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Concerns Over Proposed Natural Gas Pipeline Grow In Austin

Patch logo Patch 8/30/2019 Tony Cantu
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AUSTIN, TX — With construction set to begin on the Permian Highway Pipeline — a 430-mile natural gas pipeline spanning from West Texas to Houston via the Texas Hill Country — Austin officials are increasingly concerned about potential impacts to local water quality.

In a memorandum to the mayor and city council members related to the Permian Highway Pipeline, Christopher Herrington, environmental officer with the Watershed Protection Department, outlines concerns over potential water quality impact at Barton Springs and the Edwards Aquifer resulting from the planned pipeline by developer Kinder Morgan. The memo stems from council's June 19 directive to the city manager to " the potential water quality impacts a pipeline transporting hydrocarbons would have on the Trinity and Edwards aquifers.”

But by Herrington's efforts to ascertain a likely impact to local water quality is exacerbated given the scant information publicly available about the Permian Highway Pipeline (PHP). "This analysis is limited due to the fact there is little publicly available information about the PHP," Herrington noted in the Aug. 28 memo.

Here's the little that is known about the scope of the project, as Herrington outlined: Kinder Morgan Texas Pipeline (KMTP) and EagleClaw Midstream Ventures propose constructing a 42-inch, 430-mile long steel natural gas pipeline, through the Central Texas Hill Country. The pipeline is proposed to travel through Gillespie, Blanco, and Hays counties, where it will cross through the Edwards Aquifer Recharge and Contributing Zones.

"The exact alignment of the pipeline is not publicly known and may ultimately be dependent on right-of-way acquisitions," Herrington wrote. "The proposed PHP will carry approximately 2.1 billion cubic feet per day of natural gas from the Permian Basin in West Texas to existing pipelines northeast of Houston for transport to export facilities on the Texas coast. KMTP has stated that nearly all of the natural gas will be for export and not for domestic use."

In their quest to build the pipeline, KMTP officials currently are in the process of acquiring right-of-way through eminent domain and condemnation, Herrington wrote. KMTP, he added, has stated its intent to acquire a 125-foot wide temporary construction easement and a 50-foot wide permanent easement for the pipeline, the city official added.

Pipeline construction is expected to start this fall, Herrington added, with pipe currently being stockpiled along the route. The pipeline is expected to be operational by late 2020, according to the memo.

Hill Country landowner Matthew Walsh is among those already being upended by the pipeline's imminent construction. Earlier this month, a three-panel special commission of real estate professionals ordered pipeline developer Kinder Morgan to pay damages to his land in the amount of $233,500 — free market value — despite Kinder Morgan’s claims there would be zero damages to his entire property, Patch was told.

The commission's Aug. 6 ruling was handed down as part of condemnation proceedings related to planned pipeline, giving the landowner some measure of vindication: “I feel like I’ve been living in a nightmare since I heard about the pipeline coming through my land last October,” Walsh said in a prepared statement. “Kinder Morgan’s initial offer was insultingly low. I hope that other landowners will hear my story and join me in fighting for fair compensation.”

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Hill Country resident Matthew Walsh owns 53 acres of land in Blanco to be bisected by Permian Highway Pipeline. Courtesy photo.

Walsh owns 53 acres near the city of Blanco where he planned to build a home before learning the proposed pipeline would bisect his land. As a result, the Walsh family will have to wait three years for the construction to finish and Kinder Morgan’s temporary easement lease on the land to sell the property, and they're not fully at ease: “I do not feel safe living within a few hundred feet of such a massive natural gas pipeline,” he said.

a tree next to a river © Provided by Planck, LLC, d/b/a Patch Media

Despite bucolic surroundings of his property in Blanco, Texas, Matthew Walsh and his family no longer feel safe in the land where they planned to build a home since the PHP project reared its head. Courtesy photo.

Back in Austin, the project raises concerns even as the city already has four active natural gas and hazardous liquid transmission pipelines located over the Barton Springs segment of the Edwards Aquifer, as Herrington noted. Still, these existing pipelines are all substantially smaller in diameter than the proposed 42-inch PHP, Herrington noted.

"There have not been any new hazardous liquid or natural gas pipelines built over the Barton Springs Segment of the Edwards Aquifer in many decades," Herrington wrote in his memo to council. "Although the All-American Pipeline was proposed, it was not built due to environmental concerns. The most recent significant project was the Longhorn Pipeline conversion from crude oil to refined projects in the early 2000s. For the Longhorn Pipeline, following a lawsuit, the federal government required major changes to the existing pipeline to mitigate environmental risks in order to approve the conversion. Longhorn Pipeline has since been reconverted to crude oil transport; however, the mitigation requirements remain in place."

Adding to local concerns over the pipeline developer's plans: "Kinder Morgan to date has not publicly committed to the same type of mitigation measures in use for the Longhorn Pipeline."

