State of Texas: Business liability and pipeline exposure

State & Regional

AUSTIN, Texas (KXAN/NEXSTAR) — State leaders in Texas are imploring Congress to consider legal immunity for businesses that reopen amid the coronavirus pandemic.

In a tele-town hall last week, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said a top concern he has heard from Texans is “getting customers back and not getting sued.” He has inquired with federal leaders about it.

Gov. Greg Abbott announced a phased reopening of the state’s businesses that started on May 1, beginning with restaurants and retailers.

At Bierhaus in Lubbock, bar manager Kolby Dodson said the business is taking extra precautions to keep customers safe.

“You don’t want any bad, you know, press from, you know, opening up and then somebody getting sick from your business,” Dodson said. “You just want to be safe and you want the community to be safe.”

Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen said he and other state leaders have had discussions with members of Congress.

“If these businesses are following guidelines, if they’re doing the responsible things, they shouldn’t be held accountable,” Bonnen said.

“We don’t need to stop the opening of our Texas economy because personal injury trial lawyers want to go after every decently minded and business person trying to get back to work,” the Angleton Republican stated emphatically.

“They’re being asked to open their businesses at a 25% capacity,” Bonnen explained. “That’s difficult, but they’re doing it, and they’re going to do it, and when they do that they shouldn’t have to have the fear and the danger in the womb of these lawsuits because they don’t do something perfectly.”

U.S. Senator John Cornyn, R-Texas, said he was on board with finding ways to prop up— rather than pinch— business owners worried about legal trouble during this pandemic.

“We’re looking at a number of different angles to that,” Cornyn said.

“We haven’t decided exactly what that might look like. But I agree that it is a problem. And we need to address it at the federal level,” Cornyn said.

State Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, who serves as chair of the Texas House Democratic Caucus, said the legal system ought to determine what happens in these situations, not Congress.

“I think there’s not a one size fits all and I think that, you know, I think government’s focus right now needs to be increasing testing, and ensuring businesses that are up and are doing so in a safe manner, to where we’re minimizing exposure to the virus,” Turner said.

Congress represents what is likely the fastest way to implement a liability waiver. State lawmakers do not reconvene until January unless Gov. Abbott calls a special session.

Kelsee Pitman contributed to this report.

Pipeline exposed investigation uncovers safety concerns

Sometime in mid-2019, a lake of turquoise-colored pipe began taking over an empty field off Ranch Road 32 near Blanco. Within a few months, the lake became a raging ocean of hundreds of pieces of pipe.

The pipe will form the 428-mile Permian Highway Pipeline, a natural gas transmission line stretching from the Texas-New Mexico border to Katy, just west of Houston. The pipeline builder, Kinder Morgan, is one of the largest energy infrastructure companies in North America. Its natural gas pipelines move roughly 40 percent of the gas consumed in the United States, according to the company’s website.

Deda Divine, a member of the anti-pipeline group “Blanco Stop the Pipeline,” said her organization first noticed the pipe segments accumulating last June. Divine’s organization is one of many citizen groups trying to stop Kinder Morgan’s pipeline from channeling through the Hill Country.

The "Blanco Stop the Pipeline" group documented the first batch of pipe segments delivered to the Blanco yard in this June 2019 Facebook post.
The “Blanco Stop the Pipeline” group documented the first batch of pipe segments delivered to the Blanco yard in this June 2019 Facebook post.

Many of the members own land along the pipeline route.

Divine is particularly concerned about the integrity of the pipe segments and whether they could be compromised by months of exposure to the harsh Texas elements and sun.

“When it’s your community and these old pipes are sitting here, it doesn’t do anything to make us feel safe about this,” said Divine, who lives in Blanco and spoke with KXAN outside the stockyard in March.

The group posted photographs of the Blanco stockyard to its Facebook page in June of 2019 and told KXAN the post was the earliest documentation they had showing when the pipe segments were placed in the Blanco stockyard. They didn’t know it then, but the date on that Facebook post would become an important piece of a KXAN investigation.

“They’re coated for corrosion underground. These pipes have been sitting out here since June,” Divine said.

The pipe segments are coated with a fusion bonded epoxy corrosion protection product, which will degrade under prolonged exposure to sunlight, according to the manufacturer’s own documentation, which recommends these coatings not be stored above ground for longer than a year. 

Multiple court battles stalled the pipeline’s construction through the Texas Hill Country over the past year.

