Les Brown, the assistant director of the Mobile Area Water and Sewer System (MAWSS) took the stand today in defense of his utility defying condemnation proceedings set in motion by an oil pipeline company last year. In the third day of a non-jury trial likely to conclude tomorrow, Brown said MAWSS did not intend to appear hostile toward the petroleum industry or other developments, but that it had a greater responsibility to protect the water supply from the pipeline’s perceived threat.
“I have not been made aware of any level of risk that is acceptable that I can recommend to the Board,” Brown said, contradicting a statement he apparently made under deposition suggesting some risk could be accepted, but only if it was quantitatively low. “It is my belief the only option would be to relocate the pipeline out of the watershed.”
The pipeline company, Plains Southcap, seeks to condemn the final tract of land necessary to complete the project, which will allow the transport of as much as 8,400,000 gallons of crude oil per day between a storage facility in Eight Mile to Chevron’s Pascagoula refinery. Testimony from the first day revealed Plains had considered two other routes further from Big Creek Lake, but believed the current route was most feasible.
Attorneys for MAWSS suggested in the event Big Creek Lake was impacted by a spill, the water system would face a dual threat from the oil itself and the benzene it contains. Brown said the intake pipe for the drinking water supply is within a few miles of the proposed pipeline crossing and draws water from a column extending from the surface of the lake to a depth of 24 feet.
“I’d be concerned if [oil] ever got into the system, how would we ever really get rid of it,” Brown said, speculating it would take an entire overhaul of the system and infrastructure. “It would be a nightmare.”
Subsequently, the court heard expert testimony regarding the pipeline’s safety features and probability for failure, but Plains also took issue with MAWSS’ insistence that Big Creek Lake was the “sole source” of drinking water for the greater Mobile area. Under cross-examination, Brown admitted the system was designed, although not configured, to treat and deliver water from the Mobile River in an emergency situation.
“To say that Big Creek Lake is the sole source of drinking water is not accurate,” Plains attorney Jerrod White said during a lunch break. “If MAWSS ever needed it, there is an alternate source and as a customer, I would be alarmed by the fact it hasn’t been tested.”
MAWSS currently delivers “raw water” from the Mobile River to industrial customers, who use it for purposes other than drinking. Big Creek Lake is fed by streams and springs.
Environmental consultant Heidi Tillquest testified about a risk assessment she published on behalf of Plains, examining the potential for an oil release at the site, calculating the probable size of a theoretical release and estimating its ability to affect the water intake on Big Creek Lake. According to Tillquest, half of spills reported to federal regulators are less than four barrels of oil and 95 percent are 1,000 barrels or less.
Tillquest’s report suggested the “worst case” scenario for a spill at the MAWSS property would be a discharge of 6,153 barrels, or 258,426 gallons, but the probability of it occurring was so low, such a discharge could only be expected once in every 161,000 years. On cross exam, Tillquest said her findings were based on data available from federal regulators, and not necessarily Plains itself.
“To the best of my knowledge, if there was a spill that contacted water, an oil company would implement its emergency response plan and employ containment and absorbent booms,” she said. “Based on my 19 years of experience performing environmental assessments, this project meets and exceeds the federal regulatory standards by which I judge risk.”
Plains, responding to concern from MAWSS and other in the community, redesigned the section of pipeline through the watershed to be stronger, deeper and more strictly controlled than necessary. Circuit Court Judge Robert Smith is expected to rule on the question of if the pipeline would materially interfere with MAWSS’ public use of the watershed. Court resumes tomorrow.