Six months before a maintenance crew caused an 87,000-gallon crude oil spill in Bastrop County on July 13, the pipeline’s owner and operator agreed to pay $18 million in penalties and remediation efforts related to three spills that fouled waterways in three states, including a 20,000-gallon spill in Texas City.
As part of the January settlement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Magellan Pipeline Company LP agreed to spend $16 million in cleanup efforts, better public notification of spills and additional training for third parties who work around its pipelines. The company also agreed to pay a $2 million civil penalty.
Federal records also show the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which has launched an investigation into the latest spill, has levied more than $1.4 million in proposed fines against the company since 2006, largely related to inspection violations. The company operates more than 10,000 miles of petroleum pipelines across the U.S., including the Longhorn pipeline, which pumps crude oil from West Texas to Houston, crossing Central Texas and South Austin.
Authorities say the July 13 spill on the Longhorn pipeline in Bastrop, the seventh-largest crude oil pipeline spill in Texas since 2009, didn’t reach any local waterways, including nearby Cedar Creek or the Colorado River, about 1.5 miles from the spill site.
But the Bastrop spill comes as the Trump administration has frozen a series of new rules developed under the Obama administration aimed at strengthening pipeline inspections and requiring better leak detection systems. And for Austin officials the spill is a jarring reminder of the potential dangers associated with the Longhorn pipeline, a subject of passionate debate for two decades in the city, where the pipeline passes through the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone and heavily populated neighborhoods.
The pipeline agency has issued several warning letters about probable violations along the Longhorn pipeline and related facilities in Houston. A 2013 warning letter noted shortcomings in Magellan’s record-keeping of corrosion control measures. A $66,000 fine levied in 2006 alleged inadequate inspection of above-ground tanks and failure to adequately mark buried pipeline.
“Our goal is zero incidents,” said Bruce Heine, Magellan vice president of government and media affairs. “We will continue working within our company and within our industry to eliminate outside force damage to pipelines.” Heine said the company is in compliance with the EPA’s January consent decree.
Since 2006, the pipeline safety administration proposed about $65 million in penalties against pipeline operators nationwide, and one industry expert said Magellan has had fewer spills per pipeline mile than other companies of similar size.
In Bastrop, Magellan said it has recaptured all the spilled oil with vacuum trucks and says no oil seeped into local water resources. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality said its regional investigators along with representatives from the EPA inspected the area July 13 and 14 and recorded no impacts to nearby water wells.
“TCEQ is not aware of any reports of concerns related to public drinking water supplies,” the agency said last week.
Gaps in well water testing
But the spill revealed potential gaps in testing procedures and communication among regulators, and environmental groups warned toxic impacts of the spill could linger for residents.
The Lost Pines Groundwater Conservation District, which oversees groundwater in Bastrop and Lee counties, said it doesn’t have a working plan to address oil spills within its boundaries.
“We’ve never had an oil spill before that I’m aware of,” district General Manager James Totten said. “Nothing on the books right now in terms of responses for it aside from being able to provide testing and monitoring for the well owners in the area.”
Totten said the district hadn’t conducted any testing of the 10 or so privately owned wells within a mile of the spill site.
“When this occurred, we received no notice or information from the state (Railroad Commission or Texas Commission on Environmental Quality),” Totten said. “There was no direct contact between those agencies and the district.”
The Railroad Commission said it didn’t inform the district because its initial assessment revealed no groundwater contamination, Totten said.
State Rep. John Cyrier, R-Lockhart, announced last week an environmental consulting company performed a site assessment July 25-26 and obtained soil samples to determine the extent of any contamination.
The Railroad Commission said Wednesday it hadn’t yet received the results of the assessment. The commission’s oil and gas division is overseeing Magellan’s assessment and cleanup.
“Magellan representatives and environmental specialists responded quickly to minimize any impact of the crude oil release to the public and the environment,” company spokesman Heine said.
Magellan is required to contain and remove all free-standing fluids and oil-contaminated soil and vegetation from the spill site, Railroad Commission spokeswoman Ramona Nye said. Magellan is responsible for all the costs associated with the spill.
Cyrus Reed, conservation director for the Sierra Club’s Lone Star Chapter, said that, even in a best-case scenario, “it is likely that some amount of hydrocarbons were released and stayed in the local environment, be that in local soils, groundwater or ground cover.”