“It was through the hottest part of the summer, all of July, August, September, and still isn’t in the ground and still won’t be in the ground for a little while,” Divine said.  

Deda Divine describes the width of the pipe segments, which will be welded together to form the 428 mile-long Permian Highway Pipeline. The line will carry natural gas from the Permian Basin in west Texas to just outside of Houston. (KXAN Photo/Jody Barr)
Deda Divine describes the width of the pipe segments, which will be welded together to form the 428 mile-long Permian Highway Pipeline. The line will carry natural gas from the Permian Basin in West Texas to just outside of Houston. (KXAN Photo/Jody Barr)

Our investigators photographed pipes in the Blanco yard with coating dates from May, June, and July of 2019. The coating date doesn’t indicate the date the pipes were delivered to the yard but does show the date the coating was applied to the pipe by the manufacturer.

The Blanco stockyard is not the only one Kinder Morgan uses to store pipe segments. Our investigation found five holding sites between Fort Stockton, in West Texas, and Victoria—including locations in Blanco and San Marcos.

When the pipe segments are coated by the pipe manufacturer, the buyer’s name and other manufacturing information is stamped on the inside and outside of the pipe. The outside coating also shows the date each pipe segment was coated. (KXAN Photo/Jody Barr)

KXAN visited a stockyard in Junction, a small town off Interstate 10 about 140 miles west of Austin. Photographs taken during our surveillance of that stockyard show pipes with coating dates as old as March 2019.

The pipes with older coating dates appear more faded compared to pipes with more recent coating date stamps.

“I’ve seen enough problems with failures of pipeline systems to know that these situations do happen. And, so, when you see pictures of that chalking effect where the epoxy is literally weathering off and chemically degrading—that’s the evidence that you see before your eyes that this protective coating is being worn off—that’s definitely a serious concern,” Dr. Nathan Phillips told KXAN.

These pipe segments photographed in the Blanco yard on March 5, 2020 show discoloration of the fusion bonded epoxy anti-corrosion coating. (KXAN Photo/Jody Barr)
These pipe segments photographed in the Blanco yard on March 5, 2020 show discoloration of the fusion bonded epoxy anti-corrosion coating. (KXAN Photo/Jody Barr)

Phillips is an environmental science professor at Boston University. Along with researching the environmental impacts of pipelines, Phillips also researches pipeline accidents and causes. We sent Phillips photographs of the pipe yards from our investigation.

“Why they didn’t cover up those pipes in the stockyard to begin with? Is that an onerous type of thing to do just to air on the side of safety?” Phillips said. “I think the significance of this finding is national. We have new pipelines going in across this country and I think this story is really important, both locally and nationally.”

Phillips’s opinion is bolstered by a bulletin published by the National Association of Pipe Coating Applicators. The association is made up of pipe coating manufacturers and works to standardize coating guidelines, according to the group’s website.

NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF PIPE COATING APPLICATORS BULLETIN 12-78-04 – Download

“The intended use of these coatings is to provide corrosion protection for buried pipelines. Above ground storage of coated pipe in excess of 6 months without additional Ultraviolet protection is not recommended,” the NAPCA bulletin states.

By that standard, none of the pipe segments we photographed in either the Blanco or Junction yards followed NAPCA’s guidance.

The stampings also include the name of the particular coating: “Pipeclad 2000.” The coating is made by Valspar, which is a “wholly-owned subsidiary” of The Sherwin-Williams Company.

KXAN obtained a June 2015 letter from Valspar’s Global Technical Director, Dr. Jeffrey Rogozinski, showing the length of time the company believed its coating could be exposed to UV radiation without “any special protection from UV degradation of outdoor storage” would be less than a year.

This letter is posted online in a case file held by the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission. It’s a letter from Valspar to an energy company answering questions about the company’s Pipeclad 2000 pipe coating’s degradation under prolonged outdoor exposure.

“Valspar’s estimate of deterioration, if any, would be extremely low and would not affect performance properties of the coating,” Rogozinski wrote.

The 2015 Valspar letter was part of a public utilities case in South Dakota where an energy company submitted the similar questions we had to Valspar regarding UV exposure timelines and degradation issues.

