TEXAS--Update...Longhorn Pipeline Could Contaminate More Than 20 Drinking Water Supplies Serving 750,000 People

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Longhorn gas pipeline too risky, LCRA says

By Christian DavenportAmerican-Statesman StaffThursday, March 16, 2000

A gasoline leak from the Longhorn pipeline could contaminate more than 20 drinking water supplies that serve 750,000 people, officials from the Lower Colorado River Authority said Wednesday.

An analysis of information the agency recently received gives the clearest picture yet of how a spill could affect the public's drinking water, said Joe Beal, the LCRA's general manager. But that picture is still woefully incomplete, he said, and the agency is pressing the federal government to more fully assess how frequent and damaging spills could be.

The LCRA now believes that a five-minute spill could release as much as 32,000 gallons of gasoline laden with a chemical known as MTBE into the Colorado River, which supplies much of the drinking water for Austin and other surrounding Central Texas communities through Lake Travis and Lake Austin, Beal said.

"To put it in perspective, if this pipe were to leak for roughly five minutes to 15 minutes, our analysis shows that there would be enough material released that if it wound up in Lake Travis, it could render the drinking water supply for the City of Austin -- and many other cities that rely on that water -- useless for a period of months and perhaps a period of years," he said at a news conference. "And to me, that risk is too great to take."

Dallas-based Longhorn Pipeline Partners wants to reopen the 50-year-old pipeline and pump gasoline through it, 700 miles from Houston to El Paso. The LCRA had been seeking this information from Longhorn and Radian International, which has studied the pipeline, "since the beginning, but they just now responded," Beal said.

The LCRA's salvo in the pipeline dispute is the latest of several recently fired against Longhorn, a conglomeration of the country's largest petroleum companies, including Exxon and BP Amoco. It comes just a few weeks before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Transportation are to decide whether the pipeline can be reopened.

In response to the LCRA, Longhorn said -- as it has repeatedly since the dispute entered the public consciousness more than a year ago -- that its pipeline is safe. Officials stressed that because a federal judge ordered the EPA to study the pipeline, it has been subjected to an unprecedented amount of scrutiny.

"Longhorn is confident of the safety of its pipeline," the company said in a written statement Wednesday. "As a result of the federal Environmental Assessment, the Longhorn pipeline has been more thoroughly studied and evaluated than any other products pipeline in the nation, and it has advanced safety features that go well beyond those found in most other pipelines."

The company further said it would work to "perform detailed studies to develop measures that will prevent MTBE from impacting water supplies."

But U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, and others say the pipeline still demands further study. Last week, Doggett asked the EPA administrator to conduct a more thorough review of the pipeline, after a University of New Mexico professor said the EPA's initial study was flawed.

Over the weekend, Doggett introduced Frank King to an Austin audience who had come to hear King speak about pipeline safety and about how a pipeline explosion in Bellingham, Wash., killed his 10-year-old son and two others.

Also last week, a 500,000-gallon gasoline spill outside of Dallas polluted a creek that runs into Lake Tawakoni, which provides Dallas with 25 percent to 30 percent of its drinking water. Small levels of MTBE were found in the lake where the creek enters it, said David Bary, a spokesman for the EPA. Dallas has stopped taking water from the lake.

Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, has filed legislation in Congress that would give states more authority in regulating pipelines. And the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has also refused to support the pipeline, citing concerns about how the project might affect endangered species.

At Wednesday's news conference, Beal said that a small spill could contaminate the Colorado River with levels of MTBE that in some cases could well surpass safety levels set by the EPA.

MTBE is a chemical added to gasoline to make it burn more cleanly and efficiently. It is a potential human carcinogen that has caused cancer in animals. It dissolves in water and is hard to clean up.

The City of Santa Monica, Calif., lost its water supply in 1996 after underground gasoline storage tanks leaked and contaminated the water with MTBE.

The LCRA does not want that to happen here, where the Pedernales River and a series of tributaries run into the Colorado River. The pipeline crosses the Colorado River and its tributaries 13 times, including the Llano and Pedernales rivers upstream of Austin's drinking water supply, the LCRA said.

And so Beal used the news conference to appeal to the EPA to do a more complete study of the pipeline and to particularly look at what effect it could have on the public's drinking water.

He added that in the past 30 years, the pipeline has leaked 20 times "to the extent that it would cause this kind of damage," he said. But he said the initial study did not gauge how frequently such spills might occur in the future or what specific problems they could pose.

The LCRA joined a lawsuit filed by a group of Hill Country ranchers, the City of Austin and the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District, which forced the EPA to order a study of the pipeline. The initial study found the pipeline would have no "significant impact" on the environment if Longhorn agrees to numerous safety measures.

The EPA is expected to either make that decision final or order more study by the end of this month or early April.

You may contact Christian Davenport at cdavenport@statesman.com or 445-3616. presented by The Austin American-Statesman and Austin360.


-- (Dee360Degree@aol.com), March 16, 2000

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