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Nelson County residents grill Williams officials about pipeline

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By Randy Patrick

Last week in Louisiana, a natural gas liquids processing plant exploded, killing two workers and injuring many others.

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The incident, mentioned by New Haven landowner Sonya Mouser-Unnoppet at a public forum Tuesday, provided a stark contrast to assurances by a Williams’ company spokesman that pipelines are one of the safest ways to transport fuel.

The plant in Louisiana was operated by one of Williams’ partners.

Mouser-Unnoppet, granddaughter of a former county magistrate, was among many witnesses who spoke during the two-hour hearing before the Fiscal Court on Williams’ proposal to build its proposed Bluegrass Pipeline through Nelson County.

She gave examples of several leaks and explosions involving  the company or its partners and distributed large, color photographs to the magistrates and audience at the Civic Center.

“I have a lot of concerns,” she said.

Mary Ann Chamberlain, an eighth-generation Nelson County landowner and former educator, expressed concerns about the region’s karst geography, which makes it a less than ideal place to build a pipeline, she said.

Central Kentucky is riddled with caves, sinkholes and underground springs, and if harmful chemicals get in the groundwater, they could spread and affect future generations, she said.

Chamberlain noted that Sympson Lake, Bardstown’s water supply, is fed by karst springs.

She wasn’t satisfied with the company’s answers. After the meeting, Chamberlain said she felt “less comfortable” than she did before.

“I don’t think they’ve done any preliminary studies of the geography of this area,” she said. “If one of those pipelines is laid over a cave and that cave collapses, that’s where that pipeline is going to rupture, and I think that could very rapidly move through the water system.”

Williams wants to build a 500-mile pipeline to transport natural gas liquids from the Utica and Marcellus shale deposits in the Northeast and connect it with an existing 600-mile Boardwalk pipeline at Hardinsburg. The combined pipeline would then transport fuel to petrochemical plants along the Gulf Coast.

The proposed route of the Bluegrass Pipeline would run the length of Nelson County, from around Chaplin southward into Hardin County.

Company representatives have been talking with landowners about doing surveys and getting easements through their land.

For several weeks, county officials have been trying to get someone from the company to come and answer their questions and those of citizens.

At the forum Tuesday, Wendell Hunt, a company spokesman, and Rob Hawksworth, a manager involved in right of way acquisition, came and talked about the project and addressed concerns.

One of the questions many landowners and officials have is whether the companies would have the right of eminent domain.

“We believe we have that right under Kentucky law,” said Hawksworth, but added that the company won’t know until the courts make that determination. “It’s an open question,” he said.

He said he doesn’t think it would have that right under federal law.

However, he added, the company prefers to work with landowners to reach agreements rather than act without property owners’ consent.

“In situations where Williams has had the right to use eminent domain, we have used that right very sparingly,” he said.

Eminent domain is the legal authority to take private property for public use and compensate landowners.

On the matter of safety, Hawksworth said that less than one hundredth of 1 percent of all transportation accidents in the U.S. involves pipelines.

No residents who spoke at the meeting advocated for the pipeline, but Marion Bischoff said he’s open to it.

“I’ll cooperate, but I have to know what’s in it for the landowners,” he said.

Bischoff said he was worried that the pipeline would decrease property values.

Muncie McNamara, a local attorney, echoed concerns about the area’s limestone-enriched groundwater.

“It’s what makes our bourbon good and our horses fast,” he said.

Besides local property owners and residents, there was also representation at the meeting by citizen and environmental groups. Kentuckians for the Commonwealth had members there, and Les Courtney, of a group called the Bluegrass Pipeline Blockade, cited a litany of violations.

Tom FitzGerald, attorney for the Kentucky Resources Council, said the federal government does not carefully regulate natural gas liquids as it does the kind of natural gas normally used for home heating.

FitzGerald said he is asking the Army Corps of Engineers to conduct a comprehensive environmental review of the project. He also called on Williams and its partners to agree to the review.

The lawyer said residents shouldn’t feel threatened by eminent domain, which is far from certain. When company employees want to come onto their land to survey, owners don’t have to let them, he said.

“You have every right to say no. You also have every right to place conditions,” he said. “You should not be bullied into believing this is inevitable and that you have no recourse.”

Two of the magistrates also questioned the representatives.

Magistrate Keith Metcalfe said the company should provide something for the county government, just as it gets coal severance tax money.

Magistrate Sam Hutchins asked how deep the gas line would be, and was told it could be no less than three feet from the surface, and that crops could be grown above it.

At the end of the meeting, Hunt said he was not an engineer and therefore could not answer some of the questions people had, but the company would make an effort to answer them. He mentioned the company has a website for that purpose: bluegrasspipeline.com.

Hunt also noted that the process is in the preliminary stages.

“This is not a done deal,” he said.

Williams hopes to have the pipeline constructed by the last quarter of 2015, and it should be under construction by 2014 if it can acquire the rights of way it needs this year, Hunt said.