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Environmental group calls for 'thorough investigation' as residents report contaminated water near pipeline construction

The Sierra Club said the spill has validated residents’ concerns.

BLANCO, Texas — The Sierra Club has called for a “thorough investigation” after residents in Blanco County reported brown tap water on Wednesday they believe came from a leak at the Permian Highway Pipeline construction site.

On Wednesday afternoon, KVUE received reports Blanco County residents' tap water had turned brown in the area of Chimney Valley Road near Highway 165.

According to one Facebook post, the brown water appeared to be coming from Spring Branch Well, not far from where Kinder Morgan's controversial Permian Highway Pipeline was being trenched under the Blanco River.

KVUE reached out to Kinder Morgan about whether the pipeline's construction had anything to do with the brown water. The company sent the following statement:

"On Saturday, March 28, Permian Highway Pipeline (PHP) experienced an underground drilling fluid loss during construction in Blanco County, Texas. The drilling fluid is comprised of bentonite clay and water. Bentonite is a naturally occurring, non-hazardous, non-toxic clay. We strive for zero incidents and minimal environmental impact on all our construction projects. At this time, drilling operations have been suspended while the team evaluates the cause of the loss and determines the best path forward. We are working with affected landowners to address their needs. We are also consulting with our karst expert and the local water district manager to determine the best way to mitigate any current and future impacts. All of the appropriate regulatory agencies have been notified."

In a statement on Thursday, the Sierra Club said the leak has validated concerns residents and local governments have had about the pipeline’s construction and its impact on the Texas Hill Country and its local aquifers.

“The fact that this spill was not made public until residents spoke out about contamination in their drinking water makes it clear that Kinder Morgan can’t be trusted to build this pipeline safely,” the environmental group said in a release.

Teresa Albright, the woman who posted to Facebook, said she was at her Blanco County home on Sunday when she noticed the brown water.

“Normal day on Sunday, I turn on the water on Sunday afternoon to make tea, and this came out of my faucet," Albright said as she held a collected water sample in a mason jar.

Credit: Luis de Leon
A mason jar filled with brown water that Teresa Albright collected at her Blanco County home.

After seeing that the brown water was coming from multiple places in her home, she called a crew out to check her well next to the house. Wellwater is her source of water.

What came out when the crew started pumping out the water was more of the same.

Since Sunday, she said she has not used her water around the house and is using bottled water, which she said is concerning with the coronavirus pandemic.

"We were already trying to do our best washing clothes, washing hands, keeping everything clean," Albright said. "You can’t go to the gym and shower because it’s closed, you can’t go to a hotel because they’re closed."

A vice president at Kinder Morgan, Allen Fore, told KVUE over the phone Wednesday that part of the construction process for the pipeline is drilling and while that drilling was underway near the Blanco River, they became aware of a release of drilling fluid, which Fore said isn't toxic.

"Drilling fluid is made up of bentonite clay and water so it’s a non-toxic substance," Fore said.

RELATED: Permian Highway Pipeline drilling fluid contaminates Blanco County neighborhood's drinking water, resident believes

He said he also believes it's still an inconvenience on landowners, and that Kinder Morgan is willing to help out.

"If they need water for drinking or other purposes, we’ll certainly provide that; if they’d like to go to a hotel, provide that; if they need any other assistance, if they need – would like their well tested or assistance in cleaning up the well and that may involve flushing or running the water," Fore said. "We’re also working in partnership with the local water district – and they are conducting tests and working together and sharing information."

Fore also added that they stopped drilling for now on the project in Blanco.

"The key here is we have stopped operation. We are no longer drilling, the entire process is under review, an investigation in our part internally and in consultation with other experts in the area of drilling, as well as local water experts before [we] start up any operations again. We’ll be going through a thorough review to determine the cause of this and make sure something like this doesn’t happen again," Fore said.

Albright said a public relations representative with Kinder Morgan reached out to her.

"They said they want to make it right," Albright said

While the Railroad Commission and The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) have said they are investigating, the Sierra Club has called for stricter enforcement:

“The pipeline poses serious threats to the health and safety of local communities, and it’s critical that the Army Corps of Engineers and Texas regulators conduct a thorough investigation into how this could have happened and ensure that this pipeline company isn’t given free rein to pollute going forward.”

TCEQ also provided KVUE a statement:

“The TCEQ received a complaint regarding this matter today and was notified by the regulated entity late yesterday of this issue. 

“The TCEQ has been in contact with the Railroad Commission of Texas since the pipeline construction falls within their jurisdiction. 

“Because the TCEQ does not regulate private drinking water wells, we will continue to work with the RRC to determine appropriate response activities and initiate an investigation as needed.”

As well as the Railroad Commission of Texas:

"Kinder Morgan notified the Railroad Commission (RRC) that during pipeline construction activities, the Permian Highway Pipeline Project’s Blanco River West Horizontal Directional Drilling (HDD) operation experienced a loss of drilling fluid below ground in a borehole for a pipeline crossing.

“Protection of public safety and the environment is the RRC’s highest priority. An RRC inspector will oversee the potential impact of this pipeline boring activity on groundwater and/or surface water. This is an ongoing investigation, and RRC will work with Kinder Morgan to ensure compliance with all applicable regulatory guidelines for remediation.”

For now, Albright is just hoping for clean water soon.

"I hope that [it] all gets remedied but I know it’s gonna be a long haul," Albright siad.

In February, a federal judge allowed Kinder Morgan to proceed with its construction plans for the Hill Country portion of the PHP, denying a temporary restraining order filed by several property owners in an attempt to prevent the pipeline's construction on their properties.