Gasoline Alley

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.

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Stuart Steers
Contact: Stuart Steers