Kinder Morgan, TVA expanding gas pipeline across Dickson County

Neighbors remember when gas lines ruptured and exploded in 1992. They fear a recurrence.

By: - February 23, 2022 6:30 am
Barbara Miller of White Bluff, lives near the originating point of the proposed pipeline. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Barbara Miller of White Bluff, lives near the originating point of the proposed pipeline. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Houston-based oil and gas giant Kinder Morgan is pursuing a new pipeline across three Tennessee counties to deliver natural gas to the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Cumberland Fossil Plant and residents of Stewart, Dickson and Houston Counties question the necessity of the expansion, citing safety and environmental concerns.

Kinder Morgan operates 83,000 miles of pipelines and 143 fuel terminals across the country. It is one of the nation’s largest shippers of crude oil, gasoline, natural gas, and carbon dioxide, claiming $16.6 billion in revenue and $70.4 billion in assets in 2021. The proposed project across Middle Tennessee adds a 32-mile branch to a 11,755-mile pipeline network that runs from Texas to New England operated by Kinder Morgan’s biggest subsidiary, Tennessee Gas Pipeline Company LLC.

Open houses in Vanleer, Tenn., on Jan. 18 and Erin, Tenn., on Jan. 19, as well as a virtual open house on Jan. 27 were the first public-facing events since Kinder Morgan filed preliminary paperwork with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) in late October. The project, referred to in company documentation as the “Cumberland Lateral,” will move through the state and federal permitting process with cooperation from TVA, currently facing scrutiny from Congress about its continued reliance on fossil fuels. The proposed expansion of gas infrastructure is an early indication of how TVA plans to replace aging coal units across the state.

Based on preliminary maps, the pipeline would run underneath TVA’s high voltage transmission lines, which cut a direct route from the Tennessee Gas Pipeline to Cumberland City. Kinder Morgan began approaching landowners with easement contracts last summer about the project.

“The contract they gave me, I don’t think anyone would sign something like that. It was a frightening contract,” said Barbara Miller, a resident of White Bluff, near the origin of the pipeline. She is one of hundreds of landowners in the path of the pipeline. “It is just illogical to me, with the climate being as bad as it is, that they would even consider this. They are presenting it as our first option. I may not be able to stop them, but I won’t just let it happen.”

Miller has been approached three times by representatives of Tennessee Gas Pipeline Company LLC, Kinder Morgan’s wholly-owned subsidiary overseeing the expansion. After refusing to sign easement contracts, Miller sought legal counsel about her property rights. Two existing, decades-old Kinder Morgan pipelines cross through her front yard. Miller attended the open house in Vanleer with her daughter, San Miller Lacy, and several other Dickson County residents.

“I’m going to try to hold off as long as I can,” said David Freeman, whose farm lies in the path of the pipeline. “The general idea of a natural gas pipeline underneath the biggest powerline that TVA has in their system doesn’t strike me as something I’m interested in.”

Kinder Morgan does not have the power of eminent domain, legal authority that could come when FERC rules on the project’s Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity. The company’s pre-filing paperwork indicates it will apply for that certificate as early as June 2022. The project comes as FERC is increasing scrutiny of new gas projects, per a Feb. 17 policy announcement that applicants will have to more extensively report the expected impact of proposed projects on climate change.

The proposed gas line, and its proximity to high voltage transmission, has stoked memories of a 1992 pipeline explosion that injured five people and burned 400 acres of land less than a mile from where the proposed pipeline would branch off of Kinder Morgan’s existing network. Two gas lines, then operated by Tenneco, which has since been acquired by Kinder Morgan, ruptured on March 16, 1992, along Claylick Road near White Bluff, Tenn. An overhead powerline went down and ignited the gas, according to Jean Cathey, whose home was destroyed by the explosion.

The general idea of a natural gas pipeline underneath the biggest powerline that TVA has in their system doesn't strike me as something I'm interested in.

– David Freeman, whose farm lies in the path of the pipeline

“It was so loud that it shook the house, and all at once, it just blew. We ran for our lives. The ground was on fire and there was flames going up to the sky. It was a nightmare,” remembered Cathey, who moved to Charlotte, Tenn., after receiving a settlement from Tenneco. “When it blew, and those power lines came down, that’s what ignited everything. You really can’t control things like that.”

Residents in Dickson County are also fighting a fuel terminal about ten miles south of the pipeline branch. This fuel terminal, now in the early stages of construction, will store up to 115 million gallons of liquid petroleum and serve as a distribution point for gas stations in the area.

Under pressure from the public and the federal government, TVA announced a timeline last May for replacing its coal-fired units at the Cumberland Fossil Plant. According to a Notice of Intent published on the federal register last May, TVA is weighing three alternatives to replace coal capacity: on-site natural gas, off-site natural gas, and solar. TVA will officially announce a decision between these alternatives in Nov. 2022 after a finalized Environmental Impact Study (EIS).

While TVA has not publicly made the decision to replace coal with gas at Cumberland, the utility signed a precedent agreement in August 2021 to purchase gas from the Cumberland Lateral. According to this agreement, obtained via the Freedom of Information Act, TVA is legally bound to intervene on behalf of the project as it goes through the permitting process with FERC and other state and federal agencies.

In September, TVA and Kinder Morgan gave a joint presentation to the Army Corps of Engineers and the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC), both of whom will decide on key permits for the project. According to the agreement, TVA is also liable to reimburse Kinder Morgan for costs associated with the pipeline, though much of the details of reimbursement had been redacted.

A proposed system map of the Kinder Morgan pipeline to run through three Tennessee counties. (Source: Kinder Morgan)
A proposed system map of the Kinder Morgan pipeline to run through three Tennessee counties. (Source: Kinder Morgan)

TVA’s involvement in expanded gas infrastructure comes amid an increasingly pressurized relationship between the agency and the federal government. In a Jan. 13 letter to TVA CEO Jeffrey Lyash, the House Committee on Energy and Commerce censured the utility for its “comparatively unambitious” carbon reduction efforts, lack of investment in renewable energy and increased reliance on natural gas. The letter also questions TVA’s goal for decarbonization, currently set for 2050, which is out of compliance with a Biden mandate that calls for a carbon-free electricity sector by 2035. Since its founding as a New Deal program in 1933, TVA has existed as a federal agency and the largest public utility in the country.

In an email to The Lookout, TVA spokesperson Scott Brooks wrote that TVA will cooperate with the permitting process as needed and buy monthly shipments of gas from the pipeline, once it is built. Brooks did not comment on whether TVA has pursued any other proposed alternative for replacing its coal units.

This project also comes as FERC is poised to issue new regulations in the coming months that could further restrict natural gas expansion. The Commission has increased scrutiny of natural gas projects under Chairman Richard Glick, who was appointed by Biden to lead FERC last year.

Next month, Kinder Morgan will start filing permit applications with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, Tennessee Historical Commission, TDEC, and the Tennessee Division of Wildlife Resources, according to a 415-page report filed by the company on Feb. 2. This summer, Kinder Morgan will pursue permits with the US Army Corps of Engineers and FERC. Kinder Morgan did not return comment on the pipeline expansion and directed all inquiries to the information on its website.

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Eli Motycka
Eli Motycka

Writer based, born and raised in Nashville. Interested in land use, physical internet infrastructure, expos, and the fossil fuel supply chain. Motycka has written stories for the Lookout on marijuana alternative Delta 8, a guaranteed income experiment in North Nashville and the state's opioid crisis. Message me at [email protected] or on Twitter.