Some nearby residents were dismayed recently when a natural gas processing plant went into operation near their homes in an unincorporated area just south of Santa Fe.
Neighbors said they had no idea what the new industrial facility in their semi-rural part of the county was, who owned it or what it’s designed to do.
The plant is fully permitted, however, and its quiet rise underscores how little control Texas counties have over what gets built in unincorporated areas, local officials said.
All the same, the company could have done a better job communicating with the plant’s neighbors, residents and a county commissioner said.
Sharon Tipton, who lives about a quarter-mile down the road, said she had no idea the plant was operational until she saw a giant plume of flame released from one of its smokestacks on Tuesday.
Few people knew what was going up on those 11 acres except the landowners and Kinder Morgan’s subsidiary, Kinder Morgan Treating L.P., which owns and operates the plant; and construction workers on the site. Houston-based Kinder Morgan is among the largest energy infrastructure companies in North America and specializes in owning and controlling oil and gas pipelines and terminals, according to the company.
Sharon Tipton reached out to county officials for information on the project, but was told by County Judge Mark Henry and his chief of staff, Tyler Drummond, that Galveston County has no zoning or land use authority over such a construction in an unincorporated residential area.
“I was shocked that counties in Texas have no say about what is constructed in unincorporated areas,” Tipton said.
Her small tan house sits back from the road in this quiet part of the county where most neighbors have a few acres of land, many keep livestock, some grow crops and most value the quiet nature of where they live. Tipton keeps two horses out back on her property.
Drummond told Tipton that the only requirement to build any kind of business in an unincorporated part of the county was to file a permit to meet floodplain requirements, which Kinder Morgan did on Nov. 27.
Companies build in unincorporated areas precisely for that reason, Precinct 2 County Commissioner Joe Giusti said.
“They don’t need any kind of county permit,” he said.
Giusti’s office became aware of the project only when Kinder Morgan had to seek a permit to run heavy equipment up and down Avenue T, guaranteeing a bond in case the narrow, two-lane road was damaged, he said.
Neighbors in nearby Santa Fe were concerned about large trucks and heavy construction equipment traveling along Avenue T, south of state Highway 6, in an area designated as a school zone, Tipton said
Giusti’s office has been getting lots of calls about it, he said.
“We’ll be getting a lot more calls when the gas starts burning off on those smokestacks,” Giusti said.
Kinder Morgan should have done a better job notifying neighbors living directly around the plant, Giusti said. He will be touring the plant next week with some county road workers and engineers and representatives of Kinder Morgan Treating, to get answers to his questions about the project, he said.
Neighbors, meanwhile, still have questions they’d like answered.
Tipton wanted to know whether the plant would have staff on site. Kinder Morgan replied: “The facility is monitored 24/7, either by personnel onsite during the day or remotely at night.”
Tipton also is concerned about safety, given the potential volatility of natural gas pipelines and facilities, and the number of incidents she’s heard about in other places where explosions have occurred, she said.
According to the Pipeline Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, a branch of the U.S. Department of Transportation that inspects and regulates the nation’s pipelines, 1,669 significant incidents occurred in Texas from 1986 to 2012 accounting for 78 fatalities, 371 injuries and about $668 million in property damage.
In general, improper monitoring and maintenance of pipelines is the primary cause of such incidents, according to safety reports filed with the safety administration and the Texas Railroad Commission.
In the rare event of an incident, “it is the responsibility of the emergency responders to consider possible evacuations based on the information provided by Kinder Morgan and the actual site conditions,” said Katherine Hill, senior communications specialist at Kinder Morgan.
In the case of the plant on Avenue T, emergency responders would include the Santa Fe police, the volunteer fire department and the Galveston County Sheriff’s Office.
The plant plugs into existing pipelines that have criss-crossed the area for many years, Giusti said.
The company could at least have posted a sign to let people know what was being built, the name of the owner or the name of the facility, Tipton said.
As of Monday, no sign was visible anywhere in the vicinity of the plant or the road adjacent to it.
“We are planning to install a sign in front of the facility this week,” Hill said.