“The spill indicates the need for greater coordination and transparency,” he added.
Heine said the company is “evaluating several options to manage the affected soil which currently remains at the site.”
Totten said he expects to hear from the Railroad Commission on the plan for remediation and advised landowners concerned about their wells to contact the conservation district so it can test water samples.
4 million gallons of spills
While large, the Bastrop spill is just one of nearly 700 crude oil pipeline spills in Texas since 2009, most of which generate little alarm. Texas Railroad Commission data shows 673 pipeline spills over that time, resulting in the spillage of more than 4 million gallons, according to an American-Statesman analysis. Two-thirds of that spilled crude oil, 2.5 million gallons, was recovered.
The number of crude oil pipeline spills generally increased yearly from 66 in 2009 to 114 in 2014, before dropping in recent years. There were 46 spills reported to the Railroad Commission in 2016.
Not included on the list, which doesn’t cover refined petroleum products, was the February 2011 Magellan pipeline rupture north of Texas City, which spilled more than 20,000 gallons of gasoline, some of which reached the Pierre Bayou waterway. That was one of three spills — the other two occurred in Nebraska and Kansas — that led to enforcement action against Magellan by the EPA for alleged violations of the Clean Water Act.
The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration was set to introduce a series of new pipeline rules in January, including requirements to inspect pipelines after floods and other extreme weather events, as well as enhanced leak detection systems in populated areas. But those regulations, among others, have been put on hold by the Trump administration.
Brigham McCown, a former head of the pipeline safety administration and member of Trump’s transition team, told Bloomberg News in February that the agency had “gone overboard” in developing new rules.
The freeze has sparked criticism among environmental groups who say it comes just as large new pipelines, including the controversial Dakota Access pipeline, are slated to begin pumping.
Carl Weimer, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, a Washington-based nonprofit, said the federal government lacks enough inspectors to keep a close eye on the more than 200,000 miles of pipeline in the U.S. carrying hazardous liquids. Even after a boost in the number of inspectors during the Obama administration, “they are still spread pretty thin,” Weimer said.
As a result, most inspection activity is conducted by the private pipeline companies.
Weimer said that while spills caused by third parties — like a farmer or construction crew working near a pipeline — are fairly common, it’s more unusual for a company’s own contractor to cause an accident, as happened in Bastrop. “It certainly shines a light that the company, and contractors need to pay close attention to their safety management,” Weimer said.
Weimer said it’s not surprising that 87,000 gallons spilled after a contractor performing routine maintenance punctured a fitting, given the large volume of oil and high pressure in the Longhorn pipeline.
There have been just three larger pipeline spills since the start of the year across the country, Weimer said.
Angst in Austin
The Longhorn pipeline has caused angst in Austin since efforts to revive the dormant pipeline began two decades ago. The city of Austin and others, arguing that the pipeline represented a danger to highly populated neighborhoods in South Austin and to the groundwater feeding Barton Springs, sued to stop the project in 1998. The resulting settlement led to enhanced protections in the recharge zone in South Austin, including concrete trenches around the pipeline and sensor cables to detect small leaks.
Chuck Lesniak, environmental officer with the city’s Watershed Protection Department, said the Bastrop spill has sparked concern at City Hall.
“It is the kind of thing we worry about,” he said. “We pay pretty close attention to it.”
In 2010, Tulsa, Okla.-based Magellan, which had purchased the pipeline through a bankruptcy court a year earlier, decided to reverse the pipeline’s flow, which had been of gasoline from Houston to West Texas, to crude oil running in the other direction to take advantage of changing market prices. While crude oil is less explosive than gasoline and other refined petroleum products, “a spill over the recharge zone would still be potentially catastrophic,” Lesniak said.
Lesniak said he was aware of only one Longhorn pipeline spill in Austin — a 2013 spill of about 300 gallons caused by a maintenance crew working on a valve north of Slaughter Lane. That spill, which isn’t reflected in Railroad Commission data, was captured by a concrete containment area before it could reach the ground, officials said.
Magellan “has been pretty good about notifying us of anything that crops up,” Lesniak said. “We’re not aware of anything else.”