to begin for the 430-mile, Kinder Morgan natural gas pipeline that will cross Texas and the Hill Country, the city of Austin is sharing concerns that it could have impacts for water quality — both at Barton Springs and for the Austin-area.

“The takeaways are that the proposed pipeline path crosses the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone in an area known to provide water to Barton Springs here in Austin,” said Chris Herrington, an environmental officer with the city of Austin. “So even though the pipeline is not in Austin, anything that could come from the construction or operation of the pipeline has the potential to impact the quality of water in the Edwards Aquifer and then Barton Springs.” Herrington helped compile a report from Austin’s Watershed Protection Department to Austin City Council.

The pipeline will not pass through the city of Austin, but the city staff members who compiled the report worried that water flow could lead contamination from the pipeline to spread all the way to Barton Springs.

A map of the potential pathway of the proposed Permian Highway Pipeline across the Edwards Aquifer in Hays County. Image from the August 28 memo from the City of Austin Watershed Protection Department.

In June, Austin City council passed a resolution directing the Watershed Protection Department to look into the potential water quality impacts of the pipeline.

“There could be known impacts during the construction as they actually trench through the aquifer to lay the pipeline itself, and there are other potential impacts that could arise during operation of the pipeline,” Herrington said. “For example, if the pipeline was to rupture and leak out any hydrocarbons, that could potentially impact water quality. There are a lot of unknowns that we don’t have information from the pipeline company (about) at this point that, so we’re assessing what those potentials could be, based on the information available to us.”

The city’s report noted that existing laws are not enough to ensure that “no adverse environmental consequences will occur as a result of the construction and operation” of the Permian Highway Pipeline. The report noted a lack of publically available information from Kinder Morgan — both about the route of the pipeline and about the environmental impacts of the pipeline — which the city says limited its ability to calculate potential risk for future contamination. To be clear, the city of Austin’s current drinking water supply does not come from the Edwards Aquifer, however, that aquifer does supply drinking water for nearly two million Texans.

The city explained that the route the Permian Highway Pipeline takes is the “shortest straight line distance from the Permian Basin to the Houston area.”

But the concerns are not just over this pipeline. The report noted that “successful completion of the PHP may attract other pipelines to this area.”

If contaminants from the pipeline were to reach Barton Springs in a large enough concentration, it is possible that the contaminants could negatively impact federally protected species that live in that area, the report noted. Austin’s Watershed Protection Department suggested that the city share their concerns with state and federal regulatory entities, asking them to seek more information from Kinder Morgan.

Permian Highway Pipeline_Overview Map from Kinder Morgan
Permian Highway Pipeline Overview Map from Kinder Morgan in May 2019.

Kinder Morgan, the Houston-based company constructing the pipeline, has said the construction for their Permian Highway Pipeline will begin in October. If all goes according to schedule, the pipeline should be ready for use in 2020.

But the pipeline has sparked fear and frustration from landowners, environmental groups, and local governments, citing both environmental concerns and worries about the authority of Kinder Morgan to set the pipeline route and exercise eminent domain. These groups have tried to stall the pipeline’s construction through a series of legal challenges.

The city of Kyle enacted a local ordinance which requires, among other things, that natural gas pipelines which intersect with city property or rights-of-way need to be a minimum of 13 feet deep.

“Those kinds of things are our way of making the project more difficult for Kinder Morgan while simultaneously protecting our residents,” Kyle mayor, Travis Mitchell said to KXAN in July. He said that the city is opposing the pipeline “using practically any and all means.”

In July, Kinder Morgan filed a lawsuit against the city of Kyle in response to this ordinance, saying the city’s ordinance violates both federal and state law.

Hays County and Travis Audobon Society have filed a notice of intent to sue Kinder Morgan, the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). The notice calls for a full, independent environmental impact study. It also claims Kinder Morgan did not obtain the necessary federal permits to work near endangered species like the golden-cheeked warbler and sensitive environmental features like the Edwards Aquifer.

Kinder Morgan explained to KXAN that they have done environmental analysis on this route.

As part of that process, the company first conducted a review of a potential pipeline route remotely, from a “desktop view,” looking through publically available information about the area. Then, they contracted with a Houston-based environmental consulting group to perform environmental analysis on the ground for that route.

“We are following the law and if that’s enacted by regulators and legislators then we will follow the law,” explained Allen Fore, Kinder Morgan’s Vice President of Public Affairs, in an interview with KXAN in July.

On June 26, a Travis County District Court Judge dismissed a lawsuit from the city of Kyle, Hays County, and three landowners against Kinder Morgan and the Texas Railroad Commission. The plaintiffs in that suit argued that the Railroad Commission had not carried out the public oversight with Kinder Morgan required by the Texas Constitution. The entities suing Kinder Morgan were frustrated that the company only reached out to communicate with the public about their plans after the route for the pipeline had already been set.

READ MORE: Judge dismisses lawsuit related to pipeline planned to run through parts of the Hill Country

While the judge dismissed that lawsuit, she did express worry over the ability for gas utilities in Texas to make plans for pipelines and exercise eminent domain with little public oversight.

The judge said that it was not her role to rule on the lack of oversight that companies like Kinder Morgan have and it’s up to state lawmakers to decide on that. The Texas legislature will not reconvene until 2021, at which time the pipeline is expected to already be operational.

About the Permian Highway Pipeline

The Permian Highway Pipeline will cost an estimated $2 billion for the gas companies involved. It will be a 42-inch, buried pipeline designed to move as much as 2.1 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day. The pipeline will pass through sixteen Texas counties and link up with other pipelines along the way.

The Permian Highway Pipeline does not pass through the city of Austin but will go to the south of Austin and pass through Gillespie, Blanco, and Hays Counties. The city of Kyle is the most populous community along the entire route.

KXAN’s Alyssa Goard is working on an in-depth report on this water quality impact analysis.

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