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Before Standing Rock, Dakota Access Pipeline faced resistance in Iowa

Energy Transfer Partners built its controversial pipeline in Iowa via eminent domain and slipshod science, locals testified

Boats on Lake Oahe (Photo: U.S. Transportation Dept.)

“We adamantly oppose this pipeline going through our farm,” says a letter signed by Francis and Janice Goebel, “as there are no guarantees it will never have leaks or other environmental problems. This only benefits ETP,” or Energy Transfer Partners, the company behind the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline, “and not me, my wife or any public purpose.”

Before the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota began its months-long, public standoff with Energy Transfer Partners and the Morton County Sheriff’s department over the Dakota Access Pipeline, saying that the project put their water supply at risk and that they weren't properly consulted, landowners, environmental scientists, and agricultural experts in Iowa voiced similar concerns about the project.

The Goebel family, like other Iowa landowners in the path of the Dakota Access Pipeline, wrote letters to the Iowa Utilities Board in July 2015 urging the agency to reject necessary permits there for the project. “Our century-plus-old farm was taken care of for four generations and I will do my best to keep it that way,” they wrote in their objection.

Some of the landowners describe being threatened by Energy Transfer Partners with eminent domain, even before the Iowa Utilities Board granted its approval for the pipeline. “The piece of land on my farm which Bakken wishes to condemn has been in our family for over 80 years,” Herman Rook wrote to the Iowa Utilities Board.

“Iowa’s soil is an irreplaceable resource that should not be subject to irreversible damage from the construction of a pipeline and potential spills after the pipeline would be in use...Use of eminent domain for a pipeline is unfair,” says another letter, signed by Catherine Scott. And Iowan farmers Sandra Renegar and Candace Chesney, whose land is also in the path of the pipeline, wrote to the state utility agency that they had been given no information about the project and wouldn’t have “unless we had shown initiative to seek it ourselves.”

Researchers and scientists give warning

Several months later, in October 2015, the Iowa Utilities Board held a hearing to determine whether they should grant the permits to Energy Transfer Partners. Testimony from experts in land and the environment suggests that the local farmers' concerns weren’t unfounded.

Dr. Erwin Klaas, an ecology professor at Iowa State University who used to work for the United States Department of Interior and then served on his county’s soil conversation district, told the Iowa Utilities Board that pipeline construction “will immediately and directly affect more than 6,200 acres of land in Iowa, most of it prime agricultural land.”

Klaas also told the board, according to hearing transcripts, that “construction will remove three soil horizons that will be impossible to restore to its original productivity." The temperature of the oil in the pipeline may prevent farmers' soil from freezing, he added,“which would subject the land to erosion.”

Dr. James Hansen, the prominent climate scientist formerly at NASA and currently at Columbia University, who once described the Keystone Pipeline XL Pipeline as “game over” for the planet, testified in his home state that the impacts of this pipeline would spread much further than the borders of Iowa.

While Hansen’s research has already suggested that humans have pumped too much carbon into the atmosphere to prevent climate change, he testified to the Iowa Utilities Board that much of the damage can still be stopped: “Restoration of our climate system, and thus, protection of our children’s future, is still possible if we act with reason, courage, and no further delay."

Short on details

The immediate environmental impacts of the pipeline construction on Iowan land, according to the experts who testified against it last year, are also unclear because Energy Transfer Partners’ studies were short on details, they said. Dr. John Doershuk, Iowa’s State Archaeologist, said that Energy Transfer Partners never consulted with him before seeking permits for the project, and he described their archeological investigations on the route as “woefully inadequate.”

Doershuk, as well as Hansen, Klaas and six other experts provided their testimony against the Dakota Access Pipeline on behalf of Sierra Club’s Iowa chapter, which unsuccessfully organized a campaign to stop the project.

In June of this year, despite the objections from landowners and experts, the Iowa Utilities Board gave Energy Transfer Partners the go-ahead to begin pipeline construction on all state land outside the jurisdiction of the US Army Corps of Engineers, which regulates most of the pipeline's route and has already granted approval for much of the project. The utilities board was not swayed by the expert opinions testifying on Sierra Club’s behalf. “No, just the opposite,” Wily Taylor, the Chair of Sierra Club’s Iowa chapter, tells ConsumerAffairs.

Pipeline gains ground

By September, Energy Transfer Partners announced that the entire Dakota Access Pipeline project was already 60 percent complete. The 1,172 mile pipeline is supposed to transfer crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields to Illinois, and is crossing South Dakota and Iowa along the way.

“I am proud of our work on Dakota Access,” CEO Kelcy Warren said in a letter to shareholders at the time, as controversies at the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North Dakota began attracting national attention. “We have designed the state-of-the-art Dakota Access pipeline as a safer and more efficient method of transporting crude oil than the alternatives being used today, namely rail and truck.” (Spokespeople for the Energy Transfer Partners have not returned a recent interview request).

To be sure, reports and studies do suggest that transporting crude oil via pipeline is safer than rail or truck, where accidents can create lethal explosions. But environmentalists say that pipeline leaks are not uncommon and have more long-lasting consequences.

“Although an explosion from a rail car is more dramatic, the damage is much less severe and is more restrictive in terms of area,” Pam Mackey-Taylor of Sierra Club Iowa tells ConsumerAffairs. Regardless, Sierra Club's goal is to curb fossil fuel dependency all-together, they say, rather than propose alternative methods to transport oil.

Feds threaten protesters with eviction

On December 4, military veterans plan to arrive at the protest camps in North Dakota to defend the water protectors, as the protesters on the reservation call themselves. The Army Corps of Engineers, coincidentally or not, announced last week that they would evacuate the main protest camp on December 5 and set up a “free speech zone” further from the construction area.

But the federal agencies that have allowed the pipeline to cross through four states have also lent some timid approval to the protesters in recent months. The Corps of Engineers announced on November 14 that they would temporarily halt planned pipeline construction under Lake Oahe, a source of water for the Sioux and now the site of intense protests.

That follows an announcement President Barack Obama made this year that he would ask Energy Transfer Partners to "voluntarily" halt construction on federal land near Lake Oahe, which connects to the Missouri River through the Oahe Dam.

Whether Energy Transfer Partners has followed that request is unclear. The Corps only says that they expect the pipeline company to follow all federal laws. “The pipeline company has not been granted the easement that is required before any horizontal drilling beneath USACE [United States Army Corps of Engineers]-managed federal lands at Lake Oahe can begin,” Corps spokesperson Moira Kelley tells ConsumerAffairs via email.

“The easement necessary for the pipeline to cross USACE-managed federal land at Lake Oahe is currently under review. We expect all parties involved to adhere to federal law. There is no timeline for this review period. A determination is expected in the near future.”

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