BLANCO COUNTY, Texas (KXAN) – It took members of the largest anti-pipeline group in Blanco about nine months to get their facts together and file a complaint with the Texas Railroad Commission. The group is worried the corrosion coatings of pipe segments stored in open fields could be degraded and unsafe.
The pipe segments will eventually become part of the 428-mile Permian Highway Pipeline—a 42-inch natural gas line that will span the state, from the Permian Basin in west Texas, through the Hill Country and ending near Houston.
Kinder Morgan, one of the largest energy infrastructure firms in North America, owns the pipeline and has five storage sites for pipe segments awaiting burial along the line’s route.
One of those large stockyards is located outside the city of Blanco. A KXAN investigation discovered pipes at the site with corrosion coatings applied in May, June and July of 2019, according to dates stamped onto the pipes and visible from a nearby road. A group opposed to the project, known as “Blanco Stop the Pipeline,” documented the first pipes being stacked in the Blanco yard on its Facebook page in June 2019.
On March 16, fearing exposure to sun and weather might have degraded the pipes’ corrosion coating, the group submitted a complaint to the Railroad Commission, which regulates the state’s oil and gas industry.
“I am working to persuade the Railroad Commission to inspect the stockpiled pipe in Gillespie, Kimble, Blanco and Hays Counties right now,” John Watson, a retired engineer, wrote in the complaint. “It has been stockpiled out in the weather elements without any protective covering for more than 6 months, the limit recommended for exposure to ultraviolet sunlight and rain by both manufacturers and industry standard-setting groups.”
“I call for inspections of pipe prior to any being allowed in ground. Laying of pipe, including across rivers, is imminent,” Watson added.
One week later, inspectors with the commission showed up in Blanco to begin the inspection.
STATE INSPECTION: 8 pipes out of ‘thousands’
The Railroad Commission’s “Evaluation Report” shows two inspectors went to Blanco to “discuss the concerns” laid out in Watson’s formal complaint.
The inspectors met with a Kinder Morgan director at the site on March 25. They reviewed the company’s logs related to internal inspections of the pipe segments and a third-party inspector’s report on the conditions of the pipe when they arrived at the Blanco yard, according to the evaluation report.
The inspectors found the first batch of pipes arrived in Blanco on June 10, 2019.
They also pulled eight pipes from the hundreds stored at the Blanco site and inspected the thickness of the coating for signs of degradation.
“Each thickness reading taken on the pipeline segments was found to be within tolerance of written procedure,” according to the report.
The final document the inspectors reported reviewing was from Sherwin Williams, the maker of the corrosion coating, to Kinder Morgan regarding the length of time the pipe could be exposed to UV radiation without damaging the pipe’s coating. “The letter stated there is no special protection required to protect coated pipeline from UV degradation for outdoor storage less than one year,” the inspectors wrote in the report.
The RRC closed the investigation in three days.
‘No trust’ in the RRC’s inspection
“They came here to try to placate our complaint,” Kay Pence said as she stood outside the fence of the Blanco yard. Pence, a former banker, was one of the members of “Blanco Stop the Pipeline” who filed the complaint against Kinder Morgan.
Pence lives in Gillespie County and the pipeline will run within 500 feet of her home, she said.
She was on the other end of the phone when she said a Railroad Commission staffer told her and the group the outcome of the investigation.
“They inspected 8 pipes out of the yard. We asked them if there was a percentage they would [provide]—what was their standard operating procedure—they said no, they just test a few pipes and if they’re okay, they assume the rest are okay,” Pence said.
“I’m from the banking industry and anytime we were audited by a regulatory agency, they were doing at least a 10 percent test, usually a 15 percent test and something like this where this pipe’s going under the ground and it’s going to be there in perpetuity, I would think that we’d need to inspect more than 8 pipe out of a thousand pipe,” Pence said.
Pence’s group also took issue with the RRC inspection and what appears to be its reliance on Kinder Morgan’s own recordkeeping instead of the agency performing its own on-the-ground inspections as pipes are delivered and installed.
“I don’t know of any other agency that lets a business self-inspect and tell them that everything’s okay,” Pence said.
The RRC report found, “…at the time of inspection Kinder Morgan Texas Pipeline LLC was in compliance with applicable regulations … regarding protective coatings,” the inspectors wrote in their final report dated March 26, 2020.
