Local group has been influential in fight against pipeline plan

Published 8:38 am Wednesday, February 14, 2018

A group of Boyle County residents have been fighting for years a plan to use a World War II-era pipeline to carry fracking byproducts through the county. Now, that group has a name: Citizens Opposed to the Pipeline Conversion.

“We feel like we’ve really made a lot of progress in these four years” since the proposal to repurpose Tennessee Gas Pipeline No. 1 first came to the forefront in Boyle County, said Sarah Vahlkamp, a member of COPC’s 16-person steering committee.

The COPC has an estimated 300 people who are signed up to receive updates, according to the steering committee.

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Those involved with the COPC have been monitoring the pipeline plan from Houston-based energy company Kinder Morgan since 2014, and taking action when possible to oppose it.

Kinder Morgan wants to repurpose 964 miles of pipeline that runs from northeastern Ohio to the gulf coast area to carry “natural gas liquids,” a collection of different substances that are byproducts of fracking in northeastern shale fields. Natural gas liquids, or NGLs, can be used to manufacture plastics, among other things.

Ask COPC steering committee members why they are opposed to the NGL pipeline and they are likely to point you to an informational sheet on NGLs that was produced by community organization Kentuckians for the Commonwealth after the Kinder Morgan plan was first announced in 2013. Many of them say the KFTC handout is what first got their attention about the issue, and they still use it today when explaining their position to new people.

From right, COPC steering committee members Ann Ferguson, Charles Ferguson, Tena Messer, Eric Mount and J.P. Brantley participate in a meeting last week. (Photo by Ben Kleppinger)

“The NGLs would be transported under high-pressure and therefore in a liquid state in a pipeline build to transport natural gas. Pressure fluctuations are much more severe in a pipe transporting liquids instead of gases,” the KFTC handout reads. “When NGLs leak, about 85 percent will turn into an odorless, colorless and highly flammable vapor once they hit the air. NGL vapor is heavier than air and will stay low to the ground, settling in valleys, creeks, rivers or other low points. These vapors can be ignited by heat, spark or flame. That means a tractor or car engine can set off an explosion.

“An NGL explosion in Floyd County, Kentucky, in 2004 incinerated five houses and sent nine people to the hospital. That was from a 4-inch diameter line. The Tennessee Gas Pipeline is 24 inches in diameter.”

The handout goes on to explain how NGL vapors can cause unconsciousness or “even death by asphyxiation” and how an NGL leak can also cause soil and water contamination. It argues the “pre-1970 pipeline” (it was first installed more than 70 years ago) was welded “with welding technology that is no longer considered acceptable and is know to fail.” And it alleges Kinder Morgan “has a rather poor safety record,” citing 92 “significant incidents” along the Tennessee Gas Pipeline from 2006 to 2014, “resulting in $88,144,152 in property damage and 19 federal enforcement actions — showing that the decades-old line is not in good shape.”

The group now named Citizens Opposed to the Pipeline Conversion formed in 2014 and set as their slogan, “protect the health and safety of Boyle County citizens.”

Steering committee members said after a handful of them learned about the pipeline plan, they began discussing the need for organized opposition at the local level. From there, it “snowballed,” Vahlkamp said.

The group went without a name back then, but not without results. Local opposition to the pipeline plan has led to numerous actions by local officials and governments in Boyle County.

COPC helped spur a public informational meeting about the pipeline that attracted Tom FitzGerald from the Kentucky Resources Council, which has opposed the pipeline plan, as well as representatives from Kinder Morgan.

In 2015, Danville-Boyle County Planning and Zoning passed a text amendment that requires anyone seeking to transport hazardous liquids through pipelines to get a conditional use permit from the local Board of Adjustments. In order to obtain such a permit, the applicant must “prove compatibility with existing structures and conditions (schools, hospitals, water supplies, etc.) so that the health and safety of Boyle County citizens is protected,” according to a fact sheet produced by the COPC.

In 2016, all governments and members of the Danville-Boyle County Economic Development Partnership adopted resolutions asking for an “environmental impact study” of Kinder Morgan’s plans — a move supported by the COPC.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which regulates natural gas pipelines in the U.S., could have required the study before giving Kinder Morgan the green light to stop using the pipeline for natural gas. In addition to the formal requests for a study from EDP members, dozens of public comments were submitted to FERC in late 2016, asking for the study. Many of those comments were submitted by Boyle County residents.