Potential Environmental Impacts

In his memo, Herrington outlined potential environmental impacts to local resources and animal species living in the Austin vicinity. The natural resources and species include the contributing and recharge zones of the Barton Springs Segment of the Edwards Aquifer (the “Barton Springs Zone”), the Trinity Aquifer, area creeks, area springs, the Barton Springs salamander (Eurycea sosorum), the Austin Blind salamander (Eurycea waterlooensis), and the Golden-cheeked warbler (Setophaga chrysoparia). From Herrington's report:

  • Risks to Environmental Resources

Natural gas is a gas at ambient temperature and pressure and is lighter than air. These

characteristics reduce the potential impacts of a pipeline gas release to groundwater and surface

water. Natural gas is primarily methane, which is one of the most potent greenhouse gases. The

PHP will capture gas currently being released to the atmosphere in west Texas. A gas release

from the PHP would contribute to local air pollution.

The proposed route for the PHP is along the Edwards Aquifer groundwater divide between

Barton Springs and the San Marcos springs. Depending on groundwater conditions, groundwater

flow can vary between these two locations and so the operation of the pipeline presents a

potential risk to both of these significant, highly sensitive environmental resources.

  • Potential Risks during Construction

Environmental risks of the PHP vary by project phase. Construction phase risks are primarily from sediment discharge from disturbed soils, spills of fuel and lubricant from construction equipment, and direct impacts to karst features (e.g., voids) encountered during trench excavation (Figure 2). Inadequate erosion and sedimentation controls and poor re-vegetation practices could occur. Inadequate revegetation of the pipeline right-of-way can create longer term water quality impacts from erosion of soil, decreased infiltration of rainfall, and decreased filtration of storm water runoff, in addition to habitat degradation.

Construction of pipelines in karst terrain is known to be challenging. The Mariner East pipeline

in Pennsylvania was recently shut down by regulators due to multiple sinkholes occurring along

the right-of-way after construction which generated concerns about structural stability of the

pipeline. Given the proposed location of the PHP, it is highly likely the trench will intersect

fissures and voids, potentially altering flow pathways within the aquifers and creating pathways

for contaminants to spread along underground conduits. The Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer

Conservation District (BSEACD) has identified several known and suspected karst features over

the Edwards Aquifer along the proposed pipeline route.

The PHP is exempt from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s Edwards Aquifer

protection rules, which are intended to minimize impacts of subsurface utilities. For example,

TCEQ has void mitigation requirements to address karst features found during trenching for

utilities. Although KMTP states that they are aware of issues related to karst geology, it is

unknown what measures KMTP will take to address the unique challenges of construction in a

karst terrain.

There are multiple protected species that could be impacted by pipeline construction. The

golden-cheeked warbler, which is a protected songbird, has significant habitat along and in the

vicinity of the proposed PHP pathway. Golden-cheeked warbler habitat is characterized by

contiguous areas of mature oak-juniper woodlands. The proposed 125-foot wide construction

easement is likely to be completely clear cut of these woodlands for construction of the pipeline.

While much of this temporary easement would be allowed to revegetate, it will likely be decades

before impacted areas would be restored to potential golden-cheeked warbler habitat.

Furthermore, it is a common practice for pipeline owners to keep a 50-foot permanent easement

clear of all trees making potential habitat fragmentation permanent in some areas.

  • Potential Risks during Operation

During operation of the PHP, the most significant threat to groundwater and surface water is

from a release of liquids from the pipeline, which would contribute to degradation of water

quality and negatively impact aquatic habitat. Additionally, if the PHP right-of-way is

inadequately revegetated, the construction will likely create longer term water quality impacts

from erosion of soil, decreased infiltration of rainfall, and decreased filtration of stormwater


Natural gas is typically dehydrated prior to entering a transmission pipeline. However, liquid

may be still present in a gas pipeline and may accumulate in the pipeline from a variety of

sources, including condensation. Federal regulations (though not applicable to the PHP) require

natural gas transmission pipelines to provide facilities for draining accumulated liquids (49 CFR

192.476), further demonstrating the probable presence of these liquids in the PHP. While KMTP

disputes that liquid of any quantity will occur in the pipeline, pipeline engineers contacted by

staff confirmed that liquid does occur in gas transmission pipelines, and could occur in the

thousands of gallons where there are long segments between valves and/or drains.

These accumulated liquids are likely to contain hydrocarbons in high concentrations.

Concentrations of hydrocarbon liquids in condensate may be high as there would be minimal

dilution, although the accumulated volume of those liquids is unknown. A pipeline break or

faulty operation could release these liquid hydrocarbons, presenting a risk to nearby

groundwater, springs, and surface water. Tanks that store these liquids could also present a

potential source of hydrocarbon release to groundwater and surface water.

