Did Dallas City Council Just Put the City's Water Supply at Risk For $1,600?

The Seaway Pipeline under construction in Kaufman County.
The Seaway Pipeline under construction in Kaufman County.
Amy Silverstein

Few people on the Dallas City Council seemed to be aware that the city owns over 21,000 square feet of land in Kaufman County until Wednesday, the day the land was up for sale.

"I do not even know why we own that property, frankly," councilman Philip Kingston tells Unfair Park.

As it turns out, that land has been helping the city get water. The Dallas Water Utilities owns raw water pipelines that run through area, carrying water here from Lake Tawakoni. But soon, Dallas will share that land with a pipeline that is expected to carry an especially controversial type of crude oil -- the heavy tar sands from Canada, and same stuff that's the subject of a national debate with the Keystone Pipeline.

The City Council voted 8 to 6 on Wednesday to give a company called Seaway Crude Partners an easement to build its own pipeline on a portion of the land. Not for free, of course. Dallas isn't a land slut. The council agreed to the easement for a grand total of $1,679.

The measure had never been discussed publicly in any Dallas committee meeting before, so no one understood why the price was so low. A few council members, including Kingston, seemed concerned about the potential environmental risks and the deal.

They turned their questions to Dallas Water Utilities Director Jody Puckett, who did not have very many answers.

"Jody, this is the one that we think does have the tar sands oil in it, right?" Kingston asked Puckett during the meeting.

"The information I have is, this is described as a crude pipeline," she responded.

Not quite. Environmentalists say that the crude oil coming from Canada's tar sands is rougher and heavier than typical crude, and more difficult to clean up in the event of a spill.

"It's not the same animal as South America crude," says Rita Beving, a local organizer for Public Citizen, a non-profit group that has been fighting the Seaway project. (Seaway disputes this: "The characteristics of Canadian heavy crude oil differ very little from the Venezuelan and Mexican production," the company says).

The Seaway Pipeline has actually been underground since 1976, carrying South American crude from Freeport, Texas to refineries in the Midwest. In 2011, however, the pipeline was bought out by Enbridge and Enterprise to form Seaway Crude Partners, who then changed the route and are now building a 30-inch diameter twin pipeline alongside the original one. It's not the pipeline itself that concerns environmentalists, it's tar sands that will probably go through it, as Kingston briefly mentioned in the meeting.

(National Resources Defense Council's stance is that they don't oppose pipelines, "but we do oppose tar sands pipelines.")

Enbridge is reportedly responsible for the costliest oil pipeline spill in US history, when the company spilled 800,000 gallons of Canadian crude into Michigan's Kalamazoo River three and a half years ago. Because the oil was so thick, it sunk to the bottom of the river, making clean up much more difficult. This didn't come up in the meeting.

The EPA ordered Enbridge to do more cleaning, but the company resisted. "The River is now safe and open for public use, " Enbridge responded in a letter obtained by InsideClimateNews.

Given that news, it's understandable that Kingston and others wanted more specifics about what happens if there's a spill on Dallas' land.

"In the event that there's a spill on this land, what is going to be the clean-up cost?" Kingston asked Puckett in the meeting.

"Um, I don't know," Puckett responded.

"Catastrophically higher than $1,600, right?"

"I would expect it would be more than $1,600."

City Manager A.C. Gonzalez clearly wanted the item to just pass already. He assured City Council that he would make sure to address Kingston's concerns later on -- but only on the condition that Council approves the item, first.

"If the item is passed, I've already talked with the city attorney about having us include insurance provisions and some endangerment clause that would protect the city greater than, if it's not already in place," he explained.

Gonzalez added later: "If it's not in there now, if you approve it, I'm going to make sure that it gets in there."

That did not sit well with Carolyn Davis. "Come on y'all, we are elected officials. This is not how business is supposed to go," she said. She asked why they couldn't delay the vote for a little bit. "At least we can see what's in there," she added.

Mayor Rawlings was unmoved by her speech, thanking her then just asking everyone to vote right then. He joined seven others on Council to approve the sale, much to the horror of Public Citizen's Beving.

Beving says she's met with Puckett and other city staff a few times to discuss the pipeline. She doesn't understand why the city agreed to roll over to the company for such a low price

"Did you realize that Seaway directly crosses or is upstream from Lake Lavon, Cedar Creek Reservoir, and Richland Chambers lake -- all DFW water supplies?" Beving later wrote in an email to the Council. "To risk city property, city water, and nearby residents for $1,679 should give someone pause to at least have a discussion prior to this vote."

Meanwhile, that whole insurance thing is still in the works, city spokesman Frank Librio tells Unfair Park.

The pipeline has actually already been under construction in Kaufman County since November, but the company was supposedly holding off on touching the land that Dallas owns until this vote. As for the risk-protection stuff, Seaway spokesman Rick Rainey says that the Dallas City Council has required a clause ensuring that "responsibility for a spill would be Seaway's and not the city's." We're still waiting to see a copy of the actual clause to get more specifics.

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