By Kay Braddock
What procedures of abandonment will be followed when the pipeline is no longer used? How long will the reclamation process last after the pipe is in the ground and who determines when recovery of area range and farmland is complete? Is the thinner-walled pipe proposed to be used in much of eastern Montana safe? What about existing water lines, proposed transmission lines and oil spills?
Those were just a few of the concerns area landowners brought up during last week’s meeting with state and federal officials regarding TransCanada’s proposed Keystone XL pipeline project.
Construction of the 1,980-mile project of the 36-inch width pipeline is expected to begin as early as next spring. The proposed pipeline will run through 280 miles of six Montana counties, including 21 miles in Prairie County. Carrying a thick oil substance, the pipeline will run from the tar sands outside of Alberta, Canada to an existing pipeline near the Nebraska-Kansas border. It will then extend off of an existing line leading from Oklahoma to the Gulf Coast.
This was the second series of meetings in a little over a year hosted by state and federal officials addressing the proposed pipeline.
The Tuesday evening meeting held in Terry was one of six area meetings where landowners gathered to comment on the recently completed 800-page draft Environmental Impact Statement. The comment period on the draft EIS has been extended through June 16.
A final EIS is expected later this fall and is a required step before construction can begin on the project under the National Environmental Policy Act.
The over two-hour-long meeting was split almost equally between the recorded public comment period and the off-the-record answer period. Brian Duggan, U.S. State Department energy officer, who led the meeting, explained the purpose of the gathering was to record concerns addressed, not the responses given by state and federal officials.
“Everything that you have made a comment about, we will have to address,” Duggan told the gathering, explaining concerns brought up at the meeting but not mentioned in the draft EIS will be addressed in the final version. “We can’t just pretend that you didn’t say it or that you didn’t mail it in or you didn’t email it in.”
Landowners and others attending the meeting sat in the middle of the room while state and federal officials were in front. TransCanada representatives sat at tables in the back of the room.
“This is a meeting between your government and you,” Duggan began, noting TransCanada representatives were invited to attend to help by “lending their expertise” on particular topics.
Representatives from the Bureau of Land Management, Department of Transportation, Montana Department of Environmental Quality and Entrix, a third party environmental engineering firm that assisted the State Department with writing the draft EIS, were on hand to answer questions.
Area farmer Tim Hess led the comment period with a series of concerns regarding the proposed pipeline, which is scheduled to run through 1.5 miles of his farmland in Dawson County.
“They’ve totally underestimated the damage that digging a big trench through the middle of my farm is going to do,” Hess began. “They assume that it will heal in a year probably. Ask any farmer, that’s not true.”
Along with the recovery of affected land, Hess also questioned TransCanada’s length of oversight on the project, “lighter-walled pipe” and abandonment procedures.
“Nobody has told us what they do, what the process is,” Hess said referring to the abandonment of the pipeline. “Do they shut the switch off and leave it full of crud? Do they clean it out? Dig it out? Nobody knows.”
Pointing to areas where the Keystone XL pipeline will cross existing water lines, Kent Liles proposed a solution to prevent landowners from accidentally damaging the pipeline while maintaining water lines.
“I’m asking that these pipelines be sleeved for the width of the determined easement plus at least 50 feet each side of the easement,” Liles said, suggesting the sleeve should be made of material that can withstand crushing and corrosion.
With the sleeve in place, repairing leaking water lines would require the water line to be cut, pulled out of the sleeve and then a new section of water line threaded back into the hole of the sleeve. This process would most likely prevent damage from occurring to the Keystone XL pipeline, alleviating liability concerns of landowners or water well contractors.
Liles also addressed concerns regarding water lines that run parallel with the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, suggesting a 100-foot offset between the water line and the proposed 50-foot easement. This would allow landowners “adequate space for maintenance” explained Christie Liles in a later interview.
“If TransCanada has to drill a well for stock water or for water for construction use, we would like that that water right be conveyed to the landowner when the well is finished being drilled,” Liles said. “This would be instead of at the time of the commission. That way it would belong to the landowner to use that well.”
Liles also requested base line water tests of water sources be completed, with copies of the results given to the landowner and the Montana DEQ.
Other issues addressed included damages to roads caused by the use of heavy equipment during pipeline construction, along with concerns of the affect heat from the pipeline will have on crops, like winter wheat, and the proper replacement of topsoil.
Prairie County Commissioner Todd Devlin pointed to preliminary tax revenue estimates of $5 million that would be brought into the county from the Keystone XL project.
“This is a great opportunity for Prairie County, so long as the constituents are satisfied,” Devlin said. “Our number one complaint in our courthouse is at home is roads, roads, roads.”
The county road department currently works within a $240,000 annual budget, Devlin said, pointing out a new road blade was purchased last year for the first time in nearly 20 years. “We operate and maintain 655 miles of roads with that budget.”
Fallon farmer Doug Hjorth addressed concerns about the construction of transmission lines on private property.
“Why should I put something on my private land that’s going to be a detriment to me in the future if I accidentally hit it?” Hjorth asked. Pointing out the difficulty to have aerial spraying completed on crops due to transmission lines Hjorth added, “I think it really devalues our lands.”’
Officials offer information
“It’s some of the best commentary I’ve heard thus far on the pipeline trail,” Duggan said at the conclusion of the public comment period. “These are real issues that you’ve brought to our attention.”
DOT official Tom Finch led off with several facts regarding the pipeline project.
There will be 4 feet of soil between the top of the pipeline and ground surface, according to Finch, noting the unlikelihood of farm equipment affecting the pipeline, even when factoring in topsoil erosion.
A public awareness regulation requires TransCanada maintain contact with landowners regarding pipeline location issues and emergency response procedures. TransCanada is also required to complete 26 fly over inspections each year to observe for spills and watch for construction equipment that may be too close to the pipeline.
Regarding the quality of the lighter walled pipeline, Duggan pointed to TransCanada’s own self interest.
“They have a very strong incentive to make sure that the pipe is not going to rupture.”
TransCanada has requested special permits allowing .465 inch steel pipe rather than the .515 inch steel pipe to be used throughout most of project. The thinner-walled pipe will not be used in what was termed at the meeting as “high consequence” areas.
Terms like high consequence and low consequence areas were criticized.
One landowner called the low consequence term “truly offensive.”
Duggan said the term wasn’t referring to the value of the land or to those who populate it, but is used for areas with less population density and where less environmental sensitivities exist. He acknowledged, “It doesn’t play very well in the town hall.”
The use of an underground warning ribbon was brought up after one landowner pointed out that as the current proposal now sits landowners are given only 3 feet to repair current water lines that would neighbor the proposed pipeline. One suggestion recommended the warning ribbon be buried 3 feet above the pipeline.
Addressing the road management plan, TransCanada representative Jeff Rauh said the company would be working with local jurisdictions seeking a road use agreement. The plan will include a pre-inspection of the roads, maintenance of the roads by TransCanada during construction and a sign-off that states roads following the construction are adequate.
Duggan reviewed the process TransCanada will likely embark on in easement areas to complete the Keystone XL project. It includes: Digging up the land, laying the pipe, backfilling, sequestering the top soil as required, reseeding and planting vegetation.
“I’m not saying it’s your patriotic duty to be in favor of the pipeline, not in the least,” Duggan said. Adding, “We do think there is a need for this.”