Kiowa, the county seat of Elbert County, is tucked in a cottonwood-lined valley half an hour east of Castle Rock on state highway 86. The town of 300 consists of a few blocks of homes on each side of the highway, which also serves as Kiowa's main street. On a sleepy April afternoon, the Homestead Cafe is serving hamburgers and slices of homemade pie to a dozen or so ranch hands and mothers with young children. Across the street, a bulletin board at the 1912 red-brick Elbert County courthouse lists recently designated Colorado cattle brands and announces the results of a statewide rodeo competition. The muffled sound of clerks gossiping drifts through the air, and it's hard to believe anything in Kiowa could ever really change.
But change is coming fast to Elbert County. Development pressures along the Front Range have buffeted the rural area in recent years as metropolitan Denver creeps to the southeast. The latest interloper, however, comes not from the north but from the south--and it may be the most contentious one yet. At issue is a proposal by Diamond Shamrock Corporation to run a gasoline-and-jet-fuel pipeline through the western end of the county, roughly paralleling Kiowa Creek. The 88-mile pipeline, which originates in Texas, will link Diamond Shamrock facilities in Colorado Springs and Commerce City, allowing the huge petroleum company to open dozens of new service stations in Colorado and more easily supply airlines at Denver International Airport.
Almost all of the county's residents depend on underground aquifers for their water supply, and opponents of the pipeline fear that one break in the line could ruin their only source of water. State health officials have warned the county that the proposed pipeline could endanger the fragile water supply. But the odds favor the huge oil company in its quest for a pipeline route. For the past two years, Diamond Shamrock has made a steady checkerboard advance across the plains, jumping from county to county on its way north and not hesitating to flex its legal muscles against small-town opponents if they get in its way. Last week the Elbert County Planning Commission approved the pipeline on a 4-2 vote. And if the county commissioners follow suit and give their okay, Diamond Shamrock is already poised to begin work on a route through Arapahoe County to the north.
After a fierce battle, El Paso County last summer approved construction of the pipeline through an area just east of the Black Forest. Residents are contesting that decision in court, but Diamond Shamrock is now pressing Elbert County officials to approve the next leg of the pipeline. That campaign brought a crowd of 75 people to the county courthouse on a November evening last year, and the neighborliness on which Elbert County residents pride themselves soon disintegrated. A presentation by the former county planning director on the proposed pipeline led to an angry shouting match between members of the audience and county officials, as well as a threat to have the county sheriff evict some of the more vocal residents.
The dispute over the pipeline has grown into a feud in the close-knit county, and it's shaken up politics in a once-drowsy place that suddenly finds itself the second-fastest growing county in the United States (first place was claimed by neighboring Douglas County). Elbert County added almost 5,000 new residents between 1990 and 1995, an increase of 51 percent that brought the population to 14,585. For many residents, the proposed pipeline has come to symbolize everything they're afraid of losing in an area of pine-covered hilltops and meadows filled with hay.
"That's why we're fighting this," says Byron Wood, a 76-year-old retiree who lives next to the proposed route of the pipeline. "We're trying to save our way of life here."
Wood and a group of activists opposing the pipeline believe local government is completely unprepared to cope with the relentless development pressures in Elbert County. Last year 450 building permits were issued in the county, and a developer's plan to build hundreds of new houses in the small town of Elizabeth led to an uproar that's still the subject of angry letters to the editor in the Elbert County News. One of the men trying to stop the pipeline, John Dunn, is running a strong insurgent campaign for county commissioner against incumbent Charlotte Heinz, who has so far been noncommittal on the pipeline. He promises to turn politics in Elbert County upside down and sees the struggle over the pipeline as the first salvo in the battle for the future of Elbert County.
"We're going to change the way things are done in this county," Dunn vows. "Diamond Shamrock's biggest nightmare is me being elected county commissioner."
In a 1993 speech to shareholders, Diamond Shamrock chief executive officer Roger Hemminghaus described expansion in Colorado as the company's "highest priority." He said Diamond Shamrock, which had revenues of $2.9 billion last year, wanted to open new stores up and down the booming Front Range. Running a pipeline from the oil company's refinery in the Texas panhandle to Colorado's population corridor, he added, was essential to that goal.
