Hill Country landowners deal with Permian Highway Pipeline drilling accident one year later

Hill Country

BLANCO COUNTY, Texas (KXAN) — “My dad saw the river and said, ‘I have to have it,'” said Randy Oakes, who inherited about 280 acres in Blanco County.

But 55 years later, Oakes doesn’t trust the Blanco River anymore.

“I’m afraid to even give the dog, you know, water out of the well,” he said.

Last March, crews working on Kinder Morgan’s Permian Highway Pipeline hit a rock formation inside the river, spilling about 36,000 gallons of drilling fluid into the area and causing some nearby well water to look like this:

Teri Albright, a Blanco County homeowner, says she turned on her faucet Sunday evening to discover muddy water. (Photo: Teri Albright, March 2020)

Kinder Morgan ultimately rerouted the pipeline to go around the Blanco River — and around Oakes’ property — but a year later, Oakes said his land and its water still aren’t the same.

“It goes away and then it comes back,” Oakes said of the cloudy water that comes out of his faucets.

This water sample was taken in July 2020. Oakes says this is how his water has looked on and off for a year now. (KXAN Photo/Tahera Rahman)

Oakes is one of about 20 families who filed a lawsuit against the pipeline company in December. They said the company violated state law by not notifying the Railroad Commission of the spill right away.

They also said well samples show cloudiness at a measurement of 12 NTUs. The state of Texas does not allow water quality to go past one NTU.

Kinder Morgan said its drilling fluid was not harmful.

Ron Fieseler, general manager of the Blanco-Pedernales Groundwater Conservation District, had tested the water a few days after the spill. While he said he found some contaminants, he deemed the water safe to drink. He told KXAN Friday, however, he did not test for NTUs at the time, which requires specialized equipment.

Oakes also said the ground where crews once worked still can’t grow hay.

“I can’t shred there now, there’s rocks and big pieces of wood; it would tear up the shredder,” he said.

He and other plaintiffs are suing for more than $1 million and are asking Kinder Morgan to restore their land and to offer another long-term way to get water. Right now, the company is providing them with bottled water.

“We worked to make things right with all affected landowners throughout the project, including those located near the Blanco River, and we are continuing to do so.”

-Katherine Hill, Kinder Morgan spokesperson

The pipeline began moving natural gas across the state, cutting through the Hill Country, in January.

But Oakes said they’re still waiting.

“They’re making their money, and you know they’re sitting up in some nice building. and then we’re here left to handle the aftermath, so. We just want it to come to an end, that’s all we want,” he said.

He wants home to return to normal.

“This place is… it’s in our hearts,” he said, his voice cracking.

Randy Oakes’ attorney said they don’t have a timeline yet on when a trial could happen, since the courts are still backlogged due to pandemic shutdowns.

Other lawsuits against Kinder Morgan

On Thursday, a judge dismissed an environmental lawsuit against Kinder Morgan. The cities of Austin and San Marcos were among the plaintiffs.

Earlier this month, a judge also dismissed a lawsuit that alleged Kinder Morgan would connect its pipeline operations across state lines, which would fall under federal regulations, not state rules.

A third lawsuit was settled in December 2020. That one claimed Kinder Morgan’s March drilling accident contaminated underground water.

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