BLANCO, Texas (KXAN) – If you stand along Lindeman Lane anywhere near the 90-degree bend in the road and wait, you’ll quickly get a visit from the Blanco Police Department. They’re protecting one of Kinder Morgan’s five pipeline stockyards across the state.
Sometime in mid-2019, a lake of turquoise-colored pipe began taking over that empty field off Ranch Road 32 near Blanco. Within a few months, the lake became a raging ocean of hundreds of pieces of pipe.
The pipe will form the 428-mile Permian Highway Pipeline, a natural gas transmission line stretching from the Texas-New Mexico border to Katy, just west of Houston. The pipeline builder, Kinder Morgan, is one of the largest energy infrastructure companies in North America. Its natural gas pipelines move roughly 40 percent of the gas consumed in the United States, according to the company’s website.
Deda Divine, a member of the anti-pipeline group “Blanco Stop the Pipeline,” said her organization first noticed the pipe segments accumulating last June. Divine’s organization is one of many citizen groups trying to stop Kinder Morgan’s pipeline from channeling through the Hill Country.
Many of the members own land along the pipeline route.
Divine is particularly concerned about the integrity of the pipe segments and whether they could be compromised by months of exposure to the harsh Texas elements and sun.
“When it’s your community and these old pipes are sitting here, it doesn’t do anything to make us feel safe about this,” said Divine, who lives in Blanco and spoke with KXAN outside the stockyard in March.
The group posted photographs of the Blanco stockyard to its Facebook page in June of 2019 and told KXAN the post was the earliest documentation they had showing when the pipe segments were placed in the Blanco stockyard. They didn’t know it then, but the date on that Facebook post would become an important piece of a KXAN investigation.
“They’re coated for corrosion underground. These pipes have been sitting out here since June,” Divine said.
The pipe segments are coated with a fusion bonded epoxy corrosion protection product, which will degrade under prolonged exposure to sunlight, according to the manufacturer’s own documentation, which recommends these coatings not be stored above ground for longer than a year.
Multiple court battles stalled the pipeline’s construction through the Texas Hill Country over the past year.
“It was through the hottest part of the summer, all of July, August, September and still isn’t in the ground and still won’t be in the ground for a little while,” Divine said.
The UV degradation worry
KXAN photographed pipes in the Blanco yard with coating dates from May, June and July of 2019. The coating date doesn’t indicate the date the pipes were delivered to the yard but does show the date the coating was applied to the pipe by the manufacturer.
The Blanco stockyard is not the only one Kinder Morgan uses to store pipe segments. Our investigation found five holding sites between Fort Stockton, in West Texas, and Victoria—including locations in Blanco and San Marcos.
KXAN visited a stockyard in Junction, a small town off Interstate 10 about 140 miles west of Austin. Photographs taken during our surveillance of that stockyard show pipes with coating dates as old as March 2019.
The pipes with older coating dates appear more faded compared to pipes with more recent coating date stamps.
“I’ve seen enough problems with failures of pipeline systems to know that these situations do happen. And, so, when you see pictures of that chalking effect where the epoxy is literally weathering off and chemically degrading—that’s the evidence that you see before your eyes that this protective coating is being worn off—that’s definitely a serious concern,” Dr. Nathan Phillips told KXAN.
Phillips is an environmental science professor at Boston University. Along with researching environmental impacts of pipelines, Phillips also researches pipeline accidents and causes. We sent Phillips photographs of the pipe yards from our investigation.
“Why they didn’t cover up those pipes in the stockyard to begin with? Is that an onerous type of thing to do just to air on the side of safety?” Phillips said. “I think the significance of this finding is national. We have new pipelines going in across this country and I think this story is really important, both locally and nationally.”
Phillips’s opinion is bolstered by a bulletin published by the National Association of Pipe Coating Applicators. The association is made up of pipe coating manufacturers and works to standardize coating guidelines, according to the group’s website.
“The intended use of these coatings is to provide corrosion protection for buried pipelines. Above ground storage of coated pipe in excess of 6 months without additional Ultraviolet protection is not recommended,” the NAPCA bulletin states.
By that standard, none of the pipe segments we photographed in either the Blanco or Junction yards followed NAPCA’s guidance.
The stampings also include the name of the particular coating: “Pipeclad 2000.” The coating is made by Valspar, which is a “wholly-owned subsidiary” of The Sherwin-Williams Company.
KXAN obtained a June 2015 letter from Valspar’s Global Technical Director, Dr. Jeffrey Rogozinski, showing the length of time the company believed its coating could be exposed to UV radiation without “any special protection from UV degradation of outdoor storage” would be less than a year.
“Valspar’s estimate of deterioration, if any, would be extremely low and would not affect performance properties of the coating,” Rogozinski wrote.
The 2015 Valspar letter was part of a public utilities case in South Dakota where an energy company submitted the similar questions we had to Valspar regarding UV exposure timelines and degradation issues.
Sherwin-Williams—who now owns Valspar—did not provide any information concerning the company’s recommendations on UV exposure timelines after multiple emails were exchanged between the company and KXAN.
Kinder Morgan would not agree to be interviewed and did not answer specific questions regarding the company’s policies on UV exposure timelines. The company also did not answer specific questions about how long pipe segments have been stored at the five Texas holding yards without added UV protection—or if there is any UV protection at all.
The company, through a public relations firm, issued this prepared statement to KXAN:
“We are actively engaged in the construction of [the Permian Highway Pipeline] and expect for it to be placed in service in the first quarter of 2021. PHP is being constructed according to industry best practices and Kinder Morgan’s construction specifications, which meet or exceed state and federal requirements. We engage in multiple levels of inspection of the pipeline during and after the manufacturing process. We also have a thorough installation process, which is focused on testing and ensuring the integrity of the pipeline coating prior to the pipeline being installed.”Allen Fore, Vice President of Public Affairs for Kinder Morgan
There are no rules at the federal level limiting pipe coating exposure to UV radiation, according to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration—the federal agency that regulates and enforces pipeline safety standards across the nation.
The agency is responsible for inspecting pipeline coatings and the condition of the coatings of pipelines as they’re under construction. But, the agency doesn’t inspect every pipe segment of the nation’s 2.8 million miles of pipeline.
“It’s not quite how inspections work,” PHMSA spokesman Darius Kirkwood told KXAN. “It wouldn’t be fair to simplify it like that and say every inch is inspected.”
“That means these pipes have been sitting here through the hottest part of the year in the Texas Hill Country,” Divine said. “I’m worried about it. Everyone in my community is worried about it.”
State regulators got a complaint from the anti-pipeline group about the UV exposure question. In part two of this KXAN investigation, we examine the Texas Railroad Commission’s inspection. We uncover what the state’s oil and gas regulator did—and didn’t do—with its handling of the complaint.
Senior Investigative Producer and Digital Reporter David Barer, News Director Chad Cross, Investigative Photojournalist Ben Friberg, Graphic Artist Rachel Garza, Director of Investigations & Innovation Josh Hinkle, Editor Eric Lefenfeld, Drone Operator Bob Osborn and Digital Executive Producer Kate Winkle contributed to this investigation.