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San Elizario’s Last Stand: Protesting the Pipeline

It’s 7 a.m., and the sun is just peaking over the horizon. The streets and the highway are quiet on this particular Saturday morning in San Elizario.

A mist surrounds the town, dropping visibility to 2 miles.

Photo courtesy Andrew Torres
Photo courtesy Andrew Torres

On Oct. 1, a group of about 20 people made the trek through the heavy mist to gather at a portion of the Comanche Trail Pipeline construction site in the town – the site selected for this morning was at the end of Petunia Road – just steps away from the Mexican Border.

This is not the only pipeline project currently underway in San Elizario. ONEOK Partners LLC, a natural gas company based in Tulsa, Okla., is constructing a 200-mile pipeline near Coyanosa, Texas and through San Elizario Texas as well, according to the company website.

The project, known as the Roadrunner gas transmission pipeline, is expected to be completed by 2019, but construction in the San Elizario area is scheduled for completion next year.

The group chants and prays around a small alter of flowers and in the hopes that their energy and their prayers will be heard – so that their cause can be heard.

With the beat of a drum they sing, “The rivers that are flowing, flowing, and flowing. The rivers that are flowing down to the sea. Mother carry me – a child I will always be.”

Their concern revolved around any possible natural gas leaks that could potentially contaminate the Rio Grande River and the other 16 canals the Comanche Trail Pipeline will go under.

“We know we can survive without food for many many days,” said Gloria Gonzalez during her prayer. “But all of you know without water we will perish. It’s an element we use everyday.”

Another member of the prayer group, Margie Ameyaltinz Gaucin, said during her prayer that she had trouble getting to the site.

“I ended up in the area where there is construction going on and one of the gentlemen stopped me and asked if I was lost,” Gaucin said. “I

Photo by Author
Photo by Author

said, ‘Yes, I’m trying to get to our prayer site where we are praying to stop this pipeline. I then asked him, ‘Don’t you know what you are doing is going to affect you too?’ And he said, ‘Necesito el dinero (I need the money). So we need to pray for them also.”

As the morning wore on and the mist began to slowly lift, the group approached a large 42-inch diameter pipe that had been placed on the land. They continued to chant and pray over the pipeline and place large signs on it that read, “Water is Life! No Comanche Trail!”

Ruben Rodriguez Jr., takes several hoops and begins to stomp on the soft mud below his feet. One by one he takes the hoops and places them over and around his head, and extending them out to his arms as he dances the Native Butterfly Hoop Dance.

Ismael Gonzalez squats and gently smooths out the dirt below him with the palm of his hand. Completely focused, Gonzalez takes his index finger and thoughtfully traces a cross on the ground and encloses it with a circle and four smaller cross-like designs on the outer edges of the circle.

The sun rises higher in the sky and the sunrise water prayer ceremony comes to a close.

Safety Concerns

The Comanche Trail Pipeline, developed by Energy Transfer Partners, is a 195-mile pipeline that begins outside of Fort Stockton and ends at San Elizario. It’s purpose – to supply natural gas to Mexico.

San Elizario Mayor Maya Sanchez said she did not become aware of the pipeline until the project had already begun in June of 2015.

“I found out about the pipeline projects on June 12, 2015, and that was just two days before ETP had a pipeline explode just outside of Cuero, Texas,” Sanchez said. “So that didn’t give me much faith in the company and these types of projects.”

According to the Texas Railroad Commission of Texas inspection report, the Cuero explosion was a result of, “due to a material failure of the pipe,” when the pipeline experienced, “a bending overload that placed the bottom of the pipeline in tension.”

Concerned that such an explosion could potentially happen in San Elziario, and In search for more information, Sanchez reached out to Energy Transfer Partners and ONEOK only to receive little to no information from the company.

Photo courtesy Andrew Torres
Photo courtesy Andrew Torres

Sanchez requested a map from the companies, who she said could not supply her with an accurate one until they had acquired all the land they needed for their temporary and permanent easements.

 

As construction on the pipelines continue, Sanchez still feels uneasy about the pipeline project and referenced the recent collapse of one of 16 canals that collapsed during ETP’s construction of the Comanche Trail Pipeline.

“So I mean, clearly it was one of 16 – and they already messed up,” Sanchez said. She later added that individuals who have the pipeline built underneath their land won’t be able to harvest or cultivate that portion of the land anymore.

“They say they can raise crops, but mind you this is a 42-inch pipeline that is 4 feet underground,” Sanchez said. “Now tell me – how comfortable are you driving a huge tractor and tracing over a 42-inch pipeline that is 4 feet underground?”

When asked about safety concerns, Energy Transfer Partners responded to the El Paso Herald Post via email. Lisa Dillinger, spokesperson for Energy Transfer Partners said safety is their top priority.

“The safety of our employees who build and operate them, the safety of those who live in the communities through which our pipelines pass, and the safety of the environment which surrounds them. For that reason, the design, construction, and operation of the Comanche Trail Pipeline will meet or exceed where possible all state and federal safety standards. Our pipelines are monitored 24 hours a day, 365 days a year by industry- leading control centers with the capability to remotely shut in lines within minutes. Pipelines are the safest form of transportation for natural gas. One example of this is the minimum depth to which the pipeline will be buried. The Texas Railroad Commission requires a minimum depth of 3-feet, however, our pipeline will be buried a minimum of 4 feet deep.”

