LEBANON — A company's proposal to change the product flowing through an existing natural gas pipeline, and to reverse the flow through that interstate line, is drawing increasing concern and comment from Kentuckians.
Of particular concern to people in Lebanon and Marion County is the possibility of an explosion in the underground line or a leak and resulting contamination of the Rolling Fork River, a drinking water supply for Marion and parts of Taylor and LaRue counties, said John G. Mattingly, a former Marion County judge-executive.
"A breach of that line anywhere in that pathway could really jeopardize — who knows for how long? — the long-term water supply of this community," Mattingly told about 90 people at a public meeting Thursday night in Lebanon.
Residents have similar questions in neighboring Danville and Boyle County. There, a segment of pipeline now suspended over Dix River and Herrington Lake — which provides drinking water for Boyle, Garrard and Mercer counties — will be put underground by boring beneath the lake, said Boyle County Judge-Executive Harold McKinney. A leak could happen where 70-year-old pipe joins new pipe above the lake surface.
"One of the big concerns for me, if you get a leak, you might never know about the leak, and it would contaminate our water supply," McKinney said.
At issue is Tennessee Gas Pipeline's proposal to "repurpose" a natural gas pipeline that runs 256 miles through 18 Kentucky counties, from Greenup County in the northeastern corner through Simpson County on the Tennessee state line.
In an application filed in February with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the company seeks to abandon a 964-mile section of line that runs from Natchitoches Parish, La., to Columbiana County, Ohio.
The natural gas line would be sold to Utica Marcellus Texas Pipeline LLC or UMTP, a subsidiary of Tennessee Gas Pipeline. The subsidiary would convert the line for transportation of natural gas liquids instead of natural gas. (Tennessee Gas Pipeline and Utica Marcellus Texas Pipeline are separate entities under Kinder Morgan, a $130 billion company based in Houston that operates or owns interest in 80,000 miles of pipelines.)
Natural gas liquids include ethane, propane and butane, and they are used by the agriculture, petrochemical and plastics industries. Petrochemical-derived materials go into making many automobile parts, including tires, instrument panels, and seat cushions and padding.
If the pipeline is converted, the current south-to-north flow of product would be reversed so it would go north to south. Tennessee Gas says the repurposing "represents an efficient use of existing infrastructure" because a new pipeline wouldn't need to be built.
The proposal also includes construction of 7.6 miles of pipeline looping facilities in Carter and Lewis counties, the addition of two compressor units at an existing compressor station in Rowan County, and a new compressor station in Madison County.
But most of the public concern and comment has come from Boyle and Marion counties in Central Kentucky. Danville City Commission and Boyle County Fiscal Court have adopted resolutions expressing their opposition to the pipeline plan. So has Marion County Fiscal Court, which also has asked federal regulators to hold a hearing in Lebanon.
The line was put into service in 1944 during a wartime effort to bring badly needed natural gas from Louisiana to defense industries in Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania.
The "repurposing" proposal, which would cost $412 million to separate the abandoned line and build replacement facilities, is not without precedent. In 2013, federal regulators approved a plan submitted by Tallgrass Interstate Gas Transmission to convert a 432-mile segment of a natural gas pipeline for the transportation of crude oil.
Demand for natural gas liquids from the Northeast has increased since 2010. But Tennessee Gas says in its application that the lack of sufficient "pipeline takeaway capacity" prevents natural gas liquids from reaching the markets with high demand on the Gulf Coast.
Production of natural gas liquids has doubled in the Northeast in the past year, from 119,000 barrels a day in December 2013 to 245,000 barrels a day in December 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
Tennessee Gas contends its project will help meet growing demand. The company says that whether its project goes forward or not, there is a need for infrastructure to move natural gas liquids to market, either by building a new pipeline, which entails "significant environmental and landowner impacts," or by repurposing an existing line. The company says in its filing that repurposing an existing line "is the best option."
Tom FitzGerald, an environmental lawyer with the Kentucky Resources Council, told the people at the Lebanon meeting that natural gas liquids present a different set of risks than natural gas.
