The expansion of sand mines into easements occupied by pipelines puts both the public and the pipelines at risk – not to mention sand mine employees. In the last week, we have seen two areas where erosion triggered by sand mining undercut and exposed pipelines. Here’s an update on how the industry and regulators have responded.
Pipelines in general are the safest form of transportation known to humankind, even though they often carry highly flammable gases or liquids. However, undercutting and exposing them increases the risk of explosions, leaks and fires. It felt comforting, therefore, to see that the pipelines were aware of the problems and working to address them.
Exposed and Threatened Lines at Triple PG Mine In Porter
After posting the story about the exposed natural gas pipeline at the Triple PG mine, I received three calls from Kinder Morgan managers between 12 and 3 a.m. Saturday morning. I received another at 8 a.m. on Monday morning.
Exposed Pipeline Now Replaced by One Buried 75-Feet Deep
Hurricane Harvey first exposed the natural gas pipeline in question shortly after Triple PG started mining right next to it. Water flowed through the mine from Peach and Caney Creeks (top to bottom above) during Harvey. It created severe erosion that left the pipeline hanging in several places. See below.
After Harvey, the company immediately stopped the flow of gas through that pipeline and spliced in a new 2,000 foot section. It now runs 75-feet beneath Caney Creek and the erosion. Kinder Morgan filled the old section with inert gas and covered it up. However, Tropical Storm Imelda uncovered it again. But the pipe above has technically been abandoned. It no longer poses any danger to the public.
Kinder Morgan has not re-buried the pipeline because the Triple PG owners have not repaired the road to the pipeline.
At this mine, erosion has not yet reached the other five pipelines carrying highly volatile liquids (HVLs). But it is close.
During Harvey and Imelda, this erosion extended more than 1,700 feet (approximately 1/3rd of a mile) toward the HVL pipelines. The next large storm could take it across the corridor, exposing more pipelines.
Exposed and Undercut Pipelines in Conroe
Farther northwest in Conroe – up this same utility corridor – the HVL pipelines HAVE become exposed through headward erosion.
Mining here has moved toward the utility corridor in the foreground from the San Jacinto West Fork in the background.
Liberty Materials operates this mine. That’s the same company cited by the TCEQ for allegedly discharging 56 million gallons of a milky white substance into the West Fork from another mine last month. The other mine is about a mile south of this one. These are just two of nine facilities that Liberty operates in the area according to the TCEQ.
Railroad Commission Response
In Texas, the Railroad Commission regulates pipelines. Jennifer Delacruz of the Texas Railroad Commission (TRRC) received several complaints and is aware of this situation. She told Josh Alberson, one of the complainants, that four of the five pipelines are interstate and therefore regulated by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. TRRC forwarded the complaints to them.
Mustang operates the one intrastate pipeline. According to Alberson, Delacruz had already discussed the situation with Mustang before he and she talked. Delacruz told Alberson that Mustang and the other operators had filed a lawsuit against the mine operator for damages and repairs, but it seemed to be going nowhere. The pipeline told her that it and the other pipeline operators are currently working together to protect the pipelines. They plan to start construction of earthworks or a concrete bridge in January. TRRC intends to closely monitor this going forward.
However, the depth of the pits on either side of the corridor may make bridging the erosion difficult because of soil instability. See below.
As the northern pits get deeper and approach the utility corridor in the middle, the erosion under the pipelines will also get deeper. This seems like a losing battle for the pipelines. And there’s no guarantee that another area won’t wash out.
A pipeline manager at one of the world’s largest oil companies looked at these photos and said, “You could try to limp along with supports and erosion control, but Mother Nature will eventually ruin most anything that can be installed.” He felt that temporarily shutting the lines down and drilling under the mine would be the safest alternative, much like Kinder Morgan did at the Triple PG mine.
Given the wholesale expansion of sand mining on the West Fork, and the unwillingness of the mines to keep a safe distance from pipeline easements, pipelines need to figure out a new strategy. To date, the state has refused to impose any meaningful setback regulations on sand mining.
TACA, the Texas Aggregate and Concrete Association, killed legislation that might have done that earlier this year. They lobbied heavily against developing best practices for sand mining. The bill died in committee. As a consequence, we now have worst practices.
Posted by Bob Rehak on 12/11/2019 with help from Josh Alberson
834 Days since Hurricane Harvey
The thoughts expressed in this post represent opinions on matters of public concern and safety. They are protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution and the Anti-SLAPP Statute of the Great State of Texas.