DIllinger also said that the company compensated landowners both permanent and temporary easements, but would not disclose the specifics of the agreements.

“The landowner still owns the land and can use it as before, aside from building permanent structures or planting deep-rooted trees,” Dillinger said.

When asked about how the company would respond to any leaks or attempt to prevent them when burying the pipeline under canals and the Rio Grande, Dilinger responded:

“We take many precautions when crossing near or under sensitive areas, including wall thickness, special coating, pipe depth, and additional emergency valve placement. When crossing under canals, the Comanche Trail Pipeline will buried a minimum of 10 feet and in some cases, 30 – 55 feet below the canal or drain. The pipes also have a thicker wall and thicker coating.”

Dillinger added that the town and its residents were well received at town hall meetings held in September of 2015.

“The open house was successful in enabling us to respond to questions and concerns from landowners, local officials and other interested parties in a one-on-one format. We were able to address a number of questions including surveys, routing and safety. We also provided fact sheets and informational displays. At this open house and as usual, we find that people respond well to our projects once well informed. As always, we respect that there are a wide variety of opinions regarding our country’s energy infrastructure.”

Sanchez tells a different story.

Courtesy ONEOK
Courtesy ONEOK

“I  was very upset that we were being told next to nothing,” she said. “At the end of the day the city passed a resolution completely opposing the project and I did get a hold of the companies and they were both willing to meet with our city staff and counsel members.”

Sanchez said once she was finally able to get in touch with the companies, they were able to convince ONEOK and Energy Transfer Partners to meet with residents in a town hall setting, which both companies had opposed.

“They really held their ground that they wanted to do an open house format, as opposed to a town hall.”

In a town hall format, presenters provide information to all and then take questions from the audience. An open house format allows the presenters to set up in a booth-like setting, allowing any interested parties to see the information and ask questions.

The Open House sessions turned into town hall meetings, in part to the seating arrangements and the residents pushing the companies to

present to all of them at once, with room for questions at the end.

Sanchez said since learning of the pipelines in June 2015, San Elizario has passed resolution opposing the pipeline and Sanchez has sought advice on whether to fight this through the courts.

“I’ve been told that it’s basically a snowball’s chance in hell, and if we do get that snowball’s chance, we will be buried under legal fees. But we have got to do something,”

Sanchez said frustrated. “So we are doing our best to ask them (lawmakers) – beg them – to at least start a dialogue somewhere. And I know how things are at the state level – you are basically shouting at the wind. But that’s all we have right now. The way policies and laws are – we don’t have anything else that can help us.”

The Wind Shouts Back

State Rep. Mary Gonzalez – D, Clint, will be hosting a town hall meeting at 6 p.m., Thursday at El Paso Community College’s Mission Del Paso Campus to discuss community projects in the area and updates on the pipeline.

Sanchez had reached out to Gonalzez who had help organize one of San Elizario town hall meetings with ETP. Gonzalez was a part of a handful of county and state representatives that Sanchez had reached out to.

In addition officials from the El Paso County Water Improvement District sought intervention from the United States in a motion to stay. According to the lawsuit, the El Paso County Water District maintained that the United States had a vested interest because the “United States has property interests in the lands subject to condemnation.”

The land referenced in the lawsuit was the United States Border Fence and the United States Border.

According to the lawsuit, ETP had failed to inform the Department of Homeland security of their project and how it would affect the Border fence:

“Upon information and belief, some agencies of the federal government conducted a limited review of the pipeline’s proposed project prior to issuance of the Permit; however, the agency or section within the Department of Homeland Security that is responsible for the maintenance of the border fence was not among them. As a result, the Government has not had an opportunity to assess the pipeline’s impact to the structural integrity of the border fence.

Accordingly, the undersigned is seeking from Comanche information regarding the land at issue for the pipeline’s placement as well as its impact, if any, to the structural integrity of the border fence. Once that review has been completed, the United States will be in a position to determine its property interests and to determine what, if any, remedy it seeks.”

Originally, Energy Transfer Companies had filed a lawsuit against the El Paso County Water Improvement District in January to obtain 14-tracts of land, in which 16 canals are located.

The 16 canals named in the lawsuit were:

* S 379 Lateral

* Salitral Lateral

* Mesa Drain

* Cuadrilla Lateral (Lee Lateral)

* Middle Drain

* 40′ Webb Lateral

* Franklin Canal

* Franklin Intercepting Drain

* I.F. 57 Lateral

* Island Feeder Canal and Intercepting Drain

* River Spur Drian

* River Drain

* San Elizario Lateral

* Riverside Canal and Riverside Intercepting Drain.

In this original lawsuit the United States Department of Homeland Security was never named. This motion to stay as filed on Oct. 13. The case has been assigned to U.S. Federal Judge Frank Montalvo.

A court date has not been set.

To read Alex Hinojosa’s previous story, click HERE.

About Alexandra Hinojosa

“Once journalism is in your system, it’s hard to get it out… and then you realize, it’s there to stay.” – Alex Hinojosa is a full time instructor at El Paso Community College and a former El Paso Times journalist. FULL BIO

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