NERINX, KY – The Sisters of Loretto Motherhouse sits atop long, rolling hills in rural Kentucky, where the sisters have lived since 1824. When the weather is nice, a Webster College Alumna Sister Mary Swain spends her afternoons doing yard work on the land. She drives a small golf cart-like vehicle around the 780-acre campus, past century-old brick buildings, corn and soybean fields, wildflower prairies, lakes and both old growth and young forests.
One afternoon in May, Swain was working when a stranger approached her asking to survey the land for a proposed natural gas liquids pipeline. For Swain and the other sisters, the answer was no.
“We care very much,” said Sister Kathleen Vonderhaar, who has been with the Sisters of Loretto since 1951. “The land takes care of us, so we want to take care of the land. We want our land to live on for the future. We want it to be here for the people who come after us.”
If built, the Bluegrass Pipeline, a joint project of Williams Company and Boardwalk Pipeline Partners, would transport natural gas liquids (NGLs) in a steel pipe from shale in Pennsylvania through Ohio and Kentucky to a petrochemical complex on the Gulf Coast in Louisiana.
Representatives from the energy companies said the pipeline is necessary for the United States to achieve energy independence. Those opposed to the pipeline, such as the Sisters of Loretto, said the dangers of the pipeline outweigh the benefits.
“People have to think of the land first, but they also have to think of their health,” Vonderhaar said. “They have to think of the risk that’s there. They have to think of the future.”
The Sisters of Loretto founded Webster University, then called Loretto College, in 1915 and Nerinx Hall High School in 1924 as institutions to educate women.
NGLs include propane, butane, ethane and natural gasoline. Though NGLs are different than natural gas, the two are harvested together by a process call hydraulic fracturing (fracking). During this process, highly pressurized water is injected into the land to break underground bedrock in order to retrieve the gas contained beneath it.
NGLs can be used as fuel to heat homes, but they can also be used to manufacture various plastic materials — from carpet to car parts to medical supplies.
Tom Droege, a spokesperson for Williams Company, said NGLs will be processed on the Gulf Coast, where 70 percent will be used domestically to produce plastics. Thirty percent will be exported because international demand for butane and propane is higher than domestic demand.
Since the Sisters of Loretto heard about the pipeline planning in Kentucky, they have spoken out against its construction. They speak directly with their neighbors attend town meetings and hand out flyers and pamphlets with information about the dangers of the pipeline.
“I go grocery shopping, I touch base with people. I go get my hair done, I touch base with people,” said Barbara Hagan, who has worked at the Motherhouse since 1977. “Every time I reach out to one person, it sends a ripple effect. If you send it out to one, maybe they’ll send it out to one more. Together we can be more aware of what’s happening.”
The Sisters of Loretto are opposed to the Bluegrass Pipeline because of the potential for a spill, which could ruin the land and fresh water in the area. Much like St. Louis, the land in Kentucky is karst —meaning the topography resembles Swiss cheese, with holes that open into caves and often has fresh water traveling rapidly underground. The Bluegrass Pipeline would be buried at least three feet underground.
“If we have a spill around here, it isn’t like they can just scoop out the contaminated dirt and say they cleaned it up. Any spill around here is going to let water that’s contaminated move away from the spill place at a very rapid rate,” said Eleanor Craig, the archivist at the Motherhouse, who has been with the Sisters of Loretto since 1962.
By: Megan Favignano
Though construction of the pipeline would mean some land will have to be dug up. Droege said 600 out of 1100 feet of pipeline is already laid out underground. Using repurposed pipes that are already built and functional “really reduces the footprint” of the project, he said. However, the sisters argue that using repurposed pipes presents the concern the pipes may have already worn out.
Droege said the Bluegrass Pipeline would create between 5,000 and 6,000 jobs —1,500 of which would be in Kentucky. These jobs would employ construction workers, welders and skilled laborers hired locally. She said the pipeline would bring $136 million in tax revenue over 10 years, which could go towards local schools and towns. Williams and Boardwalk plan to spend between $30 and $50 million in one-time payments to landowners who allow the pipeline to cross their property. The pipeline would cross about 180 miles of Kentucky.
“They continue to own the land,” Droege said. “We just have the easement.”
The land would stay in the possession of the landowner “with limited restrictions,” according to a fact sheet published by the Bluegrass Pipeline. These restrictions include:
Excavation, tunneling and boring
Aboveground structures, Roads, streets and driveways
Disposal systems (septi tanks, hazardous waste)
These restrictions would require a representative from Williams or Boardwalk to be present during the construction planning on the land above the pipeline. Trees and plants which would grow over five feet are prohibited.
Hagan said the pipleline could be a temporary financial solution, but would be bad for the land in the long run.
“When you have farmers—younger farmers, especially—that have bought land and gone into debt and might be in some financial difficulties…and then this company comes along and offers them a good sum of money,” Hagan said. “Those are concerns that those people have and I understand that…but once you give away those rights, that’s going to affect your farm for the rest of time. It’s no longer your land.”
After the Sisters of Loretto denied access to their land to be surveyed, plans for the pipeline changed. The pipeline, as it is proposed now, would pass through Nelson County, which lies to the west of Marion County. But the land solely owned by the sisters was never their only concern, Craig said. The sisters oppose the pipeline wherever it would go because of the dangers attached to the pipeline.
“We teach other people’s kids, we don’t teach our own kids,” Craig said. “Why would anybody think that we’re only worried about our own property?”
Droege said many steps are taken to prevent pipeline leaks and to address them immediately if leaks occur. The Bluegrass Pipeline would be monitored periodically for corrosion using a “smart pig,” an internal computerize inspection device. It would also be monitored using cathodic detection, where electricity is used on the outside of the pipeline to prevent corrosion. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA,) under the U.S. Department of Transportation, would regulate maintenance of the pipeline.
“We take many steps to prevent things like that (leaks) from happening,” Droege said. “Once it’s in service, we have a very rigorous monitoring system.”
Williams Company has a history of safety violations. For example, on Dec. 20, 2012, a NGL pipeline in Parachute, Colo., began leaking and was not discovered until January 2013, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment website. In 2010, a Transco pipeline owned by Williams Company leaked and was not reported for four days, according to the Kentuckians for the Commonwealth website.
The pipeline is still in the planning phase, but Williams and Boardwalk hope to have the pipeline up and running by 2015. In nearby towns surrounding the Motherhouse, yards of homes are peppered with signs in protest of the pipeline. Although the Bluegrass Pipeline is now proposed to go through a different area of Kentucky, Craig said going forward with the pipeline represents a bigger issue.
“I believe in compromise,” Craig said. “It isn’t about winning. It’s about who gets to be a part of the decision making and whose values and whose needs —whose vision of the future —is included while we all create a future together. That’s what’s important to me: that people have a voice and that voice really counts.”