Similar to Brett Shipp’s investigation on the ignorance of state regulators to design flaws in Texas’ pipeline infrastructure, another local Texas television reporter, Will Ripley (NewsChannel 5), further explored faulty natural gas pipelines in the Rio Grande Valley of the state in spring 2008.
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Will Ripley, NewsChannel 5 – Texas || on his reporting
Gas pipelines are a part of life in the Rio Grande Valley. Much like the river itself, they weave through the South Texas landscape, almost like an afterthought. Despite the fact there are thousands of miles of pipelines underneath us, they go virtually unnoticed.
Until they blow up.
After the McCook explosion sent a dramatic ball of fire hundreds of feet into the air, I started wondering about the safety of these gas gathering lines. They run underneath thousands of homes, businesses, and schools in our community. I also wondered about the potential danger if one of those lines exploded in a more populated area.
The pipelines were here first.
Before NAFTA and the explosive economic growth it brought to our border region, the valley was primarily an agricultural community. Miles of citrus, cotton, corn, and sugar cane fields dotted the landscape. Underneath it all was a large supply of natural gas. Oil companies flocked to the valley like birds migrating south for the winter. They were eager to drill. Property owners and municipalities were eager to collect the cash.
Then the people came.
Farmland turned into subdivisions. The valley’s population quickly doubled, tripled. All those new houses and buildings were built on top of pre-existing gas gathering lines. And so began our complacent coexistence. Around town, there are signs everywhere pointing out the location of gas gathering lines. They’re easy to miss if you’re not looking for them. Most folks have no idea if lines are running under their neighborhoods.
We went to the Texas Railroad Commission, the agency that regulates gas gathering lines. They have a few inspectors who work to make sure the valley’s lines are maintained. But who was in charge of inspecting the line that blew up in McCook? Turns out, nobody. It’s considered an unregulated line because it’s not in a populated area. Unregulated means nobody noticed what the gas company called a “corrosion issue” which led to the gas leak and eventually the explosion.
I was assured by the RRC and by several gas companies that there are no corroded pipelines underneath populated areas of the valley. I was assured the risk of an explosion was minimal.
Then I got a phone call.
A local attorney who saw our initial report, alerted us about a major gas leak and a plume of natural gas contamination underneath the city of McAllen. He showed us pictures of corroded natural gas lines and a map highlighting this gigantic plume of pollution. He told us the city and state has known about this for more than a decade, but the problem was ignored. He had prepared a lawsuit on behalf of hundreds of families living over this area, but shortly before trial, a settlement was offered. The families took the money.
No trial meant there would be no court order to clean up the mess. A large 33 acre plume of toxic and explosive poison was simply allowed to sit quietly underneath homes, growing larger each day. The stuff is flammable and it floats on top of the ground water. While nobody drinks the water, if a substantial rainfall were to rise the water level and the pollution ended up in a sewer line, one small spark could set off a massive underground explosion. Field notes we uncovered showed some city work crews actually complained of a natural gas smell in the sewer lines.
Nobody could ever seem to agree on what was causing this pollution. Lab tests determined it could be natural gas or aged gasoline spilled from the railroad cars that passed over the area for decades. Leaky underground fuel tanks may have also contributed to the problem. There was finger pointing going on between the RRC, which regulates the gas gathering lines, and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which regulates gas stations and pollution from trains. The back and forth continued until the case was basically closed by both agencies.
After we stepped in, the TCEQ and RRC started re-examining the issue. Since our report, there have been several follow-up meetings. We have been told not to expect to see any actual cleanup for another year or longer. We’ll stay on it until the mess is finally cleaned up. We owe it to the families who live over it.
The discovery of a corroded pipeline underneath a populated area raises an important question: Could there be more? That’s a question we’re still looking into. Our investigation is far from over.