Kinder Morgan CEO to be deposed in Belton leak case

By: Mike Eads, Source: Independent Mail, Originally Published: 12.21.16

GREENVILLE – A federal judge ruled Wednesday that Kinder Morgan CEO Ron McClain can be deposed for a lawsuit that alleges his company ruined several hundred acres near Belton with a 2014 gasoline leak from its Plantation Pipe Line.

U.S. District Court Judge Henry Herlong said attorney Gary Poliakoff could question McClain as part of the lawsuit he has brought on behalf of Eric and Scott Lewis against the Houston-based pipeline operator regarding the December 2014 leak. State officials and environmental watchdog groups have said that more than 369,000 gallons of fuel spilled into the soil and groundwater on and around the Lewises’ 350-plus-acre farm northwest of Belton, near the Cheddar community.

At the preliminary hearing Wednesday in Herlong’s court in downtown Greenville, Poliakoff argued that McClain was a party to several communications with federal regulators regarding pipeline maintenance and other issues related to the Plantation line.

Herlong dismissed the argument from Rick Morton, one of the attorneys representing Kinder Morgan in the case, that McClain has no special knowledge of the Belton spill or the case brought by the Lewis brothers.

Poliakoff told Herlong that he intends to show at the trial — which could begin as soon as next June — that there were long-standing maintenance issues with the Plantation line that McClain and other Kinder Morgan officials were aware of and failed to properly address. That information is part of what is expected to be a claim for punitive damages beyond the damage done to the Lewis farm.

“We know that the Plantation Pipe Line has had 291 sleeve repairs. … That’s a lot of sleeve repairs,” Poliakoff told Herlong.

Herlong also ordered Morton to hand over other information before year’s end, including the name of the company that owned the gasoline that leaked from the line — Kinder Morgan transports fuel owned by its customers — and just how long the leak lasted before the company took action.

Morton took exception to Herlong’s rulings.

“This is a property-damage case. No one was killed; no one was injured,” Morton told the judge.

In a related matter, Herlong ordered the environmental watchdog group Savannah Riverkeeper to hand over data and pictures it collected as part of its campaign to get Kinder Morgan to finish cleaning up the fuel spill.

Morton’s colleague Clay Custer told the judge that the group, along with the Southern Environmental Law Center and Upstate Forever, have been communicating with Poliakoff in expectation of bringing their own lawsuit against the company for violating the federal Clean Water Act.

“Mr. Poliakoff has access to all that stuff and we don’t,” Custer said.

SELC Senior Attorney Frank Holleman and Poliakoff denied they were working together, but Holleman did say that once the environmentalists bring their lawsuit and start the discovery process, there would be information generated of use to the attorneys in both cases.

The SELC and other two groups released some of their testing data and pictures from the leak site when they issued a news release in October that Kinder Morgan was being put on notice to finish its cleanup work in 60 days or face a federal Clean Water Act lawsuit.

That lawsuit could be filed as early as next week, Holleman said.

Herlong ruled in Kinder Morgan’s favor, in essence ordering Savannah Riverkeeper to hand over the materials it included in its October news release.

Morton and Custer declined to comment after the hearing, as did Kinder Morgan spokeswoman Melissa Ruiz.

Follow Mike Eads on Twitter @MikeEads_AIM