Austin Clashes with Longhorn over pipeline work
USA, Texas, Austin, Dec 19 2001. City seeks to suspend Longhorn's replacement of pipe if development rules aren't followed
The City of Austin is threatening to issue a stop-work order and take legal action against Longhorn Partners Pipeline LP. At issue is Longhorn's plan to replace a section of its 51-year-old pipeline with new, thicker-walled pipe. The company, which contends that the city has no jurisdiction over pipelines, has nevertheless applied for city approval to install the new pipe. But Longhorn says it will proceed with or without the city's blessing. The city says it will issue a stop-work order if Longhorn does not first obtain approval of its spill-control measures. Longhorn says it will ignore any such order.
A mediation session is scheduled for Thursday, but the two sides are so far apart that a court battle seems likely. Such a case could test how far cities may go in overseeing interstate pipelines, whose regulation generally has been the sole province of the federal government.
Longhorn and the city are already in court because of the company's plan to move gasoline and other fuels through the idled pipeline, which previously was used for crude oil. That case led to a study by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Transportation Department's Office of Pipeline Safety that concluded that the proposal poses no significant threat to the environment or the public. The city, a water district and two landowners are challenging that finding.
U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks is allowing Longhorn to work on the pipeline but is barring movement of fuels pending his review.
The latest dispute is over Longhorn's commitment, arising from the federal case, to replace 19 miles of pipeline in the Edwards Aquifer region. The first phase involves four miles in Southwest Austin, where Longhorn removed the old pipe and trimmed trees along its right of way in recent weeks.
That segment, the city contends, is subject to its land development code, including the Save Our Springs ordinance, intended to protect creeks that feed the underground water supply emerging at Barton Springs. Under the ordinance, developments must prevent contamination of surface-water runoff. City officials contend that replacing a pipeline qualifies as development.
"What does development mean? It means turning dirt. You're building something. In this case, you're rebuilding a pipeline," said Toby Futrell, deputy city manager.
Longhorn has sought and obtained city approval to remove the old pipe and to test its plan for sealing the pipeline trench with cement to prevent water contamination in the event of leak. But the city has withheld approval for pipe installation while it reviews the trench-sealing plan and other measures, including a leak-detection cable and a concrete cap for keeping construction equipment from puncturing the pipeline.
City officials plan to hire a consultant soon to review Longhorn's design. The review could take 30 to 60 days, said Chuck Lesniak, environmental program coordinator for the city.
"We took the position that we are not going to issue the site plan approval until we have this evaluation of their proposal and get a positive result . . . that this system will contain the most likely spill that will occur," said Patrick Murphy, city environmental officer.
Installing pipe without approval would violate the development code, and a red tag suspending work would be posted at the job site, Futrell said. If the red tag is ignored, the city could seek a fine and a compliance order in Municipal Court.
O.B. Harris, vice president and asset manager for Dallas-based Longhorn, said the company has applied for city approvals out of a willingness to cooperate even while asserting that the city has no jurisdiction. Longhorn announced months ago that it intended to begin pipe replacement this month, he added.
Harris noted that a New Jersey consultant described the spill-containment system as "the most comprehensive global containment system for any pipeline in North America." The review by Ibrahim Konuk was conducted for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and paid for by Longhorn.
Pipe installation is expected to begin in "several days," Harris said. "We're not thumbing our noses at the city," he said. "We're still trying to talk through and work through the issue. But we're moving ahead."