‘We don’t want it’
Nolen Boone crawls across jagged pieces of crumbly, brownish-green rock and broken whiskey bottles. He works his way into the mouth of a mile-long cave that tunnels underneath his 120-acre farm in Nelson County, about an hour southwest of Lexington.
The 63-year-old construction worker and cattle farmer lies on his side in the cramped cave, about the height of a healthy 3-year-old.
Boone holds up a portable plastic stick light, illuminating a network of caves that stretch like veins under much of the land in this part of Kentucky.
“That pipeline has got to come across this cave at some point in time if they come the way they got it marked,” Boone says, tucking his hair into a faded blue CAT tractor hat.
Boone is lying on karst, rock prone to the formation of caves and sinkholes. It’s estimated to cover as much as 50 to 65 percent of Kentucky, according to Chuck Taylor, a hydrogeologist with the Kentucky Geological Survey.
While geologists don’t know exactly how many miles of karst the pipeline would go through, landowners worry about it tunnelling through karst regions made up of soft rocks like limestone, dolomite and gypsum. Some Kentuckians claim that it’s the limestone-rich soil that gives bluegrass a high calcium content, which makes the bones of Thoroughbreds strong.
“This is serious business and we have a very serious focus on safety,” said Carney, the Bluegrass Pipeline spokesman. “This thing will be designed in a manner that is going to minimize potential risk with karst.”
But a pipeline of this size is complicated, said Richard Kuprewicz, president of Accufacts, a pipeline consulting firm.
“You’ve got to be nuts to put a large diameter HVL in a karst terrain,” said Kuprewicz of the highly volatile liquids pipeline. “You can have the best, strongest pipe in the world, but you put it in a bad route, it could snap the pipeline.”
Because the rock is porous, karst can affect the stability of the pipeline, said Ralph Ewers, a hydrogeologist who specializes in karst issues.
If a leak occurs in the porous rock, there’s the possibility of groundwater contamination because of the vast underground streams in Kentucky karst, he said.
Chemicals that make up natural gas liquids could vaporize and settle in caves, increasing the risk of explosion, according to Ewers.
But if the developers design the proper safeguards, the pipeline can be built and maintained safely, said Taylor, of the state geological group.
On Boone’s 120-acre farm, he points to a natural stream his cows drink from year-round. It goes right through the route mapped by a right-of-way crew for the pipeline.
Boone’s land, in his family since 1940, is a stunning roller coaster of green hills, spotted with cows and streams. It neighbors more than 2,000 acres of farmland owned by the Abbey of Gethsemani, once the home of famed Trappist monk, Thomas Merton. The current monks have said they do not want the pipeline on their property.
And the Sisters of Loretto, Catholic nuns in nearby Marion County, first brought public attention to the pipeline when they refused to allow the company to tunnel through their 800-acre farm.
You can tell Boone loves his land, but he is reluctant to talk about it because everyone “spills that story out,” he said.
He’s decided he doesn’t want the pipeline on his land or anywhere in Kentucky.
These companies are “going to make millions and millions of dollars and the landowners are going to pay the consequences if it blows up or leaks,” he said.
“It can’t be a good thing for us,” Boone said. “We don’t want it in this part of the country.”
A heated public forum
Stamping Ground is named for the great herds of bison that once roamed the land.
It’s rural Kentucky. There are no stoplights here.
In late October, a group of more than 100 attended a Scott County meeting with several pipeline officials.
“We’re here to provide answers,” said Bill Lawson, the Williams Co. director of corporate development.
The sometimes heated meeting lasted for hours and the line for the microphone was often 10 deep. At one point, an angry Scott County landowner got kicked out of the meeting for causing a ruckus.
Around 30 local construction workers in bright orange shirts were there in support of the project because of potential jobs.
“It’s a good thing for our community,” said Holly Isaacs, who works for a local union in Lexington. “We’re here to support the fact that they’ll use skilled, trained labor.”
The company projects 1,500 temporary jobs and about 30 permanent jobs will be created in Kentucky during construction. The officials also said they plan to dish out $30 million to $50 million in easement payments in the state.
As for safety, they explain, the Bluegrass Pipeline will have features including state-of-the-art 24/7, 365-day surveillance from a control center, on-ground and aerial inspections and shut-off valves every eight to 10 miles.
“These are not the pipelines of yesteryear; these are incredibly well-designed, well-thought-out pieces of infrastructure,” said pipeline spokesman Jay Vincent.
People asked about Williams’ safety record in light of three recent incidents at Williams-owned pipelines and factories:
In June, there was an explosion at the Williams Olefins’ plant, an ethane cracker in Geismar, La. Two workers were killed and more than 100 people were injured. There is an ongoing federal investigation.
In December 2012, more than 10,000 gallons of natural gas liquids leaked in Parachute, Colo. from a Williams-owned pipeline. It leaked, contaminating soil and groundwater, for more than two weeks before it was discovered.
In September 2008, part of the Williams-owned Transco pipeline in Appomattox County, Va., which stretches from New York to the Gulf of Mexico, ruptured. An explosion from a natural gas pipeline destroyed two homes and caused several injuries. Williams was fined $952,000 for failing to repair a corroded part of the 53-year-old pipeline.
Carney said out of the thousands of miles of pipeline his company operates, leaks and explosions are rare.
Tom FitzGerald, the feisty director of the Kentucky Resources Council, an environmental advocacy and legal group, asked whether Williams would use eminent domain to grab land from unwilling farmers. Eminent domain — the right to take someone’s property for a public use — has quickly become one of the hottest issues in the pipeline debate.
Lawson called it a last resort and said the company has no intention of using it. The company would have to file for the right to invoke eminent domain in court.
“The pipeline will be monitored 24 hours a day, 7 days a week 365 days a year…”
A group of Kentucky landowners, including farmer Greathouse, filed a lawsuit in Franklin County Circuit Court in December. They asked the court to clarify whether eminent domain could be used by the company if landowners refuse to sign easements.
Carney, the Williams spokesman, declined to comment on the litigation.
At issue is whether the pipeline is being used for the public good, a qualification to invoke eminent domain under state law. It is normally used for things such as highways and power lines.
The head of Kentucky’s Energy and Environment Cabinet and the Attorney General said the company doesn’t have the right to condemn a person’s land.
But just the threat of using eminent domain can have an effect on whether someone decides to sign an easement, FitzGerald said. Landowners might sign because of fears they’d be taken to court, he said.
FitzGerald is known as the watchdog for environmental issues in Kentucky.
He said pipeline operators moving natural gas liquids take advantage of federal regulatory loopholes that allow them to avoid a complete environmental impact study, which a regular natural gas pipeline would be subject to.
“There is no gatekeeper that is looking at this and saying this project is necessary and this project makes the most sense,” he said.
FitzGerald and others in Kentucky are calling on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers to conduct a complete environmental impact study to determine whether the proposed route for the pipeline is the safest.
Knocking on doors
The Houses have rescinded permission for the pipeline company to survey their land.
Since the pleasant conversation with the land agent who knocked at her door, Vivian House has gone door to door to inform neighbors of a pipeline she calls a bad deal. She worried about how a pipeline disaster could affect the nearly 600 residents in her city, a poor cousin to some of its richer nearby towns.
Vivian fears that some of her neighbors might not be able to say no to a big payday.
“I cannot in good faith tell any of my neighbors not to take an offer,” she said.
“Can I turn it down?
“Yes, I can.”
Reach Natasha Khan at 412-315-0261 or firstname.lastname@example.org.