The following year, Diamond Shamrock completed construction of a 258-mile pipeline from McKee, Texas, to a terminal near the Colorado Springs airport. While some individual property owners in Otero and Pueblo counties in southern Colorado objected to the pipeline, there was little organized opposition, and the firm was able to build the line without much trouble. Ten inches in diameter, the pipeline is buried about three and a half feet below the ground and moves about 32,000 barrels of gasoline, diesel and jet fuel per day. Originally, Diamond Shamrock intended to serve the Front Range from Colorado Springs; the company later decided it would be more economical to run a line to the Denver area rather than truck its products up I-25.
In the summer of 1994, Diamond Shamrock proposed running the 88-mile extension in a straight line through the Black Forest, a wooded area northeast of Colorado Springs that's dotted with luxury homes. That idea brought a torrent of protest from residents, who feared contamination of groundwater and fire danger in the thick stands of Ponderosa pine that make up the forest. The El Paso County Planning Commission rejected Diamond Shamrock's proposal on a 6-3 vote. The oil company responded by suing the county in federal court, claiming it had to abide only by the federal Hazardous Liquid Pipeline Safety Act and was not subject to county regulation.
The suit raised a significant issue: Federal and state laws give utility companies the power of eminent domain (the right to condemn property in return for financial compensation), and just how much legal authority county governments have over interstate pipelines is open to question. In this case, however, that question was never answered. The suit was withdrawn after Diamond Shamrock offered to reroute its pipeline to the east of the Black Forest and the planning commissioners approved the new alignment. Several landowners to the east, in the area near the towns of Falcon and Eastonville, filed a lawsuit against the commission last November, challenging the decision on procedural grounds.
"We presented extensive geological data that we felt was overlooked," says Barbara Fillmore, a plaintiff in the lawsuit who owns a 400-acre ranch that extends into both Elbert and El Paso counties. Fillmore, who does consulting work for the U.S. Geological Survey, says her biggest fears involve the groundwater that families in the area depend on. "If there was ever a leak or rupture, it would flow immediately downhill into Kiowa Creek and reach the groundwater table in less than a day," she says. "In some areas, the water is just two feet below the surface."
Kiowa Creek is dry part of the year, and groundwater is the only reliable source of water for area residents. Fillmore estimates there are 36 wells in Elbert County and 50 in El Paso County that will be within 500 feet of the pipeline.
"The wells are very susceptible to being polluted," she adds. "My entire ranch is on alluvial material--sand and gravel. With that type of material, any kind of leak will run through it quickly and reach the groundwater."
Fillmore also worries about fire danger, noting that the small volunteer fire departments that serve the area would be hard-pressed to deal with a major pipeline explosion. "The local fire departments have said all they could do is evacuate people," she says. "Our Elbert fire department has equipment that looks like it's fifty years old. They don't have the equipment or knowledge to handle it." Since Fillmore's ranch is at 7,100 feet and winter storms can be harsh, she worries that emergency equipment from Colorado Springs would find it impossible to traverse the area's dirt roads in a blizzard.
But local fire officials say moving gasoline and other fuel by pipeline is far safer than moving it by tanker truck. "We'd just as soon see a pipeline come through as hauling gasoline with trucks," says Joe Gilbert, president of the Kiowa Fire Protection District board. "A pipeline isn't affected by snowstorms or hailstorms. There's all kinds of things that could happen to a truck." Gilbert says he has met several times with Diamond Shamrock to discuss fire danger and he is satisfied with the company's preparations.
Pipeline opponents, however, say fire may not be the most immediate hazard. Tractors and backhoes are a common sight in Elbert County, where ranchers stack bales of hay along barbed-wire fences and park farm equipment next to picturesque rooster-red barns. Many landowners fear careless construction work could puncture the pipeline, resulting in a disastrous spill that might contaminate wells for miles around. The pipeline's contents are transported under such intense pressure, says Dunn, an engineer and former Martin Marietta executive who lives near the small town of Elbert, that "from a one-inch hole you could fill a tanker truck every eight minutes.