The stampings on the pipe segments show Pipeclad 2000 as the type of fusion bonded epoxy used to coat the Kinder Morgan pipe segments stored in the five stock yards across Texas. (KXAN Photo/Jody Barr)
The stampings on the pipe segments show Pipeclad 2000 as the type of fusion bonded epoxy used to coat the Kinder Morgan pipe segments stored in the five stockyards across Texas. (KXAN Photo/Jody Barr)

Sherwin-Williams—who now owns Valspar—did not provide any information concerning the company’s recommendations on UV exposure timelines after multiple emails were exchanged between the company and KXAN.

Kinder Morgan would not agree to be interviewed and did not answer specific questions regarding the company’s policies on UV exposure timelines. The company also did not answer specific questions about how long pipe segments have been stored at the five Texas holding yards without added UV protection—or if there is any UV protection at all.

The company, through a public relations firm, issued this prepared statement to KXAN:

“We are actively engaged in the construction of [the Permian Highway Pipeline] and expect for it to be placed in service in the first quarter of 2021. PHP is being constructed according to industry best practices and Kinder Morgan’s construction specifications, which meet or exceed state and federal requirements. We engage in multiple levels of inspection of the pipeline during and after the manufacturing process. We also have a thorough installation process, which is focused on testing and ensuring the integrity of the pipeline coating prior to the pipeline being installed.”

ALLEN FORE, VICE PRESIDENT OF PUBLIC AFFAIRS FOR KINDER MORGAN

There are no rules at the federal level limiting pipe coating exposure to UV radiation, according to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration—the federal agency that regulates and enforces pipeline safety standards across the nation.

The agency is responsible for inspecting pipeline coatings and the condition of the coatings of pipelines as they’re under construction. But, the agency doesn’t inspect every pipe segment of the nation’s 2.8 million miles of pipeline.

“It’s not quite how inspections work,” PHMSA spokesman Darius Kirkwood told KXAN. “It wouldn’t be fair to simplify it like that and say every inch is inspected.”

“That means these pipes have been sitting here through the hottest part of the year in the Texas Hill Country,” Divine said. “I’m worried about it. Everyone in my community is worried about it.”

Pipeline Exposed: UV degradation inspections for pipeline stockyards

It took members of the largest anti-pipeline group in Blanco about nine months to get their facts together and file a complaint with the Texas Railroad Commission. The group known as “Blanco Stop the Pipeline” is worried the corrosion coatings of pipe segments stored in open fields could be degraded and unsafe.

These pipe are locked inside a Kinder Morgan stock yard in Blanco County, TX awaiting installation along the Permian Highway Pipeline route. (KXAN Photo/Jody Barr)
These pipe are locked inside a Kinder Morgan stock yard in Blanco County, TX awaiting installation along the Permian Highway Pipeline route. (KXAN Photo/Jody Barr)

On March 16, fearing exposure to sun and weather might have degraded the pipes’ corrosion coating, the group submitted a complaint to the Railroad Commission, which regulates the state’s oil and gas industry.

“I am working to persuade the Railroad Commission to inspect the stockpiled pipe in Gillespie, Kimble, Blanco and Hays Counties right now,” John Watson, a retired engineer, wrote in the complaint. “It has been stockpiled out in the weather elements without any protective covering for more than 6 months, the limit recommended for exposure to ultraviolet sunlight and rain by both manufacturers and industry standard-setting groups.”

“I call for inspections of pipe prior to any being allowed in ground. Laying of pipe, including across rivers, is imminent,” Watson added.

One week later, inspectors with the commission showed up in Blanco to begin the inspection.

The Railroad Commission’s “Evaluation Report” shows two inspectors went to Blanco to “discuss the concerns” laid out in Watson’s formal complaint.  

The inspectors met with a Kinder Morgan director at the site on March 25. They reviewed the company’s logs related to internal inspections of the pipe segments and a third-party inspector’s report on the conditions of the pipe when they arrived at the Blanco yard, according to the evaluation report.

MARCH 2020 TX RAILROAD COMMISSION’S FINAL INVESTIGATION REPORT ON BLANCO PIPE COATING COMPLAINT. Download

The inspectors found the first batch of pipes arrived in Blanco on June 10, 2019.

They also pulled eight pipes from the hundreds stored at the Blanco site and inspected the thickness of the coating for signs of degradation.

This field off Farm Road 32 near Blanco was an empty pasture until about a year ago when Kinder Morgan leased the land to store pipe segments for the construction of its 428-mile Permian Highway Pipeline. (KXAN Photo/Jody Barr)
This field off Farm Road 32 near Blanco was an empty pasture until about a year ago when Kinder Morgan leased the land to store pipe segments for the construction of its 428-mile Permian Highway Pipeline. (KXAN Photo/Jody Barr)

“Each thickness reading taken on the pipeline segments was found to be within tolerance of written procedure,” according to the report.

