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Atmos unveils revised tree removal plan

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Atmos Energy’s April 18 proposal for tree removal along its 12.3 natural gas pipeline easement section through Flower Mound did little to change the concern of town residents.

When Atmos notified the town about its original tree removal plan last October, it targeted removal of trees 25 feet on each side of the pipeline, or a total swath 50 feet wide. That measurement is not, however, from tree trunk-to-trunk; it’s from leaf-to-leaf across the tree canopy.

During the four hour Town Council workshop Thursday night, Atmos representatives said they were willing to reduce the clearing area to within 30 feet of its easements, or 15 feet on either side in HCA (High Consequence Area) sites. The majority of removal areas, however, will be at a width of 40 feet.

Town Arborist Jared Martin said the tree surveys conducted by both the town and Atmos officials identified a total of 1,231 trees within the original 50 feet removal measurement; 1,045 with trunks larger than 3-inches in diameter and 186 less than 3 inches.

There are 665 protected trees (i.e., a native tree measuring more than 6 inches in diameter) and 25 specimen trees (those measuring more than 25 inches around) included in the survey results.

Atmos representatives said there are 1,030 trees within the 40 foot removal width with 787 trees within the 30 foot easement areas.

Flower Mound’s 12.3 mile section of the pipeline runs on a diagonal line through Tour 18, Hidden Valley Country Estates and Lake Hills Estates, Kensington Park Estates, Wichita Chase, Hillcrest at Wellington, The Woods at Wellington, The Sanctuary—the town’s first conservation neighborhood containing many large, older trees, Foxborough Hollow and The Oaks of Lake Forest—so named for its dense tree coverage.

The entire high pressure transmission pipeline system runs 6,000 miles, from the Red River at Wichita Falls to Houston and from West Texas to Carthage in East Texas. It provides natural gas to Atmos Energy Corporation and its Mid-Tex Division customers, as well as CoServ customers.

“This proposal gives us something to where it doesn’t look like we went through and clear-cut the trees,” said Atmos Pipeline-Texas Rates and Regulatory Affairs Vice President Charles Yarbrough.

“We think it strikes the right balance of saving the trees and providing safety to the residents. Safety is our number one concern and we want to be a good corporate citizen. But, you need access room to get the equipment in if there’s an emergency.”

Atmos officials added that the tree removal is necessary to allow utility officials access to the pipeline, which is 24 inches in diameter and operates with a pressure up to 602 psi, in the case of an emergency. Typically, pipelines have a safety-life of 70 to 80 years; the town’s are over 50 years old.

“We’re at the point now in our 6,000-mile system where now we’re in Flower Mound,” said Yarbrough. “It’s nothing particular about Flower Mound. It’s just time.”

While the new proposal may have changed the “corporate citizen” from wearing the black cowboy hat of a villain in this story, it only lightens to grey—not all the way to a white Stetson worn by heroes.

The solution to optional tree removal in HCA easements has little to do with repair equipment access. It has everything to do with leak detection.

Mayor Tom Hayden asked why there seems to be such a sense of urgency now for Atmos to reclaim the easement right-of-way.

“I’m struggling about how this didn’t seem to be urgent in the last 20 years,” Hayden said. “But now it is.”

“We have to be prepared to respond to any emergency that may occur,” said Atmos Vice President for Operations Sherry Kelley. “As a pipeline operator, access is critical in the event of an emergency.”

Residents bordering the pipeline spoke out passionately against the plan.

“My backyard is at the edge of the easement and there are lovely, large trees by the creek behind me that the kids in the neighborhood love to climb and play under,” said Julia Ahlfinger, a resident of Hillcrest at Wellington.

“There are over 30 trees tagged on my block, but they can be easily accessed from the greenway on the other side of the little creek. Why cut them down just ‘in case’ there might be an emergency when any size equipment can come in from the open area?”

Yarbrough said the tree removal would make it easier to patrol and conduct gas leak surveys. He said a laser leak survey is conducted once a year via helicopter and a patrol survey is conducted two times per week from the air. There are also periodic onsite inspections of valves and other equipment. He added that the state requires 30 feet of clearance– if surveying pipelines from the air– to ensure the survey is accurate.

An in-line pipe survey is conducted every seven years using PIGs (Pipeline Inspection Gauges) to test for both metal loss and deformation. Atmos last used PIGs in 2011 and found the pipeline to be in good condition.

Although most people in the council chamber paid only polite attention to the expert witness Mayor Tom Hayden introduced, the Atmos officials are quite familiar with Don Deaver of Lake Conroe, Tex.

He worked for Exxon for more than 33 years, is a pipeline engineer and an expert witness in pipeline leak explosion cases.

Deaver was an investigator in the 2007 deaths in Wylie and Cleburne which were caused by faulty Normac compression couplings allowing gas leaks. In the spring of 2009, he was also called in following a near-fatal house gas explosion in Irving.

The Railroad Commission of Texas— established in 1891– regulates the oil and gas industry and is the state’s oldest regulatory agency.

Following the Irving explosion, the then Executive Director of the Texas Railroad Commission, John Tintera, spoke on behalf of the commission.

“In our viewpoint, we would disagree that there is an inherent flaw in the coupling,” he said.
In Texas, there are nearly three million compression couplings still in use. Only those found leaking are being removed.

