Pipeline construction begins in Big Bend
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Written by: John MacCormack
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ALPINE — On the outskirts of town, motorists encounter large orange signs reading “pipeline construction ahead.” By the roadside, crews using heavy equipment move enormous sections of pale green pipe on freshly cleared rights of way.
This would be an unremarkable scene elsewhere in a state with 440,000 miles of oil and gas pipelines. But in the remote and unspoiled Big Bend, many residents find the activity offensive.
The 148-mile pipeline will carry natural gas from the Permian Basin to Presidio, where it will cross the Rio Grande. If all goes well, the $767 million project will deliver 1.4 billion cubic feet of gas a day to Mexico by March.
Because the huge 42-inch pipeline crosses under the only road to Sunny Glen, Sweeney and other residents fear being trapped if an explosion ignites a brush fire during the dry season.
Brad Obbink, 56, who is rushing to expand his small mobile home park south of Alpine, says demand by pipeliners for RV slots is high.
“It’s the greatest thing in the world. They just ask if you have a slot. We don’t advertise, but I could rent out 100 tomorrow if I had them,” he said.
Construction of the line comes after 15 months of dogged protest, organized resistance, hundreds of letters sent to a federal agency and litigation. But Texas law gives energy companies the right to condemn private land for such projects, which made the pipeline almost unstoppable.
When the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission this spring declined to assert jurisdiction over the entire 148-mile line — instead of just the short border crossing portion — the battle was essentially lost.
Despite some delays, construction is now going full-bore at various points along a route that begins northwest of Fort Stockton and crosses into Mexico upriver from Presidio. About 450 people are working on the pipeline.
The natural gas line is being built for Mexico’s federal electricity commission by a binational consortium that includes Carlos Slim, the richest man in Mexico, and Kelcy Warren, the billionaire head of Energy Transfer Partners in Dallas.
“We have secured all the necessary permits for construction,” ETP spokeswoman Lisa Dillinger said. “We have been laying and lowering in pipe for several weeks now, starting at the Waha Hub, and are working south.”
‘The Last Frontier’
For many in Texas, the Big Bend, a region of vast state and national parks, majestic vistas, working cowboys and antelope grazing in wide-open spaces, is an unspoiled, special place that should be spared industrial development.
The Big Bend National Park alone has more than 300,000 visitors a year.
News that a consortium of billionaires planned to put the pipeline through the region that calls itself “The Last Frontier” provoked anger and panic when it broke in the spring of 2015. Some locals even hinted at armed resistance.
From the start, opponents raised a host of objections, from a trampling of private property rights to public safety risks from explosion and fire to damage to the landscape and archaeological sites.
Not everyone in the Big Bend was against the project, which will bring a short-term economic boost and long-term increases to the tax base.
“Just about every business owner in town is for the pipeline, including city and county government officials. They all realize what a good thing it is,” said Dave Durant, 62, who has accused pipeline opponents of being “bullies.”
To make his point, Durant keeps a large sign posted outside his high-performance car shop on a main street in Alpine. It reads: “Pro-Business, Pro-Land Rights, Pro-Pipeline.”
Others, like George Johnson, 58, owner of Johnson Feeds, see it as simply a much-needed economic stimulus.
“This is literally the first industry to ever hit Alpine. It’s bringing in new money. It’s given a lot of landowners money they never had before,” said Johnson, an Alpine native.
“I think people were kind of quick to rush to save the Big Bend, but they never asked the landowners what they thought,” he added.
While the debate may be over, the hurt and hard feelings will likely linger.
“It’s been a series of emotional explosions for people who are against it,” said Brewster County Commissioner Luc Novovitch.
“What people don’t understand is it’s not a bunch of hippie types who moved here who are against it. It’s the core of the population who have a dog in the fight, from the multimillionaire rancher to someone who put his life savings into buying a house in Sunny Glen,” he said.
“It’s already affecting the area. It’s dividing people, and in 20 years, people will still be thinking about it, and there will still be animosity,” he added.
Novovitch, 64, said damage has been done to people’s psyches and sense of justice.
“These people were so convinced that the laws will protect them, but unfortunately, the laws are often made by the people who benefit from them,” he added.
Martha Latta, president of the Alpine Chamber of Commerce, which remained neutral, says it’s impossible to predict the long-term effects.
“Who knows? Since the railroad came, I’m not sure this area has experienced this sort of intrusion, so anyone’s long-term vision would be speculative,” she said.