The final document the inspectors reported reviewing was from Sherwin Williams, the maker of the corrosion coating, to Kinder Morgan regarding the length of time the pipe could be exposed to UV radiation without damaging the pipe’s coating. “The letter stated there is no special protection required to protect coated pipeline from UV degradation for outdoor storage less than one year,” the inspectors wrote in the report.

The RRC closed the investigation in three days.

“They came here to try to placate our complaint,” Kay Pence said as she stood outside the fence of the Blanco yard. Pence, a former banker, was one of the members of “Blanco Stop the Pipeline” who filed the complaint against Kinder Morgan.

Pence lives in Gillespie County and the pipeline will run within 500 feet of her home, she said.

She was on the other end of the phone when she said a Railroad Commission staffer told her and the group the outcome of the investigation.

“They inspected 8 pipes out of the yard. We asked them if there was a percentage they would [provide]—what was their standard operating procedure—they said no, they just test a few pipes and if they’re okay, they assume the rest are okay,” Pence said.

“I’m from the banking industry and anytime we were audited by a regulatory agency, they were doing at least a 10 percent test, usually a 15 percent test and something like this where this pipe’s going under the ground and it’s going to be there in perpetuity, I would think that we’d need to inspect more than 8 pipe out of a thousand pipe,” Pence said.

Pence’s group also took issue with the RRC inspection and what appears to be its reliance on Kinder Morgan’s own recordkeeping instead of the agency performing its own on-the-ground inspections as pipes are delivered and installed.

The TX Railroad Commission inspectors did not visit any other pipe storage yard during their investigation in late March 2020, including this large site in Junction, TX. KXAN found pipe coatings dates from March 2019 in this storage site. (KXAN Photo)
The TX Railroad Commission inspectors did not visit any other pipe storage yard during their investigation in late March 2020, including this large site in Junction, TX. KXAN found pipe coatings dates from March 2019 in this storage site. (KXAN Photo)

“I don’t know of any other agency that lets a business self-inspect and tell them that everything’s okay,” Pence said.

The RRC report found, “…at the time of inspection Kinder Morgan Texas Pipeline LLC was in compliance with applicable regulations … regarding protective coatings,” the inspectors wrote in their final report dated March 26, 2020.

Pence and her group are worried about a pipeline accident or disaster, which is not uncommon in Texas—or across the nation.

Pipeline incident reports from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration show there have been 23 corrosion-related pipeline failures in onshore natural gas transmission lines in Texas since 2010.

During that time, 126 incidents were reported across the nation. Texas was second only to Louisiana, which reported 40 incidents since 2010. Of those 126, only one incident is documented as operated by Kinder Morgan.

The Railroad Commission would not agree to an interview for this investigation. The agency did confirm inspectors only visited the one Kinder Morgan pipe stockyard in Blanco, despite the group reporting other storage sites in Hays, Kimble, and Gillespie Counties. Inspectors noted on the Watson complaint, “Complaint finalized, no further action required.” That statement was dated April 8, 2020.

KXAN visited a stockyard in Junction, a small city about three hours west of Austin, and found pipes with coating dates as old as March and April of 2019. The anti-pipeline group provided video of the Junction stockyard showing pipes stacked there as early as May of 2019.

After KXAN questioned the Railroad Commission about not visiting the other four storage sites, an agency spokesman said other sites would be inspected.

“The initial inspection started in the Blanco pipe yard, and other yards would follow,” Railroad Commission spokesman RJ DeSilva wrote to KXAN. When asked for dates of those inspections, the commission’s spokesman responded, “A timeline is not finalized.”

“Our inspections are conducted to ensure safety and construction regulations are being followed. Safeguarding the public and environment are the highest priorities of the RRC’s role in the energy industry, including pipeline projects. And it’s important to note that inspections are not limited to pipe yards. As Kinder Morgan begins stringing pipe (i.e., active construction) we will be conducting inspections as activities take place during the duration of the project.”

RJ DESILVA, RAILROAD COMMISSION SPOKESMAN

“They will say that everything’s fine that they looked at Kinder Morgan’s logs and everything is fine. I want to know who at the Railroad Commission wants that sitting in their backyard, less than 500 feet from their house and relying on an inspection of 8 pipe out of thousands of pipe,” Pence said.