Those comments were seemingly unsuccessful — on Sept. 29, 2017, FERC ruled Kinder Morgan could stop using the pipeline for natural gas, and it did not need to complete an environmental impact study. 

But the ruling in favor of Kinder Morgan’s plan is not the last hurdle and the pipeline is not yet being used to carry NGLs. Members of the COPC said they intend to continue fighting.

At a recent steering committee meeting, members discussed how to best communicate with the other Kentucky counties that the pipeline runs through and how those counties might be able to present a united front, arguing for what’s best for Kentucky as a whole.

They discussed the importance of keeping their facts straight and not falling prey to fear-mongering or hyperbole:

“We need to be very careful that we are saying the right thing,” said Ann Ferguson, a member of the steering committee. “I am concerned about what Kinder Morgan does if we make inaccurate statements, because then their lawyers will latch right onto that.”

And committee members discussed the best ways to get the attention of powerful people representing Kentucky’s interests, such as U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell.

There is a legal effort underway to make FERC rehear the pipeline case. Three groups — the Allegheny Defense Project, Kentucky Resources Council and Kentucky Heartwood — filed a “request for rehearing and motion for stay of order” with FERC on Oct. 30. They argue FERC misinterpreted the law and took the pipeline industry’s side over residents who live near the pipeline.

FERC responded to that motion with a “tolling order,” a way of giving itself unlimited time to respond to the intervenors’ filing.

The three groups have since filed a petition for review in the U.S. Court of Appeals, arguing FERC cannot use the tolling order to avoid ruling on their request.

The COPC is keeping tabs on the court case and brainstorming how it can help at the local level.

COPC steering committee member Mark Morgan has drafted a letter, a version of which has been distributed to local EDP members, making the case that FERC should take action. FERC should not allow the possibility of the pipeline plan and the dangers it would bring to hang over the heads of residents along the pipeline path, the letter argues.

Julie Pease, another COPC steering committee member, said the idea with the letter is for various people in power in Boyle County to use the letter’s information when drafting their own communications with senators, congressmen — anyone who has some pull at the federal level or knows someone with pull at the federal level.

“If they hear from enough people that this is an issue of concern, maybe they would get themselves involved,” Pease said, noting that FERC acting Chair Neil Chatterjee used to work for Sen. McConnell. “If he gets a phone call from Sen. McConnell, he’s going to take that phone call.”

The COPC also has plans to stockpile yard signs that could be deployed should such a public display of opposition be needed in the future; plans to support a future public meeting that would brief residents on the pipeline issue; plans to have an educational booth at an Earth Day festival in April.

Ferguson noted the COPC isn’t always busy — the lengthy timelines involved in such a project mean there can sometimes be months of waiting.

“Sometimes that’s all you can do with projects like this — sometimes you just have to stand and wait,” she said.

Steering committee member Eric Mount said the COPC has been successful in gathering support from all political corners in Boyle County because “from the get-go,” it has focused on the health and safety impacts from the pipeline plan and it has not allowed the issue to become partisan.

The COPC steering committee includes people from a wide variety of professions — Vahlkamp said they like it that way because it means everyone can contribute to the effort in a different way. There are professionals with directly applicable skills, such Morgan, who is an environmental attorney; Jim Porter, a corporate economist; Ann Ferguson, a legislative analyst; and Charles Ferguson, a metallurgical engineer. There are also others like J.P. Brantley, a retired music professor; Susan Nimocks, who worked as a museum director; and Vahlkamp, a retired librarian.

But while none of the COPC members are elected officials or work on the pipeline case professionally, they have still managed to have a big effect, Morgan said via email.

“We have gotten (Kinder Morgan’s) attention because our community has been unified in its opposition to the pipeline,” Morgan said. “We have served as an example that other communities are emulating for the same reason. Madison (County) has enacted the same (Planning and Zoning) ordinance. Rowan is seeking a way to change their P&Z to enact a similar ordinance. Our unified county has been ground zero in this fight and our group has been the leader.”


For more information about the grassroots group Citizens Opposed to the Pipeline Conversion, or to sign up for updates on the Kinder Morgan pipeline proposal, contact Sarah Vahlkamp at charsarv@yahoo.com or Tena Messer at tenamesser@gmail.com.