Gas that leaks from a ruptured natural gas pipeline will dissipate or explode, he said. Those are possibilities with a natural gas liquids line, too. But a leak from a natural gas liquids pipeline also poses an asphyxiation risk "because they will cling to the ground."
"Eighty percent of it will dissipate into the air, but 20 percent of it will get into the ground and into the groundwater," FitzGerald said.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission bases its approval not on public health or safety but on whether existing customers of the pipeline still will receive service. Nevertheless, FitzGerald encouraged citizens to ask FERC to do a "full environmental impact statement."
"They need to look at all the environmental consequences of repurposing and changing the pressures and changing the weight in pipe that is over 70 years old," FitzGerald said in an interview. "It wasn't designed to current standards and it wasn't even designed to the most recent standards before the current standards."
In response to questions from the Herald-Leader, Richard Wheatley, director of corporate communications and public affairs for Kinder Morgan, wrote in an email that "a pipeline that is maintained and inspected properly has no finite age limit."
He added that Tennessee Gas and Utica Marcellus Texas personnel "have analyzed, and will continue to analyze and evaluate, the internal and external surface of the proposed abandoned TGP pipeline with the latest technology. ... We will review data and records to identify any unacceptable imperfections in the pipeline ... and, where necessary, will upgrade the sections of pipe in question to bring them up to current code, prior to returning the pipeline to service."
The entire repurposed pipeline also will be tested prior to conversion "at a pressure higher than the maximum operating pressure as required by federal safety regulations in order to prove its integrity and operating strength," Wheatley said.
Nevertheless, in September, another federal agency alerted pipeline operators about the risks and impacts that flow reversals, different pressures and product conversions might have on the integrity of a pipeline.
Operators must document the reason for, and resulting changes to, their integrity management program before a flow reversal or product conversion, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, or PHMSA, said in its notice.
"Facilities built under older versions of the code may need additional assessment to determine whether they remain safe to operate under these changed conditions," the notice said.
But PHMSA is stretched thin in monitoring pipeline integrity. An employee of the agency told an audience at a Danville public meeting in January that PHMSA has only 12 engineers in the Southeast who inspect pipelines and investigate accidents, FitzGerald said.
"They may get out here to look at the project; they may not," FitzGerald told the Lebanon audience. "They don't have to approve it in advance. They are assuming the pipeline company is following all of these requirements, and we will find out whether they did if there is a problem down the road. Which is a little bit late for people whose properties were affected, for the communities that have to respond ... to a pipeline rupture, a pipeline failure."
Another issue is whether existing easements can be used for transporting natural gas liquids. That depends on how the easement was obtained and the document's specific language, FitzGerald said.
If the easement was obtained by condemnation under the Natural Gas Act, the Kentucky Resources Council thinks the pipeline could not be used for transporting natural gas liquids without additional authority of the landowner, FitzGerald said.
A landowner whose property is crossed by the Tennessee Gas Pipeline that is to be "abandoned," sold or repurposed should consult with an attorney to determine whether the easement can be transferred to another company, FitzGerald said. An attorney also can determine whether the easement is written to allow a change in product transported in the pipeline.
The Kentucky Resources Council also thinks the Utica Marcellus Texas Pipeline does not have the power to condemn property to support the repurposed line.
A Franklin Circuit Court judge ruled last year that the power of condemnation under Kentucky law was limited to utilities regulated by the state Public Service Commission. The PSC does not regulate natural gas liquids.
That ruling was appealed to the Kentucky Court of Appeals. A decision could be coming this year, and if the Court of Appeals affirms the judge's ruling, it would become "a statewide binding decision," FitzGerald said.
The ruling was appealed by Bluegrass Pipeline Co., a joint venture that would have built a natural gas liquids pipeline through 13 Kentucky counties. The project was suspended last year, according to the venture partners, because it did not receive the necessary customer commitments to move forward. Easements filed for that pipeline were released.
In the meantime, more citizens are asking questions about the Tennessee Gas project, said Marion County resident Susan Classen.
"We know that land is more than a place through which to send toxic materials," Classen said. "We know that there is something wrong with a project that risks our land in the present and in the future for the temporary, short-term financial gain of a private company. ... Our roots are strong and deep and we're not going away."