LINCOLN — A proposed new route for the Keystone XL pipeline meets the intent of the Nebraska Legislature to bypass the state's environmentally sensitive Sand Hills region, a state agency said Tuesday.
But the agency suggested Trans-Canada consider some route adjustments to avoid areas of sandy soil and shallow aquifers on the new path for the crude-oil pipeline.
The Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality identified “thin, unconfined” aquifers in areas north and west of Stuart, Neb., and a protection area around the municipal wellfield for Clarks, Neb., as of particular concern.
The Stuart area aquifer is overlaid by sand — like aquifers in the Sand Hills — DEQ officials said, and provides the only water source for people and cattle in that area.
Pat Rice, who is heading up the DEQ's review of the pipeline, said the state cannot dictate a route and can only judge the route that's submitted.
“We are trying to encourage them to look at alternatives,” Rice said. “But it's up to them to determine where the route is.”
The 68-page “feedback report,” compiled by the DEQ and its contractor, HDR of Omaha, is intended to guide TransCanada Inc. in refining a final route, a process expected to be completed next month.
It detailed many of the concerns raised by citizens during public meetings in May, including questions about emergency response to spills, chemical makeup of the oil and how quickly leaks would be detected.
The report urged TransCanada to “carefully consider route variations” and where it was not possible, to outline why that wasn't possible, and describe steps to protect groundwater quality in areas of concern.
A spokesman for the company said TransCanada will study the report as part of its goal to build “the safest, most advanced pipeline built in America.”
“This feedback will help us address the public's questions before a new route is finalized,” said spokesman Shawn Howard in an email. “We have constructed projects through all kinds of sensitive areas with great success.”
A leading opponent of the project, meanwhile, said she was “thrilled” that DEQ was raising some of the same “red flags” as citizens, but questioned whether the state would get clear answers.
“If anything, (TransCanada) will give a lot of P.R. spin to a lot of the questions,” said Jane Kleeb of Bold Nebraska, a Lincoln-based environmental group. “That's how they operate.”
The pipeline company had initially chosen a route for its 36-inch, high-pressure pipeline that crossed the heart of the Sand Hills.
That drew concern from environmentalists and politicians, including Gov. Dave Heineman, about the threat a pipeline leak could bring to one of the state's most valuable resources — the abundant groundwater, including the Ogallala aquifer, that underlies the Sand Hills.
TransCanada initially said it was impossible to change the route, and agreed to encase the pipe in concrete and to take other steps. But after the U.S. State Department in November identified the Sand Hills aquifer as a major concern that required more study, the company changed course and agreed to reroute the pipeline in exchange for an expedited state review of the new route.
The company had identified a 2,000-foot-wide preferred “corridor” in which the pipeline could be placed around the Sand Hills.
During public hearings on the proposal, some landowners expressed concerns that the new route still would pass through areas similar to the Sand Hills, which has porous, sandy soils and high groundwater tables. Others questioned whether emergency response would be quick enough to oil spills in remote, rural areas, and whether the exact chemical composition of the crude-oil will be known to emergency responders.
The report said TransCanada is expected to submit its final route proposal, and a 500-foot-wide corridor for the pipeline, in August.
Rice, the DEQ project coordinator, said the company may need to make route adjustments during construction, thus the need for a corridor rather than an exact route.
The state DEQ and HDR will review TransCanada's final route proposal. Then Heineman will make a final determination on state approval of the route.
Because the Keystone XL pipeline crosses an international border, the U.S. State Department will have the final say on approval of the project.
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