"Diamond Shamrock argues they can design a pipeline that will never break," adds Dunn. "You show me a pipeline you can't break in five minutes with a backhoe. The electric lines are buried at six feet, and we manage to dig those up all the time."
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has expressed "serious concerns" to the Elbert County commissioners about the proposed pipeline. "I've seen the general route proposed," says George Moravec, head of the health department's Ground Water Unit. "The aquifers I'm most concerned about are the shallow alluvial aquifers. The potential is that if a spill did occur, it could affect the shallow aquifer that is being used for drinking-water supplies. Kiowa Creek is a primary concern."
In a recent letter to the Elbert County Planning Department, Moravec wrote that "the shallow depth to groundwater and very permeable nature of the aquifer make them highly vulnerable to contamination. Leakage of even small amounts of petroleum could seriously damage these aquifers, rendering them unfit as sources of drinking water." Moravec's letter went on to question the wisdom of running a high-pressure gasoline pipeline through an environmentally sensitive area, adding that "alternative routing could minimize the risk to these highly vulnerable aquifers and the threat to local water supplies."
Diamond Shamrock's consultants have claimed Moravec didn't take into account high-tech safeguards built into the pipeline. The health official says he's standing by his analysis.
Moravec's letter is cited by critics such as Dunn as proof of the pipeline's inherent hazards. But the document has been received as something less than a bombshell by the Elbert County commissioners. That's because, by law, the health department can only "advise" the county in such a case. Its warning has no legal authority.
In fact, much to the frustration of those seeking to thwart the project, the state as a whole has virtually nothing to do with the pipeline approval process. A spokesman for the Public Utilities Commission says the PUC can regulate pipelines that originate in Colorado but has no authority over interstate pipelines like Diamond Shamrock's. Federal and state laws give utility companies, including petroleum companies such as Diamond Shamrock, extensive power to run pipelines through private land. The companies are required to compensate landowners for the use of their property, but unwilling property owners can be forced to turn over acreage through condemnation proceedings.
Counties, too, have few legal means at their disposal when it comes to putting the brakes on a pipeline project. While state law gives counties some influence over the alignment of pipelines, it doesn't allow them to actually stop a pipeline project. The Elbert County commissioners insist that state guidelines set up in 1974 give them veto power over pipeline routes. "We have significant authority when it comes to deciding the routing of a pipeline," says Elbert County commissioner Bob Morrison.
However, Diamond Shamrock challenged that same state law when it sued El Paso County in 1994. If Elbert County turns down the proposed route that parallels Kiowa Creek, the county may very well find itself facing a similar suit from the oil giant. Morrison says he can't speculate on possible legal action, since the commissioners haven't yet made their decision on the pipeline.
Morrison won't tip his hand as to how he'll vote on the proposal. "We have to look at what's best for the overall county," he says. "We already have five pipelines in the county, but they tend to start farther east and traverse the county. There's always concern with aquifers. It has to be done right."
Even opponents of the Diamond Shamrock proposal say they wouldn't object to the pipeline if it ran through the eastern section of Elbert County. Morrison agrees that the pipeline would be far less controversial in that area, which is sparsely populated and draws groundwater from deeper levels than many of the wells on the western side of the county.
But Diamond Shamrock insists the current route is the best one. "We did look at going further east," says corporate spokeswoman Kathy Hughes. "If you go further east, you encounter more problems. The pipeline would be a lot longer, and it goes over other sensitive areas. The route we selected is the most practical. It's the shortest route, and we feel it's the best route."
Hughes says Diamond Shamrock has already secured support from most of the landowners along its preferred route. And in an apparent attempt to bring more residents over to its side, the huge petroleum company has opened its pocketbook, donating $6,000 to the Elbert School for a new athletic-field scoreboard. Byron Wood describes that contribution as "petty influence peddling" and says it's part of the company's effort to win over the rural community.
Diamond Shamrock has tried to sidestep the property of pipeline opponents like Wood. The pipeline's proposed route runs along a ridge directly east of Kiowa Creek, taking a few abrupt twists around the property of people strongly opposed to the project. "The first route was within 180 feet of my well," says Wood. "They really sliced and diced my property, and I raised hell about it. Then they moved it a quarter of a mile to the east where we're building a house for my daughter. Then they said 'To hell with it' and moved it to my neighbor's property. They're taking the course of least resistance."