During KXAN’s surveillance of the Blanco pipe yard, we found workers loading pipe segments onto tractor-trailers on April 14. We followed those trucks out of Blanco into Gillespie County where workers are trenching the pipeline route through the outskirts of Fredericksburg.

Kinder Morgan’s pipeline compressor site is currently under construction along Jenschke Lane in Fredericksburg. We found pipe segments laid out along the pipeline trench on the western and eastern sides of the compressor site with May 2019 coating dates.

Crews load pipeline segments onto stringer trucks in Kinder Morgan’s Blanco stock yard on April 14, 2020. (KXAN Photo/Jody Barr)Read More »

The process is known as “stringing pipe,” which is when the pipes are laid out beside the trench where they’ll be welded, and the weld site will be coated with the fusion-bonded epoxy.

“I am going to be living by that pipe while it’s functioning at a 1,450 psi. It’s the equivalent of having a [Boeing] 747 running in the center of that pipe 24/7,” Gillespie County Commissioner Dennis Neffendorf told KXAN.

The pipeline will pass within 850 feet of Neffendorf’s home—and will bisect the precinct he governs. “I’m very concerned. Obviously, it’s being built by man and it’s a 42-inch pipeline,” Neffendorf said.

Gillespie County Commissioner Dennis Neffendorf said he's worried about the length of time Kinder Morgan's pipe segments have been exposed to UV radiation while being stored in five stock yards across Texas. He'll live within 850' of the Permian Highway Pipeline. (KXAN Photo/Jody Barr)
Gillespie County Commissioner Dennis Neffendorf said he’s worried about the length of time Kinder Morgan’s pipe segments have been exposed to UV radiation while being stored in five stock yards across Texas. He’ll live within 850′ of the Permian Highway Pipeline. (KXAN Photo/Jody Barr)

Neffendorf, who is not an engineer, has researched his concerns about the pipe coating UV exposure issue and contacted engineers for guidance on the storage timeframe. “It’s suggested not to be out in the open environment for 6 months and obviously that is past that,” Neffendorf said in an interview with KXAN earlier this month.  

Neffendorf admits his role as county commissioner is extremely limited when it comes to oversight of the pipeline’s construction and where it’s routed.

The commissioners do have control over construction permits when Kinder Morgan needs to cross a county road or a county waterway.

Neffendorf said he’s had trouble getting information out of Kinder Morgan, describing the company’s “transparency” efforts as “slow coming.”

Kinder Morgan would not agree to be interviewed for this report and the company did not respond to specific questions posed by KXAN regarding the company’s own guidelines for its pipe segments’ exposure to ultraviolet radiation.

The company released a prepared statement through a public relations firm in response to a list of questions submitted by KXAN:

“We are actively engaged in the construction of [the Permian Highway Pipeline] and expect for it to be placed in service in the first quarter of 2021. PHP is being constructed according to industry best practices and Kinder Morgan’s construction specifications, which meet or exceed state and federal requirements. We engage in multiple levels of inspection of the pipeline during and after the manufacturing process. We also have a thorough installation process, which is focused on testing and ensuring the integrity of the pipeline coating prior to the pipeline being installed.”

ALLEN FORE, VICE PRESIDENT OF PUBLIC AFFAIRS FOR KINDER MORGAN

Neffendorf said he believed pipe segments from the Blanco storage site were delivered to the pipeline trench near his home on April 14.

“Could you stand here today and tell the people of your precinct there is nothing to worry about?” KXAN asked Neffendorf. “No, I cannot do that,” the commissioner replied.

“That bothers me,” Neffendorf said.

Law enforcement moonlighting as pipeline security guards

If you’re itching to meet a Blanco police officer, park your car on either side of the ninety-degree bend where Lindeman Lane becomes Lindeman Circle and wait.

You’ll usually see a personal vehicle with “Police” written on a magnet down its side when you get there, but if you don’t, it won’t be long before you’ll see a cruiser dispatched from the city to find out what you’re doing. Blanco police respond to the Kinder Morgan pipe storage yard even though it is outside the city limits.

