Repurposed pipeline, if reopened, could pose environmental risk
By David Webb
The Monitor Correspondent
GUN BARREL CITY–A 65-year-old, 20-inch pipeline that burst in Mayflower, Ark. spilling 200,000 gallons of diluted tar sands bitumen contaminating Lake Conway three months ago apparently also runs under Cedar Creek Lake.
Harbor Point Estates resident Price Howell recently addressed the East Cedar Creek Fresh Water Supply District advising the board of directors of his concern about the possibility of the same type of disaster occurring locally, if the Pegasus Pipeline operated by ExxonMobil is allowed to resume operation. The U.S. Department of Transportation ordered the pipeline, which suffered a 22-inch rupture, shut down after the March 29 event.
“It makes me very damn nervous,” Howell said during an interview at his home. “It can happen anywhere on this pipeline.”
Howell said when he purchased his home on Port Drive in Harbor Point Estates in 2009, he had no idea the pipeline ran under his backyard. He learned of its existence when he had a storage unit set up in his backyard, and an ExxonMobil representative visited to inform him that a 50-foot wide easement for the pipeline runs across his entire backyard on which he cannot construct a fence, a storage shed or anything else.
The pipeline was not marked at the time, but about a year ago the petroleum company posted warning signs along the pipeline in the Harbor Point Estates neighborhood that follow its path to where it goes under Cedar Creek Lake, Howell said.
The pipeline was built in 1948, almost 20 years before the lake was built as a water reservoir in the mid-1960s.
The pipeline runs in three segments from Patoka, Ill., to Corsicana, from Corsicana to Beaumont and from Beaumont to Nederland. The first segment runs under Harbor Point Estates, Tom Finley Park and Cedar Creek Lake.
Howell said the ExxonMobil representative assured him in 2009 the pipeline, which was originally constructed to carry diesel oil, was safe.
“I didn’t want to think there would be any problems,” Howell said. “He assured me nothing was going to happen to this pipeline.”
Howell said he felt confident enough to build a back patio that extends 19 feet into his yard, leaving him only seven feet of backyard space for his use. Although he was unhappy about not being able to use the back 50 feet of his lot, Howell said he blamed himself for not getting a lawyer to research the property deal before paying cash for the house and lot.
His peace of mind was shattered recently when he came home to find a brochure on his door left by the environment group Safe Community Alliance. The brochure advises Harbor Point Estate residents their homes could be in jeopardy and details the March 29 spill. It noted the same segment spilled another 50 gallons in Doniphan, Mo., while being shut down when it was punctured by a utility pole guide cable.
“I read it and read it again and again,” Howell said. “I realized I’m sitting on a bomb waiting to explode. That’s the way I feel about it.”
Every house in Harbor Point Estates is within one-half mile of the pipeline, running by two dozen homes with yards containing pools, kids playground equipment and patio furniture, according to Safe Community Alliance. It also runs under Gun Barrel City Airpark, and it is only buried two-feet deep there, according to the literature. His neighbors say they are also concerned about the pipeline.
The pipeline originally was built to transport diesel oil. It was shut down and purged in 2002, so the flow could be reversed and it could be used to transport diluted tar sands bitumen in 2006, according to the organization’s literature.
Safe Community Alliance claims the pipeline with a 5/16-inch wall thickness is not strong enough to transport diluted tar sands bitumen, which is a solid asphalt-like material that is mined and processed. When spilled, the heavy product separates and sinks to the bottom of water. It has a flashpoint of less than 70 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the organization.
The brochure also notes that tar sands pipelines are more likely to leak than conventional oil pipelines, spills are not easily discovered by leak detection systems and that safety standards are lax for “re-purposed” pipelines like the Pegasus Pipeline.
Exxon Mobil wants to reopen it and resume operation, according to the organization’s literature. But not if Howell has anything to say about it.
“I’m going to build a fire under everybody I can,” Howell said. “Something needs to be done about it.”
Howell, who is passing out the organization’s literature, said he has contacted television stations and newspapers in Dallas and the Cedar Creek Lake area. Appointments for interviews are being made, he said.
Howell added he is interested in forming a local group of people who are concerned about the pipeline running through the Cedar Creek Lake area. He can be contacted at pricehowell@ embarqmail.com
Some Mayflower residents are complaining about health problems that include headaches, nausea, and breathing difficulties, and they have begun filing lawsuits against ExxonMobil. The symptoms are described as mild, but the main concern is that the neurotoxins and carcinogens will lead to more severe health problems, according to the lawsuits.
When Howell spoke at the East Cedar Creek Fresh Water Supply District meeting, the members of the board of directors June 19, seemed surprised to learn about the pipeline’s existence. Howell said most people he tells about it are unaware of it.
The water supply district’s general manager Bill Goheen said he is aware of the pipeline and the problems it experienced in Arkansas, and that the legal department of the Tarrant Regional Water District is reviewing the issue.
“It should concern everybody,” Goheen said. “As a manager I’m always concerned about a pipeline that could affect the water source.”
Goheen added that the problem is “out of the hands” of the water district itself, and that any action regarding the pipeline would be handled by agencies with higher authorities.