Arkansas’s first environmental education state park interprets the importance of the natural world and our place within it.
The pipeline that Valero/Plains All American plans to lay across Arkansas to ship crude oil from Cushing, Okla., to a refinery in Memphis crosses some 500 waterways, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Some of those waterways supply drinking water to municipalities and water associations, and some Arkansans, including the people of Clarksville, are concerned that there is little they can do to protect their water supply except take the company's word for it that the pipeline is safe.
In Clarksville, the proposed route of the so-called Diamond Pipeline Project crosses three streams that supply the water intake for Clarksville Light and Water: Spadra Creek, the Big Piney and the Little Piney, which feed the intake at Piney Bay. According to an engineer at the Arkansas Department of Health, the agency's review of the "limited geographical information available for the pipeline right of way" indicates the pipeline will cross at least 11 watersheds that are used for drinking water sources.
The Diamond project, which came to light in 2014 after the state Game and Fish Commission was informed the route could pass through wildlife management areas, is an $800 million project to build 424 miles of 20-inch pipe to transport crude from the Bakken shale and other mid-continent oil regions. A brochure produced by the company said construction would start in 2015 and the pipeline would be in service by 2016.
On March 20, 2014, the same day the Arkansas Times published an article about Game and Fish concerns, ADH Engineering Section Director Jeff Stone wrote the Corps, the permitting agency for projects that cross waterways, that the route could impact the sources of drinking water for nearly 250,000 Arkansans. At that time, he asked that the Corps require the pipeline company to disclose the entire route and allow a public comment period through the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA. The Corps' response was that it would "determine the appropriate level of review and permitting."
The permit that Plains All American is seeking from the Corps, a Nationwide Permit, requires no public comment period. If a section of the pipeline does not meet the criteria for the Nationwide Permit, the Corps could require Plains All American to apply for a Standard, or individual permit, for that portion and that would trigger public notices and a public comment period, according to Environmental Protection Specialist Cynthia Blansett. For a Nationwide Permit to be granted, the project cannot "result in the loss of greater than 0.5 acre of waters for each single and complete crossing."
So far, the Corps review has not determined that any of the route would require a Standard Permit.
John Lester, general manager of Clarksville Light and Water, told the Times last week he thought there should be "more opportunity for the public to comment on a project of this scope." He and Clarksville Alderman Danna Schneider both compared the lack of notice required for the pipeline to the different regulations that required a public comment period on the Clean Line electric power lines across North Arkansas.
"The reality of it is, I've told all the people I've talked to that I understand our country needs to increase our resources, that we should not be dependent on Middle Eastern oil. I'm not against the project. My concern is as the general manager of Clarksville Light and Water and the protection of our watershed."
Lester said he's been informed by Plains All American that the company will drill under the streams and rivers it will cross. "I can't understand why they chose this route," he said. The pipeline company has said it was told by the Corps of Engineers that it should use the route, but the Corps has said that's not exactly true; it advised the company to cross on private, rather than public, land. The company has acquired all but one needed right of way in Johnson County, Lester said.
Clarksville Light and Water serves 28,000 customers in Clarksville, Scranton, Coal Hill, Hartman, Knoxville, Lamar and three water associations.
Alderman Schneider said the company has assured leaders that the pipeline is "state of the art," but she said the Exxon pipeline's devastating Pegasus break in Mayflower showed they were "ticking timebombs" and that the city had to protect not just today's residents but the people "living here in 50 years, 100 years."
ADH engineer Stone informed Col. Jeffery A. Anderson of the Corps in a letter mailed last Friday that the Diamond Project's White River crossing will place the pipeline 100 feet below the channel bottom within a regional aquifer, the Middle Claiborne Aquifer Memphis sand, which is "of great importance for both public and domestic supply in Southeast Arkansas. The nearest public safety wells tapping the Memphis sand are approximately 3.5 miles south of the river crossing. What safeguards will ensure that prompt leak detection and repair will protect the aquifer?" He also asked if there were an alternative route that would be less risky.
Stone also informed the Corps that the pipeline will cross within 800 feet of the Hughes Community Water Association Shell Lake well and through an area designated by the Health Department as a wellhead protection area. He asked the Corps of Engineers to require Plains All American to stay "at least 1,700 feet from this well."
Stone also noted that the ADH has been provided information only on the route of the Diamond pipeline through eastern Arkansas, and asked to be provided "direct notification of the entire pipeline right of way/route in Arkansas, so that we may determine the proximity to public water sources, assess potential threats to the respective surface intake, wellhead, or aquifer and notify the public water systems nearby. This is particularly critical for the western portion of the pipeline, where ADH has already determined that 11 watersheds with surface intakes are likely located in close proximity to the pipeline ROW."
Under state law, oil pipeline companies may take private property through eminent domain, something that came as a surprise to residents whose property lies in the path of the pipeline route. Arkansas also does not regulate pipeline siting. The Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality requires pipeline companies to apply for stream crossing permits. The U.S. Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) regulates pipelines only after their construction.
Clarksville Light and Water manager Lester said his "backup position" is to work with Plains All American "to make sure everything possible is being done to protect" the watershed. "That would be, 'Where are your valving features for closing installed? What is the thickness of the pipeline wall? How deep are you going to go?' My concern is if I don't get things in writing it may never happen."
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