By Natasha Khan
STAMPING GROUND, Ky.
The land agent first came knocking on Vivian and Dean House’s door in July. They sat on the patio of the retired couple’s 85-acre farm in this central Kentucky town and chatted.
The guy was friendly, the kind of guy Dean could talk to about fishing.
He put the couple at ease and told them his company was interested in running a pipeline through their land. They were later offered more than $165,000 to sign easements.
“My husband, Dean, he told them that he didn’t want ’em messing up his alfalfa field ... and didn’t want big machinery coming in and messing up the farm,” Vivian said about their land, where they raise cattle and grow alfalfa.
They were assured that wouldn’t happen.
They let the company survey for a section of the proposed 1,100-mile Bluegrass Pipeline. It would transport natural-gas liquids from fracking in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia to petrochemical markets in Louisiana.
The proposed pipeline would pass through eight states. New construction of around 500 miles would start in two places, Mercer County, Pa., and Marshall County, W.Va., cut through a big chunk of Ohio, including Mahoning and Columbiana counties, and 13 counties in Kentucky, meeting up with an existing pipeline in Breckinridge County, Ky., that goes to Louisiana.
Men mapped out where the pipeline could cut through the Houses’ property. They tied hot pink ribbons to fences and stuck thick wooden stakes in the ground.
But Vivian started having doubts when she learned it wasn’t a regular natural-gas line, but one that would carry flammable liquid byproducts of natural gas.
She worried that their land, naturally riddled with sinkholes and streams, could be contaminated by leaks.
“We are cattle and hay farmers,” she said. “And if it kills our cattle, we’re just gone.”
A project that pits big-energy companies against farmers and environmentalists is causing quite a stir.
“They are really enthusiastic about it in other states, but not so much in Kentucky,” Scott Carney, a spokesman for the Bluegrass Pipeline, said in early November.
Some Kentucky landowners told PublicSource they don’t want the pressurized 24-inch diameter underground pipeline coming through their farms because of concerns about public safety, potential destruction of property and environmental harm. Others said they see no public benefit to Kentuckians from a pipeline transporting liquids from the Northeast to make plastics in Louisiana or to export.
The project is a joint venture between two big pipeline companies, Williams Co. and Boardwalk Pipeline Partners. By 2015, the companies want the pipeline up and running, pushing up to 400,000 barrels of natural-gas liquids per day.
Natural-gas liquids from the shale boom, such as propane, butane and ethylene, are being used to make things such as plastic bags and detergents.
Pipeline officials assure Kentuckians the Bluegrass Pipeline will be constructed and maintained safely. It will bring jobs to the region, add millions in local tax revenues and contribute to America’s energy independence, they said.
Some concerned Kentucky landowners have turned down big paydays, however.
“No Pipeline” and “Stop the Bluegrass Pipeline” signs are plastered to fences along dusty roads.
Despite the opposition, the pipeline developers seem to be making progress. They’ve signed more than 50 percent of the easements needed in Kentucky as of early December and are more than 40 percent complete along the entire route, Carney said.
‘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.
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.
“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 percent 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 tunneling through karst regions made up of soft rocks such as limestone, dolomite and gypsum.
“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, Taylor said.
A heated public forum
In late October, a group of more than 100 people attended a Scott County meeting with several pipeline officials.
The sometimes-heated meeting lasted for hours. At one point, an angry Scott County landowner got kicked out of the meeting for causing a ruckus.
Around 30 local construction workers 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 constant 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 an ethane cracker plant in Geismar, La., southeast of Baton Rouge, 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., 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.
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.
PublicSource is an independent, nonprofit news group that focuses on original investigative reporting about critical issues facing Pittsburgh and the western Pennsylvania region.