This off duty deputy in his personal vehicle followed KXAN around the outside of Kinder Morgan’s pipe yard in February 2020. The deputy later identified himself as a Llano County deputy when we found him guarding another Kinder Morgan property in March. (KXAN Photo/Jody Barr)

Blanco’s Police Department is one of many Hill Country law enforcement agencies working for The Athos Group, a private security firm based in Irving and Miami, Florida, according to the company’s Chief Operations Officer Jeff Sweetin. The firm has hired dozens of Texas peace officers from the Texas Department of Public Safety, Kimble County, Llano County, Gillespie County, and the City of Blanco.

Those jurisdictions are only the ones KXAN has been able to confirm by meeting them along the Permian Highway Pipeline route between Junction and Blanco.

The security firm specializes in securing pipelines for large energy companies, according to its website. The Permian Highway Pipeline is a $2 billion, 428-mile transmission line that will connect the Permian Basin in West Texas to the Gulf Coast near Houston.

The private security work has raised concerns among locals about conflicts of interest, and KXAN’s investigation discovered several law enforcement agencies involved in the private work keep no public records showing who their officers work for, when they work or how they are contracted and paid.

Just as we were finishing an interview outside the Blanco stockyard in March with members of a pipeline protest group called “Blanco Stop the Pipeline,” a large Ford pickup truck arrived at the yard’s locked entrance gate just yards away. Out stepped a man wearing a gun and a badge. He walked up to the locked gate and spun the lock’s combination.

The women we’d just interviewed identified the officer right away as Blanco Police Chief Mike Ritchey.

Blanco Police Chief Mike Ritchey uses a combination to unlock a Kinder Morgan pipe yard in Blanco County on March 5, 2020. Ritchey would not tell KXAN who he was contracted with to provide the security detail. (KXAN Photo/Ben Friberg)
Blanco Police Chief Mike Ritchey uses a combination to unlock a Kinder Morgan pipe yard in Blanco County on March 5, 2020. Ritchey would not tell KXAN who he was contracted with to provide the security detail. (KXAN Photo/Ben Friberg)

“Are you working on the pipeline, chief?” KXAN investigator Jody Barr asked Ritchey, as he unlocked the gate.

“I am. Why do you ask?” Ritchey said.

“I see you unlocking their gate. I didn’t know if you were working for them,” Barr said.

“Sure am,” Ritchey responded, as he took out his cell phone.

“You must be doing security,” Barr said.

“Yes, sir,” Ritchey responded, snapping a picture of Barr with his cell phone.

Ritchey would not provide information to KXAN explaining who contracted him to perform the security work. He said he didn’t know who negotiated his own contract to perform security and guard the Kinder Morgan pipe yard.

The chief also wouldn’t disclose who paid him for his off-duty security work, but he did tell KXAN that neither the city nor the pipeline company was paying him. The chief also denied The Athos Group was paying him to guard the pipe yard while wearing his gun, badge, and Blanco Police Department uniform.

Blanco Police Chief Mike Ritchey took several photographs during this March 5, 2020 encounter with KXAN on an interview shoot with an anti-pipeline group in Blanco. (KXAN Photo/Ben Friberg)Read More »

The chief eventually made his way to the three cars — including a KXAN vehicle — parked on the side of Lindeman Lane and photographed the front and back of each vehicle with his phone.

“They can use our resources to get our information,” said Katherine McClure, a member of the anti-pipeline group, as the chief snapped pictures.

Deda Divine, also a member of the protest group, said peace officers across the region working security for the pipeline and stockyards seem to have a “conflict of interest.”

“If we have a problem, who do we call?” Divine said.

After the encounter with Ritchey, KXAN filed multiple Texas Public Information Act requests with the City of Blanco and the Blanco County Sheriff’s Office to discover who contracted with the peace officers and whether the departments’ policies allowed such work.

Neither Blanco police nor the county sheriff could produce records showing which officers were working security details or how they were being paid.

Though the Blanco County Sheriff’s Office said it kept no records of off-duty deputy work, sheriff’s office Lt. Robert Woodring provided information about pipeline security and contracting with Athos. He said deputies began working with Athos and providing pipeline security in January. 

A Blanco County deputy passed by the Kinder Morgan pipe yard on April 28, 2020. The sheriff's office said its deputies are helping with off-duty security work, but the sheriff's office does not maintain any records of that employment. (KXAN Photo/Jody Barr)
A Blanco County deputy passed by the Kinder Morgan pipe yard on April 28, 2020. The sheriff’s office said its deputies are helping with off-duty security work, but the sheriff’s office does not maintain any records of that employment. (KXAN Photo/Jody Barr)

“The sheriff’s office doesn’t pay or assign deputies to off-duty security details,” Woodring said. Deputies are scheduled by Athos through an app where they can select security work in their off-hours, he added.

