Bluegrass Pipeline opponents raise concerns after Bowling Green sinkhole, Adair pipeline explosion

gkocher1@herald-leader.comFebruary 17, 2014 

The sinkhole that swallowed eight cars at the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green on Wednesday and an explosion the next day of a natural gas pipeline in Adair County highlighted what opponents of the Bluegrass Pipeline have warned about for months.

The unstable karst topography of Central Kentucky, in which underground streams create sinkholes, and the Adair explosion that destroyed two homes are the kinds of events that Sister Claire McGowan has spoken about during public events opposing the pipeline.

"We mourn with those whose homes and property have been destroyed by these two events," McGowan said. "We want to remind people that these events help to underscore the reality that the opposition has been speaking about for many months now: That pipelines are extremely dangerous because they eventually leak, and that laying huge, high-pressure pipelines on top of karst that often results in sinkholes is a foolish move, indeed."

The New Pioneers is a nonprofit organization in Springfield that promotes sustainable development and renewable energy. McGowan, a member of the Dominican Sisters of Peace at St. Catharine, and others have warned that the pipeline is a bad idea for Kentucky, where a leak could pollute underground water.

Tom FitzGerald, a lawyer for the Kentucky Resources Council, said last week's events "certainly have underscored" the need for a siting board to review the routing of natural gas liquids pipelines. A bill introduced last week would require a siting board's approval for such a pipeline.

"It's always a shame that it takes a catastrophic event to remind us" about the potential for adverse effects on public safety, FitzGerald said.

The Adair line, owned by Columbia Gulf Transmission, carries natural gas. The Bluegrass Pipeline would carry natural gas liquids, which are byproducts separated from natural gas production. Both products are flammable, are transported under pressure, and are subject to explosions.

Bluegrass Pipeline officials say the natural gas liquids would turn into vapor if there was a leak. And they say that a pipeline is a safer mode of transportation than truck, rail or barge. Keith Isbell, senior communications specialist for Williams Co., one of the companies behind the project, said incidents such the Adair blast were the exception, not the rule.

"While the Bluegrass Pipeline is still in the planning stages, there are more than 12,500 miles of energy pipelines that operate in Kentucky, and the event that happened in Adair County is not reflective of the exceptional safety and operational records of those pipelines," Isbell said. "Our highest priority is the safety of the public and our employees."

Karst formations are not limited to Kentucky, and energy companies have routed lines safely through such topography elsewhere, Isbell said. "The Bluegrass Pipeline route will be selected to avoid any identified, active sinkholes or any other ... karst features or locations where it would clearly not be prudent to build a pipeline," he said.

Bluegrass Pipeline is a joint venture of Boardwalk Pipeline Partners and the Williams Co. to bring natural gas liquids from Pennsylvania to Gulf Coast processing facilities. As proposed, the pipeline would go through 13 Kentucky counties before connecting with existing facilities in Breckinridge County. From there, the liquids would head south in existing pipe.

Bluegrass Pipeline would carry ethane, propane, butane, isobutane and pentane liquids used by the agriculture, petrochemical and plastics industries as well as home heating.

In the months since representatives of Bluegrass Pipeline met with various county officials in the region last fall, there has not been a lot of action by a permitting authority, a circuit court or the state legislature.

Bluegrass Pipeline submitted an application for a permit Dec. 31 to the Louisville office of the Army Corps of Engineers, but more complete paperwork will have to be submitted, said Carol Labashosky, public affairs specialist for the Corps.

"They did not identify all the waters (rivers, lakes and streams) that would be potentially impacted," she said.

Until a full, complete application is submitted, "we won't make a decision until we have all the information," Labashosky said. "Without a complete application, we can't assess it."

Isbell, the Williams Co. spokesman, said the application noted "that we would have more information to provide at a later time. Our main goal now is securing a pipeline route."

The Corps is the lead federal agency that decides whether the pipeline will be built, in consultation with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and other federal and state agencies.

