MAMMOTH CAVE NATIONAL PARK, Ky. (WDRB) – In a cool, vast chamber inside Mammoth Cave, a steady shower of water fell through a cracked ceiling and hammered the floor.

It had entered the cave through a network of underground channels that move and store water from miles around.

But Mammoth Cave officials worry that the park’s watershed – and the creatures it supports -- could be at risk from a hazardous liquids pipeline being planned nearby. The pipe’s owner wants to stop shipping natural gas to the northeast and begin moving natural gas liquids to the Gulf Coast, passing through Kentucky along the way.

A pipeline rupture could send chemicals into the groundwater and toward the national park, said Bobby Carson, chief of Mammoth Cave’s science and resources management division. The park is home to endangered species of mussels, cave shrimp and bats.

“There’s just lots of life that could be impacted by those chemical products – whatever they are – and we’re still not sure what those products would be,” Carson said.

Similar concerns have flooded into the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which is weighing whether to allow Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co., an affiliate of Houston-based Kinder Morgan, to abandon more than 950 miles of natural gas pipeline from Louisiana to Ohio. The agency’s approval would be the first step in eventually putting a new product in the line.

The "repurposed" pipeline would run from Greenup County to Simpson County and cover about 256 miles in Kentucky. It would cross under Herrington Lake near Danville and beneath the Ohio River in Greenup. The project would build about seven miles of new line.

But the plan has met with grassroots and government resistance, according to a WDRB News review of comments filed with federal regulators.

More than 200 people have submitted comments, many raising environmental and public safety concerns about the project. So have groups such as the Kentucky Conservation Committee, which argued that the line is “neither safe nor in the public interest”; and the Kentucky River Watershed Watch, which wrote that the project “poses a real and considerable threat to major water supplies.”

In a March letter, the Kentucky State Nature Preserves Commission warned of “potential significant impacts” on natural resources and indicated more research needs to be done on several properties it owns and manages. Preserves in Barren, Powell, Allen and Marion counties are close to the pipeline route, commission director Donald Dott said in an interview.

Also in March, the Marion County Fiscal Court passed a resolution noting public safety, health and environmental concerns with the project, specifically the lack of government review and oversight and threats to the area’s drinking water supply.

It followed the lead of other counties, including Taylor and Boyle, where leaders have pushed back against the plan.

Barren County approved its own resolution against the project last month. The 27 miles passing through the county are the most of any Kentucky county, Judge-Executive Micheal Hale said in an interview.

The line would cut through a mostly rural, agricultural area. Hale said he’s worried about a pipeline spill leaching chemicals into sinkholes and eventually into the county’s drinking water.

“Big companies aren’t going to push us around,” said Hale, a Democrat who took office earlier this year. “I mean, we’re rural America. We’re southcentral Kentucky and we’re taking a stand against this.”

In a May 18 letter to federal regulators, the National Park Service raised questions about the integrity of the pipeline and the planned switch to a product for which it wasn’t designed. The line includes segments that are more than 70 years old.

Mammoth Cave superintendent Sarah Craighead asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, to require a dye-trace study that would show how groundwater moves in the project area and reveal “critical scientific information.”

But pipeline officials don’t plan to conduct such a study, said Melissa Ruiz, a Kinder Morgan spokeswoman. Still, Ruiz said in an emailed response to questions that “assessing consequence areas along the pipeline, topography and water bodies are carefully considered.”

Kinder Morgan maintains that “pipelines are the safest way to transport liquids.” In a filing with FERC, one of the company’s attorneys claimed 99.999 percent of products are safely transported by pipe.

Once the natural gas is removed, a separate Kinder Morgan company would own and operate the pipeline, which would ship natural gas liquids -- substances like ethane, butane and propane that are used in the automotive, plastics and other industries.

Some Kentucky residents argue that aside from temporary construction jobs, the Kinder Morgan pipeline doesn’t benefit the state. In short, they say, Kentucky gets all of the risk but none of the reward.

“I don’t see any positives for the residents of the state of Kentucky at all. We just happen to be on the route to the refinery,” said Michael Eirich of Richmond, Ky.

Eirich and others have formally asked FERC for an environmental impact study on the project. The agency is analyzing the pipeline proposal and hasn’t determined whether a broader study is warranted, a spokeswoman said.

The age of the pipeline has led to calls to install new line, rather than convert an older one. Kentucky State Sen. Jimmy Higdon, a Republican representing Marion County, told FERC he is opposed to a World War II-era pipe carrying natural gas liquids and insisted the line be replaced.

But Kinder Morgan’s Ruiz said the line now in service “could safely be used in natural gas liquids service.” Pipeline officials have analyzed the line using “smart pigs” and other technology and will upgrade sections up to current standards if needed, she said.  

Recent pipeline failures in the U.S. have shown that inspecting lines doesn’t always identify cracks and other threats.

An Enbridge crude oil pipeline in Michigan ruptured in 2010, sending at least 843,000 gallons of oil into wetlands and the Kalamazoo River, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. The company did not detect the leak for 17 hours, the agency found.

The NTSB concluded that Enbridge had allowed known cracks in corroded areas to spread, leading to the failure.

“A smart pig is not going to prevent a major rupture. It simply won’t. Those things will just happen,” said Tim Joice, water policy director for the Kentucky Waterways Alliance.

Kinder Morgan’s plan to add natural gas liquids to an aging pipeline and move them in a different direction is a “recipe for disaster,” he said.

Last month, state Rep. David Floyd said he plans to file a bill in the 2016 Kentucky General Assembly that would give the state a greater role in inspecting hazardous liquids and other pipelines. Floyd, a Bardstown Republican, said he is especially concerned about the Kinder Morgan line.

The Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co., the Kinder Morgan subsidiary whose line would be repurposed, had 96 incidents that caused more than $88 million in damage over the past decade, according to data from the U.S. Pipeline & Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. Five of those incidents were in Kentucky.

But Ruiz said Kinder Morgan is among the “safest asset operators in North America, recognized industry-wide as a leader in emergency preparedness, incident response and integrity management for our pipeline network.”

Back at Mammoth Cave, officials say they want to know exactly what kinds of products would be shipped through the nearby pipeline and which agency, if any, would regulate it, Carson said.

“There’s going to have be a lot of … environmental discussion about how this is going to be safeguarded from having a catastrophic event,” he said.

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