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A Pipeline Poisons the Wells in Hill Country
Written by <a href="index.php?option=com_comprofiler&task=userProfile&user=54894"><span class="small">Jay Root, The Houston Chronicle</span></a>   
Wednesday, 01 July 2020 08:23

Root writes: "Just as the coronavirus pandemic was beginning to spread throughout Texas, a crew drilling horizontally under the Blanco River hit a void and lost 36,000 gallons of drilling fluid, primarily composed of bentonite clay, into the Trinity Aquifer."

Dr. Teri Albright compares a water sample from her well, left, and compares it to a glass full of bottled water on Monday, May 11, 2020 in Blanco, Texas. (photo: Brett Coomer/Houston Chronicle/AP)
Dr. Teri Albright compares a water sample from her well, left, and compares it to a glass full of bottled water on Monday, May 11, 2020 in Blanco, Texas. (photo: Brett Coomer/Houston Chronicle/AP)

A Pipeline Poisons the Wells in Hill Country

By Jay Root, The Houston Chronicle

01 July 20


t began without warning on the afternoon of March 29.

Physician Teri Albright was making sun tea at her Hill Country ranch, expecting that when she put the pitcher under the kitchen faucet she’d see her pristine well water bubbling out of it.

Instead, it looked like chocolate milk. She ran to the other faucets. Same thing with the shower, the toilets, the hose outside: sludge.

She and her husband, also a medical doctor, had bought their ranch along the banks of the Blanco River to enjoy the scenery and solitude. It’s where they wanted to grow old together and spoil the grandkids.

When Houston-based energy giant Kinder Morgan announced plans in 2018 to build a natural gas pipeline nearby, Albright said she felt “stomach sick.” Their plans didn’t include watching construction crews cut through limestone and rip out 100-year-old live oak trees. She worried an explosion might kill them all.

Neighbors protested, warning about disturbing the Hill Country’s “karst” features — which include vast underground caves and channels that hold and carry their groundwater.

“We have a very good plan in place to address the uniqueness of the karst features in the Hill Country,” said Kinder Morgan’s Allen Fore, vice president for public affairs, at a Kerrville Rotary Club meeting in January. “We will not be impacting the aquifer.”

But months later, that is precisely what happened.

Just as the coronavirus pandemic was beginning to spread throughout Texas, a crew drilling horizontally under the Blanco River hit a void and lost 36,000 gallons of drilling fluid, primarily composed of bentonite clay, into the Trinity Aquifer.

The spill fouled at least six wells that draw water from it, including Albright’s, records and interviews indicate. The accident also halted the drilling operation under the Blanco, triggered a state violation notice and likely fines, and set the stage for yet another federal lawsuit targeting the project.

Fore said in an interview with the Houston Chronicle that Kinder Morgan was sorry for the accident in Blanco. The company would ensure that the residents whose wells were impacted would be taken care of and compensated for their losses, he said.

“Whatever they need,” he said.

But months after Albright first discovered the sludge in her pipes — and a water sample heavily contaminated with lead — it was still coming out cloudy.

Now Albright and other Blanco County residents in the same boat are wondering if they can ever trust the water from their wells again.

Early opposition

From the moment Kinder Morgan and its business partners announced that their 430-mile Permian Highway Pipeline would cross the Texas Hill Country, landowners, environmentalists, elected officials and groundwater protection agencies along or near the route have fought tooth and nail to move it or stop it.

And they openly warned of the precise danger landowners such as Albright now face: disturbing the “karst” features below their property. Like underground Swiss cheese, they serve as conduits for groundwater that, in a huge swath of Central Texas, millions depend on for household, agricultural and industrial use.

In a single meeting convened in early 2019 in Wimberley, about a half-hour southwest of Austin, one pipeline opponent after another expressed the worry that cutting and drilling in and around the underground caverns and springs to bury miles of pipe measuring 3½ feet in diameter would harm their most precious resource.

Linda Kaye Rogers, board president of the Hays Trinity Groundwater Conservation District, said that if something goes wrong digging into a karst feature, it can be “very, very scary.”

“Any surface disturbance is going to affect our water,” added David Baker, executive director of the Wimberley Valley Watershed Association. “Even the construction of it is going to be very impactful.”

Kinder Morgan pushed back, saying it always put safety first and had a handle on the geology of Central Texas. At that Rotary Club meeting earlier this year, Fore said it had hired a top karst expert and would use “ground penetrating radar” to avoid environmentally sensitive areas and protect their water.

The company later said Fore’s vow not to impact aquifers applied to typical trenching operations that only go to a depth of 9 feet.

