LAS CRUCES – A December pipeline break that led to hundreds of thousands of gallons of gasoline being spilled in a rural area southwest of Berino continues to cause a stir in Doña Ana County.
Local elected officials are posing questions to the pipeline’s owner, Kinder Morgan, and three families who live close to the burst pipeline evacuated Tuesday for the second time in a matter of weeks as site remediation work continues. This time, the evacuation was voluntary.
Company officials report the cleanup process is continuing at the site off Three Saints Road, located about 1.5 miles southwest of Berino and two miles northwest of Anthony, New Mexico.
Groundwater contamination is likely, state officials say.
Tuesday, state environment department personnel and the county fire chief presented an overview to the Doña Ana County Board of County Commissioners regarding the Dec. 13 gasoline spill and what’s happened since. Tuesday was the commission’s first meeting of the year and the first session since the pipeline burst.
County Fire Chief Nick Hempel said a resident just before midnight Dec. 13 called authorities to report hearing an explosion and smelling gas. The Chamberino fire department responded. Firefighters smelled gas but couldn’t find the source, likely because of the darkness and because of a lot of brush covering the irrigation drain where the 12-inch pipeline broke.
“The ditch was fairly choked with brush, tumbleweeds, etcetera, so determining there was a leak out there was a little problematic; it was a little dark out there that time of night,” he said.
About 2 or 3 a.m., Kinder Morgan detected the leak in its pipeline. State police, who have authority in hazardous materials spills, evacuated five families from a mile around the spill site.
Nearly 300,000 gallons spilled
Roughly 7,000 barrels of gasoline — about 294,000 gallons — spilled into the ditch, known as the Anthony Drain, according to state officials. Some 5,700 barrels — 239,400 gallons — were recovered soon after from the ditch. That means gasoline soaked into the ground.
The ditch is considered to be about 10 feet below ground level, and the water table is 11 or 12 feet below ground level, said Justin D. Ball, acting program manager for the remediation oversight section of the state environment department’s groundwater quality bureau. Preliminary water testing so far hasn’t shown contamination. But Ball said that’s likely to change.
“We expect confirmation that groundwater has been impacted,” he told county commissioners.
Any confirmation of groundwater contamination means another set of state regulations will become applicable, Ball said.
The company has collected water samples from five home wells and four Elephant Butte Irrigation District wells. But more testing is expected to be done.
“The excavation phase of Kinder Morgan’s response will determine the scope of additional testing that will be conducted,” said Katherine Hill, spokesperson for the company, in an email. “Groundwater monitoring equipment will be installed as part of this process to collect data for analysis by a third party lab to measure any impacts to groundwater. The company will retest residents’ water upon request.”
The pipeline carries gasoline — without additives — from El Paso to Tucson.
A persistent odor
Kinder Morgan has applied a type of foam sealant — Rusmar AC-900 Series — to a segment of ditch where the spill occurred. According to the company, that’s a “vapor suppressant” to keep fumes from the ground from entering the air. That layer of sealant was visible during a Sun-News visit to the site Monday.
Indeed the smell of gasoline was still a concern to some residents Monday, even with the foam in place. A few homes are immediately adjacent to the ditch, and when standing close to the spill site, gasoline odor is prominent. Farther away from the ditch, the odor seems faint but winds can carry it in any direction.
Laura Gallegos, who lives in a home just yards from the ditch where the spill occurred, said she’s concerned about contamination. She’s pregnant and has three children, ages 4 to 10, and the first evacuation was an inconvenience. She noted, for instance, it was hard to do laundry away from home. But she said her family hasn’t noticed any negative health effects because of the spill. Mostly, said Gallegos, who speaks Spanish, she just wants the site cleaned up.
Another neighbor, Rosa Fierro, said her family spent about nine days away from home during the first evacuation. The odor of gasoline was reduced by the time they returned. Still, she said her husband has experienced headaches. They’re wondering if that’s tied to the gasoline spill. She also wants to know when the site will be cleaned up.
A voluntary evacuation
Tuesday, three nearby households were voluntarily evacuated for the second time in a matter of weeks, as the company moves in equipment to continue dirt work as part of the remediation.
Hill said Kinder Morgan is working “closely with residents to address any of their concerns.”
Continued Hill: “Each of the families were given the option to evacuate prior to the process of removing impacted soil close to their homes, which is expected to begin on Monday. Upon their request, the families in the three homes next to the area were evacuated yesterday and the one across the street has chosen to stay until Sunday. Each family was given their choice of local hotels, including extended-stay hotels, and are being paid a per diem to cover expenses.”
Another resident in the vicinity, Jesus De La Cruz, said he wasn’t overly concerned about the spill, but he does want to see a number of large storage containers at the site taken away.
County Commissioner Ramon Gonzalez has been visiting the site periodically and talking with residents. He said he’s upset at some of the responses by Kinder Morgan to the spill — for instance, he believes residents were returned to their homes after the first evacuation much too soon — and has posed a list of about 20 questions to the company. Gonzalez said he was glad to hear residents were being allowed to evacuate again.
“They don’t need to be here,” he said.
Corrosion a possible factor
The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration regulates the transportation of hazardous materials, including via pipelines.
Following an inspection of the burst pipeline, the agency issued a “notice of proposed safety order” on Dec. 28. While a more in-depth report is in the works, preliminary findings showed that a protective coating had separated from the pipe, which may have allowed corrosion.
The pipeline, which crosses the Anthony Drain, was exposed to air and water. A split measuring 22 to 24 inches occurred lengthwise in the pipe, according to the agency’s proposed order.
“The split appeared to be concurrent with an area of general corrosion and the failure edges exhibited areas of pipe-wall thinning,” the report states.
The proposed safety order requires Kinder Morgan to carry out an in-depth review of what led to the failure and to undertake other steps, such as examining the entire pipeline for other places in which the protective coating may have come loose.
State environment department officials deferred questions about the cause of the gas spill to federal officials.
Company to address county
Kinder Morgan didn’t attend the county commission meeting Tuesday. But county management said the company is slated to present to commissioners during their regular meeting in two weeks.
Some commissioners said they want to know about the risk of future pipeline breaks throughout the county.
On Tuesday, Hempel provided a map to commissioners showing a network of pipelines throughout the county.
Hill said Kinder Morgan carries out several precautionary steps, such as 24-7 monitoring of pipeline pressures via personnel in control centers and “regular visual and internal inspection of its pipelines.”
“Visual inspections of its right-of-ways are completed by aerial and ground patrols of the pipeline route,” she said. “Above ground markers are also displayed along the right-of-way to alert the public and contractors of the existence of the pipeline. Internal inspections are performed periodically by passing sophisticated computerized equipment called ‘smart pigs’ through the pipelines to detect anomalies or defects that could compromise the integrity of the line.”
The last internal inspection of the pipeline that broke recently occurred in 2015, according to Kinder Morgan. A U.S. Department of Transportation PHMSA audit in February 2018 “found the pipeline was in compliance,” Hill said.
Diana Alba Soular may be reached at 575-541-5443, firstname.lastname@example.org or @AlbaSoular on Twitter.
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