Pipeline company Plains Southcap is just one property valuation away from completing a 41-mile oil pipeline through the watershed of Mobile’s primary drinking water supply. Today, Mobile County Circuit Court Judge Robert Smith ruled that MAWSS, the area’s water utility, cannot preempt federal law and force the relocation of the interstate pipeline.
The preemption argument was MAWSS’ last legal maneuver in the case, after it successfully blocked condemnation proceedings in probate court by arguing Plains was improperly incorporated. Plains later switched from a LLC to a corporation and last month Judge Smith reversed the probate court’s decision.
“The property is condemned now,” said Jon Gray, a spokesperson for Plains Southcap. “They will have an appraiser and we will have an appraiser and without an appeal, there will be a hearing in late January to determine a fair market value. This project has been on hold and there has been no construction in the watershed but as soon as those terms are reached, Plains can move on and complete the pipeline.”
Beginning Monday, both Plains and MAWSS brought forth expert witnesses to debate the validity of MAWSS’ argument that the pipeline would interfere with its material use of the watershed. Using an independent report concluding the pipeline should be relocated, MAWSS argued it presented an unacceptable threat to the safety of the water supply.
In his order, Smith also ruled the report wasn’t credible, as testimony revealed that MAWSS had an alternative source of drinking water if needed and the likelihood of a spill was misrepresented.
“It appears that the judge based his opinion on the fact that the Federal Pipeline Safety Act preempts MAWSS’ objections about the location of the pipeline,” said MAWSS attorney Don Beebe after the ruling. “The court said, because of the Federal Pipeline Safety Act, MAWSS can’t object to the location of the pipeline on the grounds of safety concerns.”
Plains lead attorney Jarrod White issued a statement saying, “We appreciate the lawyers and the parties involved for their time and the judge’s considerations. We agree with his ruling on the law and we renew our continued commitment for safe drinking water and a safe community.”
MAWSS did not immediately issue a statement or announce whether it would appeal the ruling, but in a press release, Casi Callaway, director of Mobile Baykeeper expressed disappointment.
“Our water supply is one of our most important resources and must be safeguarded,” she said. “MAWSS has spent decades acquiring this land around the lake to protect it from environmental impacts.”
In concessions made throughout the planning process, Plains has pledged to exceed federal regulatory guidelines for the design and operation of the pipeline, which reaches from a tank storage facility in Eight Mile to Chevron’s Pascagoula refinery.
Where the majority of the pipeline will be laid sub-surface, the section on MAWSS property will be horizontally drilled to a depth of 90 feet and controlled by valves just four miles apart. Federal regulations call for control valves every 25 miles.
“Plains has exceeded every federal regulation in some cases 10 and 20 fold,” Gray said. “They have taken a substantial amount of care when it comes to safety and the bottom line is they were committed to safety when they started this project, when MAWSS first contested it, and they will continue to be committed to safety when it’s complete.”