PHP work halted as groups threaten legal action

by Anita Miller

Work on Kinder Morgan’s Permian Highway Pipeline (PHP) is halted near where the project will cross the Blanco River, the company says, as it continues to review the next steps “with our consultants, the water district and regulatory agencies.”

A preliminary map shows the projected route for approximately 31 miles of pipeline that’s projected to go through Hays County as part of the Permian Highway Pipeline Project. This map is preliminary and not final. (Map courtesy Kinder Morgan)

The exact location is near Chimney Rock Road in Blanco County.

Work was stopped after a crew drilling a pilot bore under the river hit a karst feature March 28, sending an undetermined amount of drilling mud and fluid into the Trinity Aquifer. Within days, owners of nearby water wells reported murky brown or tan water coming from hoses and faucets.

The situation ratcheted up earlier this week when the Wimberley Valley Watershed Association (WVWA) and the Trinity Edwards Springs Protection Association (TESPA) issued a notice of intent to sue over the contamination, citing four specific laws it says construction of the natural gas pipeline has violated. 

Tests of samples from those wells revealed the presence of AMC Gel, a substance classified as a Class 1A carcinogen, the notice says, on the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS). “Investigation is ongoing by the TESPA legal team to evaluate the risks posed by the carcinogen in the water supply, as well as in the air.”

In a statement, Kinder Morgan said it is “aware” of the notice and is continuing “to work directly with concerned landowners to address their needs by offering food, clean water and other accommodations.”

The company also reiterated what it had said previously, that the drilling fluid is “water mixed primarily” with bentonite clay and sand.” 

“Bentonite is a naturally occurring, non-hazardous, non-toxic clay. The drilling fluid is not classified as being harmful if ingested and poses no known risks to drinking water. It is also used to drill drinking water wells.”

But Kinder Morgan’s explanation does not satisfy opposing groups which itemized what they see as violations by the pipeline company. The groups accuse Kinder Morgan of violating the Safe Drinking Water Act “by injecting fluids into an underground source of drinking water,” of “creating an imminent and substantial endangerment to the public under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, of “discharging pollutants in violation of the nationwide permit #12 issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and of “discharging pollutants into waters of the United States without a permit.”

As he has stated previously, WVWA President David Baker charged that the spill was exactly what he had warned would likely happen when the pipeline encountered any of the karst features along its route. “When Kinder Morgan announced the Permian Highway Pipeline back in 2018, I said it was the worst thing to ever happen to the Texas Hill Country and that even the construction would cause harm to our fragile karst aquifers,” he said. “But this recent event and the discovery of cancer-causing products flowing into drinking water is beyond what i feared most.”

TESPA Executive Director Patrick Cox added, “All of us who depend on groundwater for our drinking water supply have been alarmed by the pipeline for almost two years now, but for this contamination incident to happen in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and affect the only water we have to drink and bathe in — it is inconscionable. If there ever was a good time and reason to take action against a toxic polluter, it is now. And we have just the team to do it.”

Jim Blackburn, one of the attorneys who filed the notice of intent, summed up the case. “Kinder Morgan was granted permission to construct the pipeline, and they have violated the trust of the agencies and of the people. What we have witnessed is a worst-case scenario for the people of Blanco and all Hill Country landowners and well owners in the path of Kinder Morgan’s Permian Highway Pipeline. It is unsafe and unwise to continue this project through our karst region, given this huge failure, and we will work to secure a resolution either through discussions or through litigation.”

The statement went on to note that testing by the Blanco Groundwater Conservation District is continuing to test samples and that “there are initial indications that the impacted wells are beginning to clear.”

Cox said once the notice of intent to sue reaches Kinder Morgan, the company has 60 days to respond. “However, we are hopeful that given the gravity of this case it’s going to move forward much more quickly.”

Central Texas residents first began to hear of plans for the 430-mile, 42 inch pipeline in the fall of 2018. Because pipelines are considered infrastructure, Kinder Morgan had the power of eminent domain to acquire easements through private property. 

Construction along other parts of the pipeline’s route have continued unabated.

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