Last week pipeline opponents were stunned when their longtime ally, Barbara Fillmore, apparently dropped her opposition to the pipeline after Diamond Shamrock agreed to reroute it two miles away from her property. Fillmore, who was adamantly opposed to the pipeline when interviewed by Westword in April, declined to comment on her change of heart. She did not attend last week's Elbert County Planning Commission meeting, and the revised maps submitted to the county by Diamond Shamrock show the pipeline snaking around her property.
Those fighting the oil company see the Fillmore incident as one more example of Diamond Shamrock's ability to divide and conquer. But Hughes says the company has been willing to change the pipeline's course because it wants to avoid using its powers of condemnation. "We'll try everything possible to reach agreements with landowners," she says. "We have the right of eminent domain by both federal and state law, but we've rarely had to use it. We've built several pipelines the last few years and rarely had to use eminent domain."
The new pipeline will have up-to-the-minute safety features, Hughes says. "It will be high-strength pipe that's monitored 24 hours a day by satellite," she says. "There will be a number of shut-off valves up and down the pipeline." Her company has exceeded safety standards, Hughes insists, adding that most pipeline damage occurs from third-party use. "If we see any construction anywhere near the pipeline, we call the contractor," says Hughes. "We also bury a warning tape above the pipeline. We've come a long way in making these pipelines. The way they're buried and welded is a lot above what was around thirty years ago."
Although the current project has dragged Diamond Shamrock into the spotlight, it doesn't mark the company's first entry into the county--nor is this the first time it has gone to court to protect its interests. The company has had the right to use a portion of an existing Phillips Petroleum pipeline for years. That line enters the county from the southeast and then runs northwest of Kiowa and Elizabeth toward Denver.
But Diamond Shamrock wasn't happy sharing a pipeline with a competitor. The company became embroiled in a legal conflict with Phillips over that pipeline, maintaining that Phillips was overcharging Diamond Shamrock for its right to 30 percent of the pipeline capacity. That case was settled in Diamond Shamrock's favor in federal appeals court last year. Hughes insists that that conflict had nothing to do with plans for the new pipeline, which the company wants to support its ambitious expansion efforts.
Diamond Shamrock already has 175 stores in Colorado and wants the capacity to support many more. "In the last five years we've increased our stores in Colorado, and that part of the Phillips pipeline wasn't enough to meet our needs," Hughes says. And Elbert County is the last major obstacle to the company's vision of a Denver connection, which, if completed, would give it a straight shot into the lucrative Front Range consumer market and DIA.
If and when the company reaches an agreement with Elbert County, Diamond Shamrock will push its pipeline north into Arapahoe County, where the going promises to be much smoother. Hughes says Arapahoe County won't require the company to go through its planning commission, adding that El Paso and Elbert are the only Colorado counties that have made the huge petroleum company go through the planning process. She says Diamond Shamrock expects few problems in Arapahoe County, a view that's confirmed by county officials.
"We haven't heard any concerns about the pipeline," says Arapahoe County planning director Rich Waldmeyer. He says the county has never required pipeline developers to go to the county planning commission. "We just don't feel it's necessary," he adds.
Whether or not the pipeline gets built, it will have left its mark on Elbert County, where bitter struggles over development schemes now seem certain to mark the future.
That became apparent last November, when a meeting on the pipeline project erupted in accusations and threats. The result was a recall effort against one county commissioner and a major election challenge to another. What exactly happened at the meeting is disputed, but that night's events have become part of the political folklore of Elbert County.
"The executive vice-president of Diamond Shamrock got up and said, 'We're a very big oil company,' and the people began to boo and hiss," recalls Byron Wood. "Bob Morrison said, 'Get the sheriff.' We were told to hush up or the sheriff would throw us out. It was a public meeting, yet we were told to sit down and shut up."