In March, KXAN filed a record request with the Blanco County Sheriff’s Office dispatch center to find out whether off-duty Blanco police had ever called anything related to their pipeline security details into dispatch.

“There are no other documents responsive to your current request,” Assistant Blanco County Attorney Kimberly Ashby said in a written response.

KXAN also filed records requests with the City of Blanco seeking Ritchey’s employment agreement, time clock records for police work, policies for off-duty work, whether the city maintains records of the use of public property for private security work and for text messages and call logs in an effort to figure out what the chief did with the photographs he took.

In an email from Blanco City Attorney Brad Bullock, the city said it did not have an employment agreement with Ritchey. None of the records obtained by KXAN show any off-duty approvals or requests for off-duty employment.

The city initially never responded to our March 6 records request for the chief’s cell phone records. The request also sought copies of any video and pictures the chief took at the Blanco pipe yard on March 5. The Texas Public Information Act requires governments to respond to a request within 10 business days, which the city did not do.

Blanco Police Chief Mike Ritchey stands guard inside the Blanco pipe yard inside this truck on March 5, 2020. Ritchey took 7 photographs during an encounter with KXAN at the site, but the city said they're not public record. (KXAN Photo/Jody Barr)
Blanco Police Chief Mike Ritchey stands guard inside the Blanco pipe yard inside this truck on March 5, 2020. Ritchey took 7 photographs during an encounter with KXAN at the site, but the city said they’re not public record. (KXAN Photo/Jody Barr)

Bullock called the delay in the city answering the request within 10 days “an unintentional oversight.” He also said the city’s efforts to address the pandemic response contributed to the delay.

On April 28, the city’s attorney told KXAN the city staff never informed him of the March 6 request, but that the city “…has no public records responsive to your request,” Bullock wrote in an email to KXAN.

We’ve asked Bullock to provide documentation to show whether the city performed a search of the chief’s cell phone for the records—and when.  Bullock said the chief had seven pictures on his phone from the March 5 encounter, but the city couldn’t access the pictures and denied our request on that point.

I am further advised that in this private capacity, he took seven (7) photographs of individuals with his personal phone, which is not City-issued property (Chief Ritchey also informs me that there are no texts or other documents or files contemplated by your request).  I am also advised by Chief Ritchey that he has not forwarded those photographs to a City-owned phone, email, or other electronic storage device owned, operated, or controlled by the City; therefore, the City does not have access to the photographs in question and cannot produce them.

And because they were taken by Chief Ritchey in his personal capacity while he was off-duty and not acting on behalf of the City of Blanco in his official capacity, they do not meet the definition of public information because they do not relate to the official business of the governmental body.”

BRADLEY BULLOCK, BLANCO CITY ATTORNEY

As KXAN watched workers load pipe segments onto two trucks in the Blanco pipe yard on April 14, two different Blanco police officers showed up. The first stopped in front of our camera.

“I want to make sure you’re not blocking the driveway,” the unidentified officer said, as he stopped his black Chevrolet Tahoe between our camera and the Kinder Morgan pipe yard.

An unidentified Blanco Police officer stopped to make sure we weren’t blocking Kinder Morgan’s driveway at the Blanco pipe yard on April 14, 2020. This was the “incident” the Gillespie County deputy mentioned in a traffic stop later that same day. (KXAN Photo/Jody Barr)

A second Blanco officer showed up minutes later. “You don’t have to film me, I’m just saying ‘hi,’” the officer said as he pulled up. The second officer claimed he didn’t know another officer from his department responded to the scene just minutes before.

When the two trucks loaded with pipes left the stockyard, KXAN followed them to determine the pipes’ final destination and whether Kinder Morgan was using the pipes we’d photographed in Blanco stockyard.

As we followed the trucks onto Highway 290 headed into Fredericksburg, a Gillespie County constable began pursuing our KXAN news vehicle. Shortly after the constable began following, a Gillespie County Sheriff’s Deputy joined in and pulled our news vehicle over.

“The reason I’m stopping you is the workers have complained that you’ve been following them since Blanco, so they asked that we check it out,” said Gillespie County Deputy H. McIntosh during the traffic stop.

The deputy already knew we had been in Blanco about an hour earlier.