Kinder Morgan touts the economic benefits of the 42-inch pipeline, the largest ever to cut through the heart of the Hill Country, saying the $2.1 billion Permian Highway Pipeline will create 2,500 temporary construction jobs and generate an additional $42 million in annual tax revenue for state and local governments.

When it’s fully operational, the pipeline will carry more than 2 billion cubic feet per day of natural gas from West Texas to the outskirts of Houston, which the company notes will reduce environmentally harmful and wasteful flaring, or burning off, of natural gas at well sites in the oil-rich Permian Basin.

The pipeline, now about 65 percent complete, has been a life-changing experience for people whose wells were contaminated.

‘Oh my God’

For Albright, basic hygiene was the first big worry after a seemingly endless supply of sticky brown drilling fluid poured from her family’s water well. She and her husband specialize in geriatric care and work in assisted-living and long-term-care facilities, where the elderly face a particularly high risk of coronavirus infection and death.

Yet, just washing their hands suddenly got complicated. Taking a bath was impossible. Even getting appliances safely repaired became difficult.

She couldn’t go to a hotel. Couldn’t stay with her kids in Austin. Couldn’t wash the dishes or their clothes. All the while she was trying to conduct telehealth appointments, do patients visits and help those in her workplace navigate the intensifying pandemic.

“It takes a lot of bottled water to wash your hands for two minutes,” Albright said.

She did her best to make do with sponge baths, but after going six days without clean running water Albright was desperate for a shower; so she decided to try the bathroom in their barn. With any luck, she thought, it would be far enough away from the gunk in her well that she could steal a quick bath. Seeing clear water coming out of the sink faucet enticed her to go for it, and for a few glorious minutes she got what felt like the best shower of her life. Then she started to rinse off.

“I looked down and it’s just brown water coming out,” she said. “And I was like ‘oh my God it’s all in my hair. And I mean you can’t like rinse it some more to get it out. It was getting worse by the second.” She was literally showering in mud — and it was caked in her hair like lacquer.

It soon dried hard — like a “mud pack” on her head, Albright recalled. And even after her husband rinsed it repeatedly with bottled water while she tilted her head back on their porch, they just couldn’t get it all out. She felt like she was covered from head to toe in a greasy film. After two days she finally broke down and went to her son’s house in Austin, making sure to enter and exit the back door to minimize potential virus exposure. Finally, she got all the mud off.

That was one week after her well was contaminated. She hasn’t had a sip of it or bathed in it since. Water samples drawn from her well a few days after her water turned brown showed arsenic and metal contamination well beyond what’s considered safe, according to tests conducted by the Lower Colorado River Authority.

The lead content alone in those early samples hit 0.168 parts per million, comparable to some of the worst samples first taken in Flint, Mich., and more than 10 times the maximum allowable concentration in public drinking water supplies.

No easy fixes

Albright isn’t the only Blanco County resident reeling from the spill. Katherine McClure, who rents a house about a half mile from the now-abandoned drilling site, has been using bottled water delivered by Kinder Morgan for all her household needs — including baths — since early April.

Her well got tested after her water went cloudy and then turned brown, and she said initial results also showed high concentrations of heavy metals in water from the well.

“It costs me a great deal of time out of each day,” McClure said. “I’m sure not going to be showering in water with lead in it.” She said the water used to be “some of the most pristine, perfect, beautiful tasting, crystal clear water in the whole county.”

“And once you’ve ruined it, you can’t undo it,” she said. “I don’t really know how this can be fixed.”

Subsequent test results of samples of the affected wells, conducted by the local groundwater district and others, have shown heavy metals in allowable ranges, and Kinder Morgan said in a written statement that these metals “naturally exist” in the earth the wells are sitting in.

Max and Paula Fowler, a retired couple, found brown water suddenly shooting out of their faucets two days after Albright did.

Paula Fowler, 70, a retired speech therapist from Dallas, said their well service company and the local groundwater district told her not to drink it until the sediment cleared up but downplayed the risk of it for household use.

So she took a quick bath — and instantly regretted it.

“A day and a half later I ended up with a bladder infection,” she said. “I haven’t had one in 50 years.” A subsequent test of her water showed she had total coliform and E. coli bacteria in her well.

“If that’s attributable to us, and I can’t say whether that is or isn’t,” Fore said, “we’re going to be responsible for things that are attributable to our project.”

On the day the Chronicle visited the Fowlers, the local congressman, U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, R-Austin, showed up. He was making the rounds of affected well owners in his district — in part to find out what Kinder Morgan representatives were doing to fix what they broke.

“You and anybody else impacted by this need to be made whole and then some,” Roy told the couple. “If I put my lawyer hat on I’d be beating the living snot out of them on what being made whole is.”