About 75 people were packed into the small hearing room on the second floor of the Elbert County courthouse. Dunn challenged a statement by former county planning director Mary Adami, and Morrison told him he wouldn't tolerate interruptions and that people would be removed by the sheriff if necessary. "He threatened people and tried to throw them out of the meeting," Dunn says.
Morrison insists the meeting was intended to let Diamond Shamrock make its presentation to the community and was not meant to be a public forum. "At the very beginning of the meeting, Mr. Dunn stood up and started screaming at the planning director," Morrison says. "They wanted it to be a complete public hearing."
Several of the pipeline opponents were so offended by Morrison's remarks they launched a recall effort against the commissioner a few weeks later, accusing him of arrogance and disregard for his constituents. That effort was dropped in January after state Senate president Tom Norton of Greeley introduced legislation that would have stripped the power of Colorado counties to deny special-use permits, making it all but impossible for Elbert County to have any influence over Diamond Shamrock. Morrison and his critics agreed to temporarily drop their gloves so they could jointly lobby the state legislature against that proposal, which was eventually defeated.
The November showdown at the courthouse also launched Dunn into politics. He decided to challenge commissioner Charlotte Heinz and won 80 delegates to the incumbent's 82 at the county convention in April, ensuring a hard-fought primary in August. The convention vote revealed a split in the county, with most of Heinz's support coming from the east--which is still dominated by longtime ranching families--while Dunn carried the fast-developing northwest part of the county.
Dunn is critical of all three present county commissioners, claiming that they're simply unprepared to deal with the development pressure the county is under. "The people who come out here really want the rural setting," he says. "We think finally people are waking up."
A tall man with a booming voice, Dunn has lived in Elbert County for 33 years. A former executive with Martin Marietta, he once commuted to the Martin plant in Jefferson County by air, flying a small plane from a landing strip on his ranch and touching down on a baseball field near the huge complex. "I really care about where I live, and I'm mad enough now to do something about it," Dunn says.
Other development issues that have become hot topics in Elbert County include the constant stream of jet noise over the northwest part of the county from planes flying into DIA and a proposal to build a new power line and electrical substation. Dunn alleges that the current commissioners and county staff simply don't have the expertise or confidence to deal with these problems, or to stand up to companies like Diamond Shamrock. "When people are uneducated they're afraid of educated people," he says. "We have uneducated people in there and that's what we're facing."
Dunn says Elbert County has suffered from constant turnover in the county planning office and badly needs professional guidance as it struggles with rapid-fire development. (Three planning-department employees, including the director, resigned in January, citing low pay and better opportunities in the Denver area.) He sees neighboring Douglas County--which has approved zoning for hundreds of thousands of new residents with a only a limited groundwater supply--as an example of what not to do. He advocates beefing up the county planning staff and establishing a water commission and wants all new subdivisions in Elbert County to have at least a 300-year groundwater supply.
Morrison describes his critics as "single-issue people" who aren't looking at the larger picture. "I'd question any group that has a 'not in my backyard' attitude," he says. "Our county government is as strong as any in rural Colorado. With the extreme amount of growth we've had in the last three or four years, we've adopted regulations to ensure that things are done correctly."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Morrison's grandparents homesteaded in eastern Elbert County in 1906, and he ran the family ranch until becoming a commissioner three years ago. He says much of the criticism of county government is coming from newcomers. "A lot of people move into the area and say, 'I'm here now and no one else can come,'" he says. "A lot of these people talking about growth are living on hobby farms."
Dunn, meanwhile, is confident he'll be elected a county commissioner in the fall, and he vows that business as usual will come to an end in Elbert County. "We've had a community of sleepers, but finally we've woken up," he says. "I'm absolutely appalled with what's happening in the county. The five biggest problems in the county are growth, growth, growth, growth and growth. There's a group of us who can see it coming. It's still not too late for Elbert County."
The county commissioners will hold a public meeting on the pipeline proposal May 15 in Kiowa, and a vote could come soon after. And whatever the outcome, the uproar over the pipeline seems sure to affect Elbert County for years to come. "Diamond Shamrock wants to ram the pipeline down our throats whether we want it or not," says Dunn. "Why would we risk our water supply? If the commissioners vote for the pipeline, they'll make everybody in this valley mad.