The public should have a say before anyone cuts a pipeline through the Texas Hill Country

A few weeks ago, construction on the Mopac Expressway near Slaughter Lane in Austin came to an abrupt halt when the workers encountered a larger than normal karst feature. Karst features are essentially holes in the limestone underneath our feet that channel water from the surface into our underground aquifers. They stopped because construction around karst features has to be done carefully to ensure both that surface water can reach the aquifer and that the water isn’t contaminated on its way there.

Any construction project that disturbs five acres or more of land in the Edwards Aquifer region requires coordination and permitting from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) to protect our groundwater and karst features — except oil and gas projects, including pipelines. This is because of one section in the Texas Water Code that places jurisdiction over oil and gas activity under the Texas Railroad Commission instead of TCEQ.

When these protections for the Edwards Aquifer were established in the 1990s, no one anticipated they’d need to apply to oil and gas. The region doesn’t produce fossil fuels, and no new pipeline had crossed the Hill Country and our vulnerable aquifers since the 1950s. But today, Kinder Morgan hopes to build a 42-inch pipeline across the Hill Country and the Edwards Aquifer, and those of us in the pathway are personally experiencing the state’s lack of oversight.

Kinder Morgan is making all kinds of statements about safety and environmental protection and treating landowners decently. But here’s what they won’t tell you:

  • There will be no state oversight to protect karst features during the construction of the Permian Highway Pipeline. We will have to rely on Kinder Morgan’s word that they’re doing the right thing.
  • While the company says its current plans are to only transport natural gas (which poses less water contamination risk than crude oil) in the Permian Highway Pipeline, nothing in the law prevents them from retrofitting the pipeline to transport crude oil or another liquid if they deem it profitable. This exacerbates concerns about groundwater, especially in light of recent leaks in the nearby Longhorn Pipeline.
  • Kinder Morgan is taking a permanent 50-foot-wide easement with an additional 75 feet for a temporary construction easement. This means an up to 125-foot-wide swath will be cleared of trees for the length of the pipeline, and 50 feet of that will be kept permanently clear of large vegetation. That will constitute an unprecedented scar across the Hill Country. When earlier pipelines were built in this area last century, the easements were often narrower, because pipeline companies hadn’t started aerial monitoring yet and construction equipment was smaller.

Read more from State Representative Erin Zwiener with the Texas Tribune’s TribTalk here.