Labashosky couldn't give a specific deadline for pipeline officials to submit a completed application. "I think it would be fair to say March," she said.

County, state and federal permits also must be approved before the pipeline could be built.

Meanwhile, not much has happened in a lawsuit filed in Franklin Circuit Court that asks a judge to make a determination on whether eminent domain applies to the Bluegrass Pipeline.

In December a citizens group called Kentuckians United to Restrain Eminent Domain, or KURE, filed a suit asking a judge to decide whether the company has a right to condemn properties for construction.

Bluegrass Pipeline has said it has the right to condemn property under the state's laws of eminent domain. KURE disputes that claim.

In a response filed Jan. 6, Bluegrass Pipeline said the suit should be dismissed because it has merely discussed voluntary easements with property owners and has not invoked eminent domain proceedings in Kentucky.

FitzGerald, the attorney representing KURE, said he would file a motion soon for summary judgment. A summary judgment is sought when parties wish to obtain a ruling as to the question of law that is involved.

Once FitzGerald files a motion and memorandum, the pipeline company would file a response, and, theoretically, the judge would rule on the merits of the case. But a ruling is probably several weeks away.

Even if a judge were to rule in that case, some pipeline opponents say legislation is needed to address questions about eminent domain. Several bills regarding eminent domain are pending in the legislature, but none has seen much action since they were introduced in January.

Senate Bill 14, sponsored by Sen. Jimmy Higdon, R-Lebanon, and others would restrict the use of eminent domain for oil and gas pipelines to utilities regulated by the state Public Service Commission. The commission does not regulate natural gas liquids pipelines like Bluegrass Pipeline. That bill was sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Jan. 13.

SB 14 is the bill preferred by the Kentucky Resources Council, which monitors legislation affecting consumers and the environment.

Senate Bill 21, also sponsored by Higdon, and its companion bill in the House, HB 60, would limit eminent domain powers for oil and gas pipelines moving Kentucky-produced oil and gas and refined oil or gas products.

These bills are not as restrictive as SB 14, the Kentucky Resources Council says, because they would allow in-state oil and gas producers to use condemnation for certain types of lines. SB 21 remains in the Senate Judiciary Committee. HB 60, sponsored by state Rep. David Floyd, D-Bardstown, remains in the House Judiciary Committee.

House Bill 31, sponsored by state Rep. John Tilley, D-Hopkinsville, and others, has been rewritten so that condemnation authority requires approval of the Public Service Commission. The commission could grant condemnation authority only after soliciting public input, holding a hearing, and reviewing statutory criteria.

HB 31 was sent to the House Judiciary Committee on Jan. 7. The bill is supposed to get a hearing Wednesday.

On Thursday, Floyd also introduced House Bill 387, which requires anyone constructing a natural gas liquids transmission pipeline to apply for a construction certificate from the Kentucky State Board on Electric Generation and Transmission. The board would have to consider whether the routing mitigates various impacts to the land, air, and nearby structures.

If the pipeline effort is seeing any movement, it's on the ground. The pipeline has secured about two-thirds of the easements necessary in Kentucky, said Tom Droege, a spokesman for Williams Co. (A Jan. 6 filing in Franklin Circuit Court said 54 percent of the line's easements had been obtained.)

As of Thursday morning, 80 easements had been filed in the Anderson County clerk's office, 57 in Scott County, two in Franklin County (both involving the same couple) and one in Woodford County.

On the financial front, Boardwalk Pipeline Partners LP saw its stock price tumble by 39 percent — the biggest drop in nearly four years — on Feb. 10 after cutting quarterly payments to investors by 81 percent. The pipeline company's net income dipped from $306 million in 2012 to $253.7 million last year.

But Droege wrote in an email that the decreased earnings "have no bearing" on the Bluegrass Pipeline project. A parent company has agreed to provide financial support for the pipeline project and $300 million to fund Boardwalk's capital expenditures.

Greg Kocher: (859) 231-3305. Twitter: @HLpublicsafety.

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