Gillespie County Deputy M. McIntosh and two other county law enforcers have a discussion during an April 14, 2020 traffic stop of KXAN investigator Jody Barr. We were on public highways following two trucks carrying pipe segments from the Blanco yard to a Gillespie County pipeline trench line. (KXAN Photo/Jody Barr)

“Can I ask you a quick question, was there also an incident that took place in Blanco this morning,” McIntosh asked. “Something about—I’m not saying it was you—I’m going off some information that was given to me, but did you go by the Blanco yard?”

McIntosh said it was his understanding that KXAN had been following the trucks since the town of Stonewall, but he would not disclose where he got that information.

KXAN lost sight of the pipe-loaded trucks because of the traffic stop.

Sweetin told KXAN that his company is providing security for Kinder Morgan for the construction of the Permian Highway Pipeline.

The Athos Group COO Jeff Sweetin told KXAN pipeline construction faces multiple threats from protesters throughout the construction process. The company uses peace officers from across Texas to secure the route. (Credit: The Athos Group website)
The Athos Group COO Jeff Sweetin told KXAN pipeline construction faces multiple threats from protesters throughout the construction process. The company uses peace officers from across Texas to secure the route. (Credit: The Athos Group website)

We witnessed multiple instances of peace officers performing that security work and photographing our crews and news vehicles while on public property near Kinder Morgan’s sites. When questioned about whether the photographs and license plate numbers were being sent to his security firm, Sweetin denied that.

“I don’t get photos sent to me,” Sweetin said. “I have no use for it.”

Sweetin would not say if his company was collecting that information, even though it was not coming to him directly. “It can look sinister, I get it…but we’re not intel gathering,” Sweetin said by phone.

Sweetin, a former head of security for another energy company that does business in Texas, said pipeline operators hire licensed peace officers because they want “well-trained people with authority who know the law.”

Texas law also makes it easier to hire licensed law enforcers and for those officers to perform security work outside their jurisdictions, according to Sweetin.

“There is very little resistance for an El Paso officer to work in Dallas,” he said, providing an example of the flexibility in Texas law.

During our surveillance of Kinder Morgan work sites along the pipeline route, we saw state and municipal officers performing security work. One officer, wearing a T-shirt marked “SHERIFF” would not identify the law enforcement agency he worked for.

Along Jenschke Lane near Fredericksburg, Kinder Morgan is building a compressor station for the pipeline. When we visited the construction site on April 14, a Fredericksburg Police Department unit was parked along the road, and the officer inside was performing private security work for the pipeline company.

“Making contact with you I was told that it looked like you were over here filming, or whatnot, from the roadway. Wanted to make contact with you to see what you were doing today, who were you with and whatnot,” Sergeant Derek Seelig told KXAN’s Barr.

Fredericksburg Police Sergeant Derek Seelig was performing off-duty security work using his taxpayer-funded vehicle and equipment on April 14, 2020 at a Kinder Morgan site. The Athos Group told KXAN it “typically” pays fur the use of taxpayer equipment in its security operations, but not in every case. (KXAN Photos/Jody Barr)

“Would you mind if I got your driver’s license just to identify you,” Seelig asked Barr.

“What would the purpose be?” Barr replied. Seelig said he’d use the information to fill out what he called a call log to document the “contact.”

Seelig got back into his patrol SUV and drove along the roadside while we shot video of the work along Jenschke Lane.

“Tensions are high over pipeline,” Sweetin told KXAN. “Immediately after approval, you automatically have a security problem. At the point of even surveying, you have a full-scale security issue.”

The security threat often comes from protestors, Sweetin said. “Once demonstrators start to get empowered, they want YouTube virality and want to bring people in all over the country,” he said.

“We’ve been asked to secure that pipeline, and we’re going to secure it,” Sweetin said.

A TX Department of Public Safety trooper was working security at a Kinder Morgan pipeline trench site on April 15, 2020. (KXAN Photo/Jody Barr)

Senior Investigative Producer and Digital Reporter David Barer, News Director Chad Cross, Investigative Photojournalist Ben Friberg, Graphic Artist Rachel Garza, Director of Investigations & Innovation Josh Hinkle, Editor Eric Lefenfeld, Drone Operator Bob Osborn, Digital Special Projects Developer Robert Sims, and Digital Executive Producer Kate Winkle contributed to this investigation.

(Information from KXAN.com)


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