Longhorn pipeline allowed to proceed
By Stephen Scheibal and Jonathan Osborne

20 July, 2002

Judge expresses concerns but says he can't stop gas line across Texas

U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks refused Friday to block the Longhorn gasoline pipeline, expressing deep concerns about the project but saying he lacked the power to stop it.

Sparks' 41-page ruling quashed a lawsuit by the City of Austin, a Central Texas water conservation district and two landowners that would have forced Longhorn Pipeline Partners LP to look closer at the environmental impact of the 700-mile pipeline. The company said it will open the line about Aug. 15.

Even though Longhorn won the case, Sparks' ruling bore the ominous tone that has characterized opposition to the pipeline.

Sparks wrote he is "extremely concerned Longhorn will begin pushing high-grade gasoline through the pipeline in less than a month" and "finds no consolation whatsoever" in Longhorn's $15 million of liability insurance.

"Time will only tell if the mitigation measures will be sufficient to contain the dangers inherent in this decrepit pipeline," he wrote, "and the people and critters in its threatening shadow can only hope and pray that they will."

But he added that regulations limit his ability to order changes to the pipeline. Federal law does not allow Sparks to judge the wisdom of the project. He may rule only on whether regulators followed the correct process in allowing Longhorn to reopen it.

"Had the court been granted more discretion, at a very minimum, the undersigned would find it reasonable to order Longhorn to replace the 52-year-old pipe in all populated areas and in areas that affect people's drinking water supply," he wrote. "However, the court has no such discretion."

The pipeline will carry gasoline, diesel and jet fuel from Houston to El Paso. It once carried crude oil the other direction but has been idle since 1995. Most of the pipeline is 52 years old.

The pipeline cuts across the Texas Hill Country and South Austin, abutting neighborhoods and traversing the watershed that supplies water to 50,000 well- dependent residents as well as Barton Springs.

The pipeline's foes range from East Austin activists to Hill Country ranchers. They have warned that a leak or spill might threaten neighborhoods, contaminate water supplies or pollute environmentally sensitive land.

Longhorn officials cheered the ruling. They downplayed the safety concerns raised by Sparks and others, saying the design improvements would make the pipeline among the safest in the country.

"We think the federal agencies did a very thorough job in analyzing this pipeline and its safety," said Barry Cannaday, the company's Dallas-based lawyer. "Longhorn is agreeing to public oversight that no other pipeline in the U.S. has agreed to."

The ruling may not end opponents' four-year quest to take a deeper look at what the Longhorn pipeline might do to the people and wildlife along its path.

Marian Collins, a Kimble County ranch owner who filed the lawsuit, said she will have to consult with other plaintiffs but would like to appeal.

"I'm proud to be a part of the effort that's been going on for four years," Collins said. Noting Longhorn's concessions, she added, "I think we've accomplished something. It's a step in the right direction, even if this is all it ever comes to."

Other plaintiffs, still reviewing the ruling and assessing their options, were cautious about the next step.

Austin City Manager Toby Futrell said she appreciated Sparks' comments but that they barely softened the ruling's blow. She said the City Council ultimately will decide whether Austin pursues the lawsuit, and Mayor Gus Garcia said the council will start discussing its options as soon as possible.

"It's very clear to me he's concerned about the pipeline," Futrell said of Sparks. "But he also ruled on all counts against us."

Jeff Heckler, an Austin activist who has battled the pipeline since 1998, said he shares the judge's concerns but would have liked to see the project stopped.

"I sure hope . . . those guys know what they're doing with that pipeline," Heckler said. "If they don't, it's going to be bad."

Both Longhorn and its federal regulators have repeatedly cited the safety measures they've agreed to, including the new, thicker-walled pipe that will be installed across the Barton Springs watershed.

Sparks said the plaintiffs' efforts also prompted the federal government to take oversight responsibility for the line and launch an in-depth investigation of its effects.

The judge wrote that the plaintiffs, including the Barton Springs-Edwards Aquifer Conservation District and Hays County landowner David Robertson, received a commitment from federal regulators to "closely monitor this pipeline that puts in jeopardy thousands of people who live above it and many more thousands of people who depend upon the water it runs through,"

He added a footnote that alluded to the U.S. Office of Pipeline Safety's historical failures to inspect pipelines in Texas and surrounding states, a problem explored in an Austin American-Statesman series last year. He also vowed to make sure Longhorn followed through on its commitments to him, the plaintiffs and residents across the region.

"The undersigned hears frequently of his many weak personality traits, but memory is not among them," he wrote. "Regardless of the OPS's claim to fame of having only nine employees to monitor all pipelines in the southwest United States, the undersigned will not forget OPS's commitment to enforce Longhorn's mitigation measures and monitor this pipeline."

The italics were Sparks'.

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