O'NEILL, Neb. — Rerouting the Keystone XL pipeline around Nebraska's groundwater-rich Sand Hills didn't translate into a kinder greeting for the project from landowners here Wednesday.
More than 200 local ranchers, farmers and other concerned citizens strolled past maps and exhibits at the first public meeting to discuss a 170-mile-long, 2,000-foot-wide corridor proposed by pipeline developer TransCanada Inc. to bypass the Sand Hills.
The majority of landowners, in face-to-face conversations with state and pipeline officials, said the new route was no better and still crossed areas with high water tables and fragile, sandy soils like those in the Sand Hills.
“No matter what they say, this is still the Sand Hills. It's delicate ground,” said Laura Meusch, whose ranch is on the south side of the Niobrara River, 18 miles north of Stuart.
She fought back tears after viewing the aerial maps that confirmed that the new route for the 36-inch, high-pressure crude-oil pipeline will cross about 2 miles of her hay and pasture ground.
“This is hurting awful bad,” Meusch said.
It was the first of four information sessions conducted by the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality and its contractor, HDR of Omaha, to provide information about the controversial pipeline and TransCanada's new proposed corridor.
Another meeting is scheduled for Thursday at the Neligh-Oakdale High School from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., followed by sessions Wednesday in Albion and May 17 in Central City.
The new pipeline route was drawn after opponents in Nebraska and across the nation objected to crossing the Sand Hills, a vast grassland that overlies some of the thickest portions of the Ogallala Aquifer. The aquifer supplies 80 percent of the drinking water in the region and 30 percent of the nation's water for irrigating crops.
The new route bypasses the Sand Hills as delineated in a 2001 eco-region map developed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, along with several state and federal agencies.
But landowner after landowner said the new pathway still crosses land that is just like the Sand Hills and, in some cases, was on old maps of the region. They said that it will take decades to reclaim grazing areas and that shallow ponds and high water tables are vulnerable to leaks of oil and associated chemicals from a pipeline.
To emphasize the point, rancher Karl Connell of Newport came to the meeting with a fistful of photographs showing sandy blowouts on his land and standing water. He even brought baby-food jars full of sand to hand out.
“I've been working (to revegetate) that blowout for 30 years and it's down to that,” Connell said, pointing to one photo showing a large sand-trap-like depression.
Connell, 59, whose ranch was crossed by the first pipeline route, will have a new pasture crossed by the new route.
He said the pipeline project should be rerouted through South Dakota, where the soil is heavier, to link up with the existing Keystone pipeline that crosses eastern Nebraska, which also has heavier clay soils.
Officials with TransCanada, as well as the DEQ, emphasized that the new route is not carved in stone and that the meetings are intended to address landowner concerns about the pipeline affecting farming or ranching operations, water wells and farmsteads.
“This will help us refine the route,” said TransCanada spokesman Terry Cunha. “This is a collaborative process.”
“We're not inflexible,” said Andrew Craig, an Omaha-based land manager for the company, which has its U.S. headquarters in Omaha and recently opened a branch office in Norfolk.
Cunha emphasized that the new route was dictated by Nebraska's map of the Sand Hills and the state's desire to avoid that area.
Mike Linder, the state DEQ director, said there are plenty of areas in Nebraska with sandy soil and high water tables, and the goal will be to protect the environment in such areas crossed by the pipeline.
Right now, TransCanada's land agents have been seeking landowner permission to survey potential routes through their preferred corridor.
Cunha said only about 30 percent of landowners have granted permission. That compares with more than 90 percent of landowners that had reached right-of-way agreements on the original 1,700-mile-long pipeline route.
He attributed the lower percentage to landowners being unavailable due to planting chores, those wishing to attend an informational meeting before talking to TransCanada, and a concerted effort by opposition groups, like the Nebraska Sierra Club and BOLD Nebraska, to urge landowners to ignore the land agents.
Michael Whatley, an official with a Houston-based pro-pipeline group, the Consumer Energy Alliance, said that he thought changing the pipeline route had “defused” most of the political opposition to the project in Nebraska, and that residents were more comfortable with it.
But Jane Kleeb of BOLD Nebraska said the low number of landowners who have permitted TransCanada survey crews says just the opposite.
“Shouldn't that number be 90 percent? That's the number they brag about,” Kleeb said. “This says that 70 percent of landowners are saying ‘no.'''
Not everyone at the meeting opposed the pipeline, and there are landowners on the new route who are in favor.
Tom James, a retiree from Creighton, said he came to the meeting to say the pipeline was a good idea.
“We need to drill, drill, drill,” James said. “The only thing I don't like is that not all of the oil will be sold in the U.S. At least I don't think that's the case.”
Albion-area farmer Tom Briese didn't attend the session. He said he favors the pipeline, even though he's still learning about the possible environmental impacts. He has permitted TransCanada surveyors on his crop land and welcomes the property taxes the pipeline will pay.
“The world has an insatiable appetite for fossil fuels, and nothing is risk free,” Briese said. “It will be built, and in all likelihood it will be built here regardless of any opposition. Maybe we should welcome the economic benefits.”
The state is expected to make a decision on the new route in six to nine months. If the project gains state and federal approval, construction could begin next year.
More information about the pipeline can be found at the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality website,www.deq.ne.gov.
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