Populations of the federally protected Barton Springs salamander and Austin blind salamander

occur in the Barton Springs Complex within Zilker Park. Recent studies have identified

populations of Barton Springs salamanders at other spring locations outside of Austin and down

gradient of the proposed PHP. The fully aquatic salamanders are highly sensitive to

contaminants in water, including hydrocarbons.

Although the exact flow pathways are not definitively known, dye tracing completed by the City

of Austin and regional partners has demonstrated that water in the Blanco River Basin and in the

vicinity of the proposed PHP pathway could migrate to Barton Springs under low groundwater

flow conditions which occur approximately 20% of the time with a travel time of several months.

Thus, a release of liquid hydrocarbons from the PHP could adversely impact the Barton Springs Complex and habitat for federally protected salamanders in Zilker Park, and these impacts could occur at a time when habitat conditions are sub-optimal due to reduced spring flows and salamanders are already under stress. The potential impacts to salamanders in San Marcos Springs would likely be similar to those in Barton Springs. Other known Barton Springs salamander populations outside of Zilker Park are most likely outside of potential groundwater

flow paths within the aquifer.

Staff have been unable to obtain data on the possible volume of liquid or chemical composition

of liquid contaminants that may be present in the PHP. Although a groundwater connection

between the proposed PHP route and the Barton Springs Complex exists, and salamanders would

be sensitive to hydrocarbon contaminants in groundwater, staff are unable to quantify the risks to

Barton Springs because insufficient information exists about the volume of hydrocarbon

condensate in the pipeline, the chemical constituents, and their concentrations, to enable a

quantitative fate analysis.

  • Impacts to Water Quality Protection Lands

The proposed PHP route is near City of Austin Water Quality Protection Lands. Several water

wells are on Water Quality Protection Lands between FM 150 and FM 967 that could be

impacted if contaminants enter the aquifer and migrate northward. The City of Austin may have

very limited options to prevent pipelines from being routed through these sensitive properties.

  • Future Change in Pipeline Contents

Transmission pipelines can be converted to carry different products as market conditions change.

A local example of this is Longhorn Pipeline which was converted from crude oil service to

refined products in the early 2000s, and converted back to crude oil service roughly 10 years

later. Although hazardous liquids pipelines the size of the proposed PHP are rare, it is possible

that the PHP could be converted to hazardous liquids service in the future.

Kinder Morgan has stated publicly they intend to limit the easements they are acquiring to natural gas pipelines. New or modified easements may be necessary to convert the PHP to hazardous liquids in the future. Hazardous liquids, such as crude oil, would present a substantially greater threat to groundwater and surface water.


Herrington then lays bare some conclusions, such as they are given the dearth of public information on PHP. After reviewing the limited available information about the pipeline project, city staff concluded:

  • The proposed PHP route occurs in an area that contributes flow to Barton Springs under low flow conditions that occur approximately 20% of the time.
  • Applicable regulations are not sufficient to ensure that no adverse environmental consequences will occur as a result of the construction and operation of the PHP.
  • Surface water and groundwater quality may be adversely impacted by sediment and contaminant discharge during construction.
  • Recharge patterns and flow pathways within the aquifer may be impacted if voids are intercepted during construction and not properly mitigated.
  • Gas transmission pipelines can contain liquid contaminants. Accidental release of the hydrocarbon liquids to surface water or groundwater could occur. The chemical constituents, concentrations, and volumes of potential liquids within the PHP are not known. Thus, a quantitative analysis of the risk of hydrocarbon contamination of the Edwards Aquifer cannot be completed at this time.
  • If contaminants from a pipeline release were to reach the Barton Springs Complex at a sufficient concentration, it is possible that it would negatively impact federally protected species. The extent of that impact cannot be predicted given the lack of information on volume and characteristics of a release from the pipeline.

Potential Actions by the city

Despite all the unknowns, city staff outlined preventive steps the city can take to mitigate the pipeline's potential impact to local resources. "Based on these conclusions in combination with the lack of information about alternative routes and impacts to sensitive environmental resources, staff suggest the following possible actions for consideration," the memo reads. These are:

  • Sharing these concerns with the Texas Railroad Commission, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Corps of Engineers, seeking additional information and asking that they seek the additional information from Kinder Morgan necessary to facilitate a more comprehensive analysis.
  • Coordinating technical information sharing and collaborating with other potentially concerned entities, including the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer District, Hays Trinity Groundwater Conservation District, Edwards Aquifer Authority, City of San Marcos, City of Kyle, the Wimberley Valley Watershed Association, other groundwater conservation districts, and potentially impacted property owners.
  • Supporting state legislative initiatives to provide greater protection for owners of conservation lands or easements.
  • Supporting state legislative initiatives to require pipeline projects to undergo a public review and comment process that includes environmental impact and route alternatives analyses.

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