Discolored water from wells near the Kinder Morgan Permian Highway Pipeline is causing distress.
Test results on the water, taken where the pipeline is about to cross the Blanco River, are expected soon from a Lower Colorado River Authority laboratory.
Once the results are received, David Baker of the Wimberley Valley Watershed Association (WVWA) and others opposed to the pipeline’s route through the fragile Texas Hill Country will have a better idea of what their next steps should be.
On March 28, reportedly during the first day of drilling, a Kinder Morgan contractor trying to bore a pilot hole under the river near Chimney Hill Road in Blanco County hit a karst feature, losing all the drilling fluid and mud down the hole. Within days, water that was either tan and foamy or mud-colored began coming out of the taps at three homes about a mile away.
In a statement to media three days later, Kinder Morgan called the incident an “underground fluid loss.” The company has suspended operations at that location, it went on to say, “while the team evaluates the cause of the loss and determines the best path forward.”
Baker said the tests will determine if the drilling mud and fluid contained things like trace metals and total suspended solids, essentially anything other than bentonite, as Kinder Morgan’s statement claims, describing the clay as“naturally occurring, non-hazardous, non-toxic.”
Regardless of the substances involved, “People can’t use their water,” Baker said, a situation that is particularly distressing during the COVID-19 pandemic and its restrictions on travel. One couple, both physicians, “have been pretty much out of water” since March 29. “They’re in a really desperate state with the shelter in place order,” he said.
“We really think that the whole operation needs to stop,” Baker said. “All the work on the pipeline should stop during this COVID-19 crisis we’re in. We don’t consider (the pipeline) critical infrastructure to export gas to another country. It’s not critical to this country and the citizens.”
Patrick Cox, former WVWA President and Interim President of the Trinity Edwards Springs Protection Association (TESPA), also weighed in. “The … is something we’ve warned about and been concerned about,” he said.
“Based on what we’re receiving so far, it doesn’t appear the company is at all prepare to deal with this kind of incident that creates problems for well owners in the immediate area and has the potential to cause much more widespread damage because of the karst nature of the aquifer.” He said landowners are demanding to know Kinder Morgan’s plans for mitigation. “We’ve not received any information about preparation, urgency plans or lack thereof to deal with this kind of situation.”
The 430-mile pipeline will carry natural gas from the oil fields of West Texas to near Houston where an unknown percentage of it will be sent to foreign markets including Mexico.
Baker called the situation tragic and said it just proves what opponents of the pipeline’s route have been saying since Kinder Morgan’s plans became public.
“All along we’ve been trying to warn them this wasn’t really a safe area to put an oil and gas energy corridor through the middle of the sensitive Texas Hill Country and sensitive karst aquifer… As we’ve said from the beginning, karst features are very susceptible to contamination through sinkholes and caves.”
He also said that the further east the construction project goes, the more sensitive karst features there are.
“Their first day and now they’ve contaminated several wells. It’s just heartbreaking for these families,” Baker said, despite the fact (Kinder Morgan Vice President Allen) Fore delivered “a case of bottled water and a couple of canisters of water. They can’t shower, they can’t wash their clothes. The sediment’s in their appliances now. What a mess it is – especially during this time.”
Baker said the affected landowners have a list going of what they would like to see Kinder Morgan do
now. He also has his own ideas.
“We think they should stop all construction and do a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). Kinder Morgan needs to agree to do that or the judge (in an ongoing lawsuit alleging violations of the Endangered Species Act) needs to order that. They need to stop, especially during this crisis time, and really look carefully at what they’re doing and look at the alternatives to going under the Blanco River twice plus the Pedernales. It’s just not safe.”
The company’s statement said that “all of the appropriate regulatory agencies have been notified,” but Baker pointed out that the only Texas entity that regulates pipelines is the Railroad Commission. “The Railroad Commission (RRC) is the one entity that oversees pipelines and they don’t oversee routing or construction … They aren’t required” to notify anyone else, including nearby residents whose water supply might be affected.
Another focus, Baker said, should be the method by which the drilling is being done. Horizontal drilling can be accomplished more safely with a process that uses casings around the pipe, but that is more expensive. “Kinder Morgan opted for the cheaper process (without casings) and now we have people without drinking water.”
Remedy won’t be immediate, even if the tests show no toxic substances. “If it’s just bentonite and doesn’t have the chemicals in it I think over time it will clear out as rains fall and the aquifer moves sediments through.” However, if chemicals are present “they’re going to be in there for a long time. I don’t think you can clean that up. (The aquifer) is like Swiss cheese with water moving in every different direction. There’s no way to contain a spill of toxic chemicals.”
Some of the affected landowners have reportedly opened a dialogue with the RRC and have been told that the agency is supposed to do an investigation.
Baker said the incident “in some way is maybe a blessing that will wake them up to the fact what we were saying is true.” He also fears that, because pipeline construction is continuing to proceed elsewhere along the route, “they’re kind of fencing us in on both sides of the Hill Country … they will be saying ‘we can’t not do this now.’ We’ll all end up with polluted water for the rest of our lives. How is Kinder Morgan going to make that right?”
Meanwhile, Kinder Morgan’s statement said the company “strives for zero incidents and minimal environmental impact on all our construction projects.”