Pence and her group are worried about a pipeline accident or disaster, which are not uncommon in Texas—or across the nation.
Pipeline incident reports from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration show there have been 23 corrosion-related pipeline failures in on-shore natural gas transmission lines in Texas since 2010.
During that time, 126 incidents were reported across the nation. Texas was second only to Louisiana, which reported 40 incidents since 2010. Of those 126, only one incident is documented as operated by Kinder Morgan.
The Railroad Commission would not agree to an interview for this investigation. The agency did confirm inspectors only visited the one Kinder Morgan pipe stockyard in Blanco, despite the group reporting other storage sites in Hays, Kimble and Gillespie Counties. Inspectors noted on the Watson complaint, “Complaint finalized, no further action required.” That statement was dated April 8, 2020.
KXAN visited a stockyard in Junction, a small city about three hours west of Austin, and found pipes with coating dates as old as March and April of 2019. The anti-pipeline group provided video of the Junction stockyard showing pipes stacked there as early as May of 2019.
After KXAN questioned the Railroad Commission about not visiting the other four storage sites, an agency spokesman said other sites would be inspected.
“The initial inspection started in the Blanco pipe yard, and other yards would follow,” Railroad Commission spokesman RJ DeSilva wrote to KXAN. When asked for dates of those inspections, the commission’s spokesman responded, “A timeline is not finalized.”
“Our inspections are conducted to ensure safety and construction regulations are being followed. Safeguarding the public and environment are the highest priorities of the RRC’s role in the energy industry, including pipeline projects. And it’s important to note that inspections are not limited to pipe yards. As Kinder Morgan begins stringing pipe (i.e., active construction) we will be conducting inspections as activities take place during the duration of the project.”RJ DeSilva, Railroad Commission spokesman
“They will say that everything’s fine that they looked at Kinder Morgan’s logs and everything is fine. I want to know who at the Railroad Commission wants that sitting in their backyard, less than 500 feet from their house and relying on an inspection of 8 pipe out of thousands of pipe,” Pence said.
They’re getting buried
During KXAN’s surveillance of the Blanco pipe yard, we found workers loading pipe segments onto tractor trailers on April 14. We followed those trucks out of Blanco into Gillespie County where workers are trenching the pipeline route through the outskirts of Fredericksburg.
Kinder Morgan’s pipeline compressor site is currently under construction along Jenschke Lane in Fredericksburg. We found pipe segments laid out along the pipeline trench on the western and eastern sides of the compressor site with May 2019 coating dates.
The process is known as “stringing pipe,” which is when the pipes are laid out beside the trench where they’ll be welded, and the weld site will be coated with the fusion bonded epoxy.
“I am going to be living by that pipe while it’s functioning at a 1,450 psi. It’s the equivalent of having a [Boeing] 747 running in the center of that pipe 24/7,” Gillespie County Commissioner Dennis Neffendorf told KXAN.
The pipeline will pass within 850 feet of Neffendorf’s home—and will bisect the precinct he governs. “I’m very concerned. Obviously, it’s being built by man and it’s a 42-inch pipeline,” Neffendorf said.
Neffendorf, who is not an engineer, has researched his concerns about the pipe coating UV exposure issue and contacted engineers for guidance on the storage timeframe. “It’s suggested not to be out in the open environment for 6 months and obviously that is past that,” Neffendorf said in an interview with KXAN earlier this month.
Neffendorf admits his role as county commissioner is extremely limited when it comes to oversight of the pipeline’s construction and where it’s routed.
The commissioners do have control over construction permits when Kinder Morgan needs to cross a county road or a county waterway.
Neffendorf said he’s had trouble getting information out of Kinder Morgan, describing the company’s “transparency” efforts as “slow coming.”
Kinder Morgan would not agree to be interviewed for this report and the company did not respond to specific questions posed by KXAN regarding the company’s own guidelines for its pipe segments’ exposure to ultraviolet radiation.
The company released a prepared statement through a public relations firm in response to a list of questions submitted by 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
Neffendorf said he believed pipe segments from the Blanco storage site were delivered to the pipeline trench near his home on April 14.
“Could you stand here today and tell the people of your precinct there is nothing to worry about?” KXAN asked Neffendorf. “No, I cannot do that,” the commissioner replied.
“That bothers me,” Neffendorf said.
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 Digital Special Projects Developer Robert Sims and Digital Executive Producer Kate Winkle contributed to this investigation.