Altar Valley Residents Fear Proposed Pipeline Will Facilitate Border Crime

UPDATE: 4/24/12 Pipeline news story 4/30/12

Tucson, AZ March 30, 2012–Concerned and fearful citizens packed a public hearing March 30 held by the Pima Natural Resources Conservation District (PNRCD). El Paso Natural Gas Corporation presented its plan to construct the first natural methane gas pipeline to run the length of southern Arizona’s Altar Valley. The company, recently acquired by Kinder Morgan, intends to connect the pipeline at Sasabe to a customer’s new pipeline coming from Puerto Libertad, Sonora.

The “Preferred Alternative” would bury the pipeline nominally 30” deep through State and private lands between Three Points and Sasabe, two miles west of Highway 286 according to Mr. John Jermyn, an engineer with El Paso Western Pipelines headquartered in Colorado Springs and Mr. Loren Locher, the Stakeholder Outreach Coordinator from the company’s Houston office. Construction would begin by third quarter of 2014 and take six months to complete.

Altar Valley is a broad open landscape of large family-owned ranches. In 1995 the ranching families in the valley formed the non-profit Altar Valley Conservation Alliance to scientifically steward the valley’s 610,000 acre watershed, part of which includes the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge (BANWR), now a partner. More recently Pima County, now also a partner, purchased several ranches as part of the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan. The Alliance has received more than one noteworthy environmental stewardship award for their successful efforts to restore the watershed, reverse erosion, and improve forage and wildlife habitat on working cattle ranches.

The greatest concern among the meeting attendees, however, is their personal safety. The prospect of the El Paso Gas company purchasing or condemning State and private easements, leveling a 36-mile swath of ground 300 feet wide and removing all vegetation including the endangered Pima Pineapple Cactus, foreshadows a permanent new road–a virtual beeline from the Sea of Cortez into the valley– that will be controlled by drug and human smugglers.

The repeated suggestion by Mr. Jermyn that, “we’ll just have to put our heads together to keep that from becoming a road,” only inflamed the prevailing fear and distrust. Security in the valley is bad enough already. Armed scouts control the hilltops, guiding groups of illegal immigrants and drug mules using cell phones, night vision goggles and GPS. In December 2010 Border Patrol agent Brian Terry was murdered by bandits armed with ATF “walked” weapons in the Atascosas. Many more violent incidents have occurred in the same area since then. Last week the Border Patrol apprehended an alleged “rip crew” there. Recently a hunter and his pre-teen daughter were held at gunpoint by smugglers. Another hunter and his family were shot at, followed home and threatened by smugglers. Likewise, Arizona Game and Fish employees have dodged bullets.

One obstacle to obtaining a permit to cross the BANWR with a pipeline is that the US Government, in response to cartel activity, prohibits citizen access to its southernmost 3,500 acres. That inconvenient truth debunks any claim that the border is safe or secure. To make matters worse, illegal immigrants started dozens of border wildfires last summer, including two that joined and displaced up to 100% of the livestock off five ranches in the Atascosa Mountains.

Mr. Jermyn, seemingly misinformed, mentioned that border crossings have declined from 2,000 a day to 100 a day, “now that you have the wall.”  By this time Chairman Drew McGibbon had ordered civility be maintained.  PNRCD Supervisor Jim Chilton replied that a great portion of that “wall” is nothing more than a rickety four-strand barbed wire fence. Chairman Drew McGibbon pointed out that numerous people in the room had been close personal friends of rancher Robert Krentz who was gunned down on his own property by a suspected illegal immigrant two years earlier, almost to the day. Krentz had been serving as Chairman of the Whitewater Draw NRCD until the day he was murdered.

The proposed pipeline would purportedly transport natural gas to Mexican customers, although other foreign countries obviously could be supplied via Puerto Libertad.

The company spokesmen stated that if there is sufficient customer demand north of the border then natural gas could be sold on the US side as well. El Paso’s natural gas pipelines in Tucson, however, are running nowhere near capacity. That is inefficient and costs customers extra, Mr. Jermyn said. He further stated that El Paso Gas currently pays $1.2 million in annual property taxes to the State of Arizona. The completed project would more than double that revenue in addition to the revenues derived from the utility easement crossing State School Trust lands.

A second alternative is to bury the pipeline alongside State Highway 286, eliminating the creation of any new road. That would require an easement on federal land inside the BANWR–a location the company fears would preclude them from obtaining permits. The route, were it not for the permitting issues, would cost less than the Preferred Alternative.

Alliance co-chair Mary Miller suggested burying the pipeline along Interstate 19 to Nogales. The environmental impact would be minimized along that route and it would not require crossing the National Wildlife Refuge. Mr. Jermyn replied that such a plan would require El Paso’s customer to install an additional 30 miles of pipeline south of the border so the suggestion is uninteresting to the planners. Oddly, nobody mentioned that an interstate natural gas pipeline is already operating in Nogales, but related questions can be raised in a future meeting.

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), requires a “No Action” alternative be considered. A local activist from a litigious environmentalist nonprofit corporation told this author that she predicts “the No Action alternative will prevail.”

NEPA further requires federal agencies to coordinate land use planning on an equal footing with local governments to avoid running roughshod over local plans and policies. The PNRCD Board of Supervisors voted to retain an attorney to discuss possible coordination with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and other agencies regarding the proposed pipeline.

UPDATE: 4/24/12