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Updated: Cleanup Continues, Questions Remain at Collin County Oil Spill Site

Photo by Mark Haslett, KETR News
Photo by Mark Haslett, KETR News

Update: Thurs. 02/02/2017, 2 p.m.: TxDOT spokesman Ryan LaFontaine said in a phone interview Thursday that the type of oil involved in Monday's spill was light crude. He said that while the oil was contained within a day, it will likely take "several weeks" to clean the site fully. 

It remains too early in the investigation to know where final blame lies for the accident; it is also too early to tell how much the cleanup and loss of product will cost.

The subcontractor that drove a bulldozer into the pipe is not yet known to TxDOT, LaFontaine said, as Austin Bridge & Road is working with several contractors at the site. 

LaFontaine said the road widening project at SH 121 and SH 160 was on schedule to be completed by December, but due to the accident, the work there will not be completed until some time in 2018. --Scott Morgan.

Cleanup continued Wednesday at the site of an oil pipeline spill in Collin County that dumped roughly 15,000 barrels of crude oil on the ground near Blue Ridge. On Monday afternoon, a subcontractor for Dallas-based Austin Bridge & Road ---- the contractor working with the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) on widening a section of State Highway 121 where Collin and Fannin counties meet---- reportedly drove a bulldozer into a segment of the Seaway Pipeline, causing the spill.

The incident became worldwide news when the Wall Street Journal reported that the spill bumped global oil prices up 2 percent. A single barrel of oil is about 42 gallons. Monday’s spill of 14,000-plus barrels translates into roughly 600,000 gallons. Oil prices Wednesday finished at about $52 per barrel, meaning Monday’s spill was worth roughly $730,000 in petroleum.

Locally, the environmental impact of the spill appears to be minimal. A spokesperson for the North Texas Municipal Water District said in a written statement to KETR Wednesday: “NTMWD has been in contact with the Collin County Fire Marshall regarding this release from a petroleum pipeline.  NTMWD was informed that the petroleum product that was released onto the ground was completely contained prior to reaching any waterways.  The Lake Lavon water supply is not at risk of being contaminated. “

Representatives from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, Railroad Commission of Texas, and Collin County Fire Department all responded to the spill.

In a written statement to KETR Wednesday, the state Railroad Commission said that a dam is being constructed at the end of the spill path to prevent runoff from entering a nearby creek in case of rain.”

The RRC also said that an oil and gas inspector is on scene and will continue to monitor the operator’s containment and cleanup efforts until the site is found in compliance with Railroad Commission rules.

“The operator has reported picking up about 4,250 barrels of oil and reports the oil flow out of the line has stopped,” the statement said.

Lt. Chris Havey of the Collin County Sheriff’s Office said in a phone interview Wednesday that cleanup has been going swiftly on the site and that, optimistically, he was told cleanup could be finished by the beginning of next week.

Despite the controversy surrounding certain oil pipeline projects around the country tis past year, Havey said there has been no protest at the Blue Ridge site. “Nothing,” he said. “Nothing at all.”

Austin Bridge & Road has done several infrastructure projects through TxDOT since at least 2014. It was hired as part of a $15 million contract to expand a 1.5-mile section of 121 in the northeasternmost end of Collin County, near the Fannin County line. The company is a prequalified contractor with TxDOT – a designation that must be renewed annually. KETR could find no reports connecting Austin Bridge & Road to any other petroleum or pipeline accidents.

The company said in a written statement to KETR Wednesday: “The leak has been contained and the pipeline owner is conducting an aggressive process to recapture the oil and remove any soil that was exposed to the oil. Austin Bridge & Road is coordinating with the pipeline owner as well as state and federal authorities to assist them with their remediation efforts.”

The pipeline, which transports crude oil between Cushing, Okla., and the Texas Gulf Coast, is jointly owned by Houston-based Enterprise Products Partners and Canada-based Enbridge. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, Enterprise Products operates more than 21,000 miles of “hazardous liquid” (i.e., petroleum product) pipelines in the U.S. In the 10 years leading up to Monday’s spill, the DOT recorded 210 incidents in the company’s hazardous liquid pipeline systems, totaling almost $50 million. Last year the company reported 27 incidents with no fatalities or injuries. Incidents in 2016 resulted in 7,744 barrels of lost liquid and a little more than $2 million in property damage.

Enbridge, which operates less than 300 miles of hazardous liquid pipeline in Texas, has reported one oil pipeline incident over the past 10 years.

The U.S. DOT’s website states that “pipelines are by far the safest method for transporting energy products.” Susan Hand, a spokeswoman for the federal DOT’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration in Washington, D.C., said in a phone interview Wednesday that the department’s authority over the pipeline stops when legal proceedings begin. In other words, who will ultimately be held responsible (and who will pay for the accident and how) are still up in the air.

Representatives from TxDOT did not return multiple calls for more information. It is unclear who the subcontractor under Austin Bridge & Road is, nor is it clear who ultimately is at fault for the spill ---- the subcontractor, the contractor, or the owners of the pipeline.

Under Railroad Commission rules, a pipeline operator is responsible for cleaning up crude oil spills. The RRC stated that it has pipeline safety jurisdiction only over intrastate pipelines, which are pipelines that begin and end in Texas.

Also unknown is the type of crude going through the pipes. Hand said that while the DOT----which has ultimate authority over U.S. pipelines----asks companies to report the type of crude they transport, those companies are not required to report it. Few, she said, therefore do.

Representatives from Enterprise Products and Enbridge did not return calls to KETR. Representatives from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality also did not return calls from KETR.

Scott Morgan has been an award-winning journalist since 2001. His work has appeared in several newspapers and magazines as well as online. He has also been an editor, freelancer, speaker, writing teacher, author, and podcaster.