Officials: Oil released, but contained, from Longhorn pipeline

The owner and operator of a pipeline system with a capacity of up to 225,000 barrels of crude oil per day is investigating the cause of a spill in Austin this week, officials said Thursday.

Seven barrels of oil, or about 300 gallons, were released Tuesday from the Longhorn pipeline in Southwest Austin over the environmentally sensitive Edwards Aquifer recharge zone, officials said.

But none of the oil reached the ground, said Bruce Heine, a spokesman for the company that owns the pipeline, Magellan Midstream Partners, L.P.

Magellan was doing maintenance on a valve north of Slaughter Lane near Beckett Road on Tuesday afternoon when the spill happened, Heine said. However, a concrete containment area captured the oil and clean-up crews were able to safely remove it by Tuesday evening, he said.

The valve is inside an underground concrete “vault,” according to Heine, a containment system he said is in place at Magellan’s valve sites throughout the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone and contributing zone.

“The containment system at the valve site is designed to capture a product release in the event of an incident,” Heine said. “The system worked exactly as expected. It contained the release, which protected the public and the environment.”

Magellan reported the spill Tuesday to the Texas Railroad Commission and the National Response Center, which relayed the information to the Environmental Protection Agency and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, Heine said.

A spokeswoman with the Texas Railroad Commission said an inspector is investigating the incident, and that the state agency has taken no enforcement action against Magellan in the past.

Chuck Lesniak, an environmental officer for the city of Austin, said city officials were also quickly notified of the spill, prompting geologists with the Watershed Protection Department to investigate.

Though the city’s investigation is underway, Lesniak said that the spill was relatively small and appears to have been contained.

“Anytime there’s a spill like this, from the pipeline out in this environmentally sensitive area, we have concerns and we’re going to pay very close attention,” he said.

Lesniak said Magellan stays in close communication with the city and that they’ve enjoyed a good relationship, but some expressed concern that the operator failed to notify other stakeholders.

Brian Smith, aquifer science team leader for the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District, said the group only learned about the spill from media reports Thursday. “We’d like to be in the loop,” he said.

Chris Wilson, an environmental consultant who said she works on pipeline issues, said she doesn’t think residents near the valve were appropriately informed of what had happened.

Locally, Heine said Magellan only notified the city and the Austin Fire Department. Air quality readings at the site remained safe throughout the incident, he said.

The Longhorn pipeline, which dates to about 1950, was refurbished about 10 years ago — after having been dormant since 1995 — to carry gasoline, diesel and aviation fuel from Houston to El Paso. It now transports oil from West Texas to Houston, and started carrying crude oil through Travis County in April.

Ranchers, an aquifer district, a river authority and the city of Austin sued the operator and federal regulators in 1998 after plans were announced to revive the pipeline. The plaintiffs argued that a gasoline leak or explosion could be disastrous for densely populated neighborhoods and the porous limestone bedrock that feeds Barton Springs and wells serving tens of thousands of people.

The operator, then known as Longhorn Partners Pipeline LP, a partnership of ExxonMobil Pipeline Co. and other firms, eventually agreed to a settlement that required a series of environmental and safety precautions that officials described as unprecedented.

Among the precautions: new, thicker-walled pipes across the Edwards Aquifer’s recharge and contributing zones and near the Pedernales River; a red-colored concrete slab on top of the pipeline’s aquifer segment to protect against excavation; pipeline-marking signs closer together than the law would have required; extra check-and-block valves to limit product releases in a rupture; and a ban on methyl tertiary butyl ether, a gasoline additive that is difficult to remove from water supplies after spills.

The controversy prompted the American-Statesman to examine the nation’s pipeline safety programs, and a series of articles in 2001 revealed inadequate oversight by government regulators and prompted reforms.

In the nearly 10 years the pipeline has been operating, Tuesday was the first time it has released oil, Heine said.

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