The bills have been adding up: Both Albright and the Fowlers spent thousands to install a giant tank outside their homes and about $800 a month for water to be trucked in. So did another neighbor whose water suddenly turned cloudy about five weeks after the spill.

Now both Albright and the Fowlers say Kinder Morgan is offering to install a rainwater collection system — which cost about $50,000 each — to ensure they have a permanent and reliable source of water for their property.

The discussion with the congressman outside the Fowler residence highlighted a political fault line the spill has exposed: While conservatives such as Roy generally support the oil and gas industry, they also back landowners’ private property rights — including the right to use and enjoy the water under the ground.

“You know oil is king out west,” Roy said. “Water is a big deal around here.”

Unchecked power?

But lawmakers also have given pipeline companies immense power. The for-profit companies are entrusted with an authority normally associated with the government: eminent domain, or the power to condemn land for public use — in this case energy infrastructure.

When government uses eminent domain for utility lines or a transportation project, there are typically several layers of oversight and planning, mandatory public hearings and notification. Not so for pipeline projects in Texas.

While Kinder Morgan has to obey state and federal environmental regulations and permitting rules, the company decides the route. The law allows it to take the land it needs, as long as people are fairly compensated for it.

State District Judge Lora Livingston, a Travis County Democrat, said last summer that she was “concerned with a power that, when exercised by a governmental entity, must be done in the harsh light of public scrutiny of open meetings and public notices, but, when exercised by a private entity, may be determined without public notice by a select few driven primarily by their financial gain.”

But she sided with Kinder Morgan in a lawsuit waged by landowners who tried to stop the pipeline on the grounds it was an unconstitutional power grab. Livingston found the Texas Legislature and court precedent clearly gave the company that power and tossed out the lawsuit.

“These landowner relationships are important to us and, and it’s really, really important to get off on the right foot,” Fore said. “We feel good about our efforts to communicate and be available and respond.”

After trying without success to restrict pipeline powers last year, state Rep. Erin Zwiener, D-Driftwood, who represents Blanco County at the Capitol, said she will “fight like hell” in the next session of the Texas Legislature, which gets underway in January of next year, to require more oversight of pipeline routes.

“It’s absolutely wrong that a company can take this many people’s land and that these people have no elected official or accountability process or opportunity for public comment,” Zwiener said. “A private company that wields (eminent domain powers) should have the exact same oversight and accountability that the government has when they use it.”

Any reforms will come too late for constituents such as Albright, the Fowlers and others whose wells were contaminated. Albright and her husband, the Fowlers, and the Trinity Edwards Springs Protection Association are suing in federal court in Austin, saying the company violated the Safe Drinking Water Act by injecting contaminants, including a “cocktail of carcinogens,” into the aquifer that feeds their wells.

Kinder Morgan says its drilling mud, known as AMC gel, is “nontoxic,” but the safety data sheet it provided to state regulators, which cites chemical additives acrylamide and silica, says “the material is regarded as carcinogenic to humans.”

Tests of the AMC gel requested by the plaintiffs’ attorney, Jeff Mundy, also showed contamination from metals and arsenic, a known carcinogen, in concentrations similar to that found in their wells. The plaintiffs are seeking fines (payable to the government) of up to $57,000 for every day that the company fails to clean up the plume of drilling fluid suspended in their aquifer.

They’re also asking Kinder Morgan to stop using AMC gel anywhere it might get into the drinking water supply.

“This stuff is still down there in the aquifer and there’s been no attempt to clean it up,” Mundy said. “Until it’s cleaned up it’s going to keep drifting down and affecting other well owners.”

In a written statement released after the lawsuit was filed, the company said the lawsuit was “unfounded and without merit.”

“The same metals in question naturally exist in the very earth that this groundwater is flowing through, and they are naturally present there at levels that are orders of magnitude higher than the concentrations present in the drilling mud used at the Blanco River site,” the company said.

Kinder Morgan also said the same drilling mud is certified as safe to use when drilling water wells.

For Albright, nothing will restore the serenity she had before this whole mess began. She’s not the jittery type. She had three babies while she went to medical school, after all, she said. But now she feels worn down by “nonstop anxiety.”

She worries she’ll never be able to use her well again. That her rainwater system will fail in a drought. That her dream home has lost its luster.

“We were trespassed,” Albright said. “They harmed the value of our home, the safety of our property — all of that. I feel violated.”

But the pipeline is still cutting through Hill Country. People who live close to the Pedernales River near Fredericksburg fear they’ll be next. Drilling under the river was set to get underway this weekend, Kinder Morgan officials said. The company planned to use the same drilling fluid. your social media marketing partner