Also in 2009, however, the Railroad Commission asked Atmos Energy to step up its leak detection efforts.

During the council workshop, Deaver said the Atmos proposal is not the best approach.

“It shouldn’t be a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution,” he said. “Atmos should have an access plan by segment, not the entire length [of the pipeline section]. That way they can enter from either end.”

Deaver questioned if mass tree-clearing is necessary, especially in HCA’s, where ground patrol with hand-held lasers and visual observance of dead vegetation caused by gas leakage is more effective than aerial detection.

“Adding the ground detection is more costly, but it has a quicker response [than aerial surveys] for a gas leak,” he said. “If Atmos used hand-held laser detectors, there’s no need for any removal of the tree canopy for aerial inspection.”

Hayden read messages from both Rep. Tan Parker and Sen. Jane Nelson about tree retention.

In her message, Nelson wrote that in her search of both Texas and federal law, she found there is no mandate to clear right-of-way easements and hopes that every tree than can be saved should be [saved].

After a rhetorical question about Atmos’ yearly revenue of more than $200 million, Hayden asked Yarbrough about using ground patrols in HCA’s to save larger trees.

In an agitated manner, Yarbrough responded: “We [Atmos] will get cited and fined if we don’t have 30 feet for visual access. Besides, it would be a break in our process from using aerial survey [for leaks], which is our choice. Nothing mandates how we choose to test.”

Hayden asked how the whole issue evolved and why prior pipeline owners didn’t maintain the easement clearance.

“I can’t speak to previous owners,” said Yarbrough. “Atmos has spent $3 million so far to reclaim our easements.”

Kelley added that removing trees is also important to prevent them [the roots] from growing into the pipeline.

“Roots can grow into the pipeline and cause damage,” she said.

Yarbrough also said the town has required tree planting as part of its development standards. An aerial slide show of Flower Mound photos taken from the 1970s and 1990s documented how tree coverage has changed from that pre-residential development time to the current aerial view.

He pointed to the Canyon Falls development and that Flower Mound officials haven’t paid proper attention to developers—and existing residents in Flower Mound—planting trees in the easements. He said the area around the pipeline has also grown over the years, making it more difficult now to access the pipeline.

Wichita Trace area resident Jennifer Rogers said she had a gas leak at her home previously and said it took several hours for someone from Atmos to respond.

“Even if the [pipeline] map includes shut-off valves, we’re [the fire department] not authorized to shut lines down,” said Flower Mound Fire Chief Eric Metzger. “We’re not trained for that. That requires someone with the pipeline outfit, so even in an emergency you need to wait until they come and shut that line down.”

Kelley said that Atmos has 24/7 monitoring—both visual and alarms– for pressure changes in the pipeline. She added that the company has employees throughout the Metroplex who can respond immediately upon notification that a site needs to be inspected and can have shut-off in 15 to 30 minutes.

“A lot of people feel powerless against something that they don’t feel needs to be done,” said Foxborough Hollow resident Vernon Olson, who said he and his neighbor have 54 trees between them. “I bought my property because of the trees. I had my house designed around the trees. There is a nationwide effort of going green. I don’t think cutting down a couple thousand trees is being green.”

Hayden said that the tree tags show that a tree has been surveyed, not that it will necessarily be removed. He then asked attorney Robert Brown, from the town’s legal firm of Brown and Hofmeister, if the town has any legal recourse regarding the easements.

“Well, the town is unable to file litigation on behalf of the residents,” said Brown. “And, the town’s tree ordinances have no standing on Atmos. Of course, private residents can file suits, but it’s doubtful they’d be successful, because the original easements with Lone Star Gas back then are from the l960s and are binding. So, bottom line—no, the town has no control over Atmos and what it does in its easements.”

Atmos Right-of-Way Agent John Manganilla said that tree removal on private property will be done on a case-by-case basis.

Yarbrough added that Atmos officials will meet with the 80 impacted homeowners in about three weeks to present them with encroachment agreements and to answer questions. Two weeks later, work is expected to begin.

If Atmos had chosen to modify its aerial laser survey approach to include hand-held laser and ground detection in the HCAs, the final outcome could change from a partial win for residents and their targeted trees to a win-win-win-win solution for the town, its residents, their trees and exemplary corporate citizen Atmos Energy.

In an attempt to find a positive view, Mayor Pro Tem Kendra Stephenson said: “This is still painful, but it’s an accomplishment for us. We went from [Atmos] planning to clear-cut trees within 50 feet of their easement to 30 to 40 feet, and we’re still going to be safe.”

Tree Recognition

Flower Mound has long been known for its trees. In fact, Flower Mound has been awarded the Tree City USA designation 19 times. The town’s logo painted on its water tower at the intersection of FM 1171 and Bruton Orand features a large tree in its center.

Flower Mound recently kicked off a tree recognition program, which highlights trees on private properties in town that stand out for their appearance, history or significance to the community.

Jared Martin, environmental review analyst for Flower Mound, shared the town’s vision of the program with the Environmental Conservation Commission (ECC) in March, and board members unanimously voted to go forward with the project.

Martin said the goals of the program are: to raise awareness of the importance of trees in the community; encourage proper tree care; promote community involvement; and, to honor those who own or take care of some of the most meaningful trees in the town.

For further information and to nominate a tree, visit: www.flower-mound.com.

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