A county decides to fight back on pipelineCARPENTER – There are no oil reserves waiting to be jacked from beneath the fertile soils of the James River valley. But the Jim is a slow-draining river, falling just an inch per mile in many stretches. And that long flat valley provides a near-perfect path for TransCanada to build a transcontinental oil pipeline through South Dakota.
By: Bob Mercer, On Dakota
CARPENTER – There are no oil reserves waiting to be jacked from beneath the fertile soils of the James River valley. But the Jim is a slow-draining river, falling just an inch per mile in many stretches. And that long flat valley provides a near-perfect path for TransCanada to build a transcontinental oil pipeline through South Dakota.
You can see one impact from TransCanada’s Keystone construction if you drive down the Carpenter Road. Do not expect to go faster than 40 miles per hour, even if you happen to be there on a Tuesday right after the weekly grading.
Officially known as 415 Street in the Clark County rural addressing system, the two-lane gravel highway runs south from Carpenter. In the past year, it has been beaten down, and pushed around. What’s left now is little better than a two-track.
The road clearly hasn’t been completely neglected. You can see the pink of fresh gravel at the slumped shoulders. Different colored fill-ins patch deeper cross-rips and potholes. But drive other county roads away from the construction and you instantly see 415 Street is not the way it’s supposed to be.
Road wear and field damage have become a rallying cause for many of the people who are wary of or outright opposed to TransCanada’s projects in South Dakota. The negative impacts are a counter-weight to the temporary economic benefits from construction jobs, and to the ongoing financial windfall for school districts and county governments, which will share millions of dollars in additional property taxes.
TransCanada goes to a public hearing Monday before the state Public Utilities Commission for a permit to construct and operate a second oil pipeline, known as Keystone XL. This new second project is proposed to enter South Dakota from Montana at the northwest corner of Harding County, and continue on a southeast path until finally reaching Tripp County, from where it would enter Nebraska.
A different type of public hearing took place in the Spink County Courthouse a few days ago. The county commissioners were trying, and still are trying, to assemble a land-use zoning ordinance that would regulate hazardous-material pipelines carrying petroleum, anhydrous ammonia and related products. While local opinions ran strongly in favor of the proposed ordinance, the commissioners decided it would go too far in some ways and needs more work.
Essentially the ordinance would be a political insurance policy. No one has proposed putting another pipeline through Spink County. There’s already a gasoline products pipeline and a natural gas pipeline, while the TransCanada skirts by to east in Clark County. Because no one seemed to foresee the Keystone pipeline coming, the potential for another TransCanada or some other project through Spink County has put many people on alert.
With the ordinance, citizens are trying to find a way to better protect themselves against the risks associated with an unknown future project, which if it’s an interstate pipeline they now know they likely cannot stop. Fundamentally they are trying to change the equation between who is powerful and who is powerless.
This is not something new. The oldest generation of men and women in Spink County, and throughout the upper James River valley and the counties west to the Missouri River, went through a neighbor-splitting fight more than 30 years ago when the Oahe irrigation project was proposed.
The opponents, organized under the banner of the United Family Farmers group, eventually won. The federal project was killed in Washington, D.C., and then was essentially transformed into rural water systems that are in place today, such as WEB Water Development Association, whose general manager is Curt Hohn.
The hard lines drawn back in the Oahe fight remain in place for many today in opposing TransCanada. Hohn was the clear leader in fighting TransCanada’s Keystone permit. He was a major presence last week during the Spink County ordinance hearing.
The latest draft of the proposed pipeline ordinance was rejected by the commissioners Tuesday because it ventured too far into federal jurisdiction on matters such as pipe-wall thickness and setbacks from buildings and livestock feeding areas.
The commissioners are not quitting, however, because they see a need to try to protect the common features of a rural society such as roads and water systems. One major feature of the proposed ordinance would have required a minimum $1 million bond for road repairs and up to $10 million. The actual amount would have been determined through a formula using the numbers of cross-cuts and crossings needed, and the miles of gravel and paved roads that would be used.
During the public hearing on the ordinance, Pam Hofer of rural Carpenter presented her concerns about road damage to the commission and then walked across the room to hand a road-repair bill to TransCanada representative Jeff Rauh.
When it was Rauh’s turn, he defended TransCanada’s efforts on the roads. He said there have been two years of wet weather and fall 2008 was the wettest on record in the area. He acknowledged not all roads have been adequately repaired.
Unfortunately, the actions of TransCanada haven’t sufficiently reflected a common rule of rural courtesy: Leave a place as good, or better, than you found it. Weather isn’t an acceptable excuse for landowners who perceive they are powerless in controlling their property when an interstate pipeline wants to come through.
Frustration and resentment only intensify when the pipeline corporation has the protection of federal law regarding eminent domain and interstate commerce. Landowners feel further unprotected because of gaps in state law, such as not requiring a federal environmental impact statement to be completed before the PUC makes its permit decision.
So people are left to look for what they can directly control, such as through a county zoning ordinance. They feel pushed to revolt, to attempt to impose their own law, even if it they have no power to do so under federal law, even if they could expose the county taxpayers and the commissioners individually to the costs of a lawsuit.
“We have no power,” Jerry Pulling of Mellette, a WEB board member, told the commissioners that morning. “Let’s pass it and see if it’s legal.”
The four county commissioners at the hearing – Dave Albrecht, Brian Johnson, Jeffrey Albrecht and Craig Johnson – wouldn’t go down that road. They clearly want an ordinance, too, but one they can be confident will stand up in a court of law. If the next pipeline does come, they will want the county to be in the right, not powerless.