“I’ve lived here 15 years, and since the day we moved here, this area has been under assault by one thing or another, and the community has been steadfast in its opposition, whether it’s a bentonite plant or a nuclear waste dump or La Entrada Pacifico,” she said.
“People are trying to protect the last virgin piece of Texas. Now that the door is kind of open, we don’t know if it’s just a pipeline in the ground or, now that there’s an easement, it’s an open invitation of other things to come,” she said.
Some local officials have been criticized for not taking a stronger public position against the pipeline, even though, as it turned out, it likely would not have changed the outcome.
Among them is Brewster County Judge Eleazar Cano, who said the confrontational approach would have accomplished little.
“It’s like a train coming down the track. Either you get out of the way and try to guide it or you get run over,” he said.
Cano, 50, said his main focus was public safety. By negotiating with the pipeline operators, he said the county won important changes, including the use near Sunny Glen of heavier gauge steel pipe buried 10 feet deep instead of 4 feet deep.
“I think we did the best we could to do the most we could,” he added, noting the pipeline will generate about $1.3 million annually for the school district, county and other taxing entities in Brewster County.
But for those in the path of the pipeline, the upset and injury are hardly fading.
Among them is James Spriggs, 70, who fought hard to keep the project from crossing his modest ranch south of Marfa. He granted access to surveyors only on the stern advice of his lawyer.
He later forced the pipeline company to sue him when he refused to agree to the lease terms. Now the work has begun on his property.
“It just amazes me. You can hear them scraping rock, and although it’s close to 3 miles away, it makes you sick. You can hear them like they are pretty close,” he said recently by phone.
“We didn’t realize that, here in Texas, property owners don’t have any rights. They pay taxes but that’s the extent of it,” he said.
Last October, an open letter from Spriggs to ETP’s Warren was published in the Houston Chronicle.
“We put our family’s life savings into this ranch over 20 years ago, largely for my wife who recently died of cancer. My ranch and all it represents are more to me than money,” he wrote, while inviting Warren to visit and see for himself.
But Warren never accepted the offer, and Spriggs said his experience with the pipeline company has left him beaten down and disillusioned.
“They just kept going down on their offer. That’s part of their game. They try to push any way they can. They are masters at it and the rest of us are novices. They ought to have to settle before they start digging, but since they make the rules, they do whatever they want to,” he said bitterly.
A three-member local commission ruled on the claims by Spriggs and about about three dozen property owners who refused to take the pipeline company’s offered compensation for crossing their land.
In July, the commission awarded Spriggs $310,000 in compensation for the easement, a big improvement over the pipeline’s final offer of $7,000. But Spriggs won’t be seeing any money soon because the pipeline company has stated it intends to appeal the awards.
“At this point they are telling us it will be two years. They are putting the pipeline in and making a fortune, but they won’t settle with the property owners. They treat us like we are criminals,” he said.
Indian artifacts found
Alpine archaeologist David Keller, a member of the Big Bend Conservation Alliance, said it will be a long time before the true believers can cope with such a bitter defeat.
“I think we’re all in a state of grief and anger. Most of us at some point will have to distance ourselves emotionally from it to continue to live without being distraught,” he said. “I’ve had to do that. I’ve been on the front lines.”
But, Keller said, there remains at least one more worthy fight to try to protect the Big Bend, a remote desert water hole on a ranch in northern Brewster County.
Called Trap Spring, the site has been used by humans dating back thousands of years, including Spanish explorer Juan Dominguez de Mendoza, who was guided there by Indians in 1684, he said.
In the past year, both Keller and Billy Turner, an archaeologist hired by the pipeline company, surveyed the site, which falls on the path of the pipeline.
In their reports filed with the state, both archaeologists urged it be protected because of the large number of mortar holes, a rock midden, tools and other artifacts found there.
“Avoidance by re-route of the pipeline and testing of the site is recommended,” wrote Turner.
Keller, who visited months later and found even more artifacts spread over a much larger area, theorizes more material may be buried. He noted the pipeline, which would create a 125-foot cleared swath currently marked, will cross part of the site.
Asked about the issue, ETP spokeswoman Dillinger said the route has been “appropriately adjusted and is not within the boundaries of the site.”
Keller strongly disagrees.
“They think they resolved this when they moved the line to avoid some of the features, but the pipeline is still in the site. They are basically cutting through the middle of a prehistoric kitchen,” he added.
To save the site, he said, the pipeline would have to be moved about 100 yards to the east and a new archaeological survey done of that area. But because the site is on private land, he said there are no laws to protect it.
“I’m going to be there and document what they do to the site. If others want to join me and there is a showdown, so be it,” he said.