LINCOLN — The afternoon coffee crowd was buzzing at the Naper Cafe Wednesday afternoon with the news: a new route for the Keystone XL pipeline would pass nearby.
And at least one in the gathering of about 25 at the cafe in the northern Nebraska village of Naper didn't like it.
“I don't think anyone's going to like it very well,” said Tommy Higgins, a 66-year-old rancher whose land was crossed by the old route and, he suspects, the new route.
On Wednesday, TransCanada Inc. announced changes to about 20 miles of the crude oil pipeline's route across Nebraska.
The tweaks were designed to further address concerns raised about the controversial project, which has already been rerouted once to avoid the state's environmentally sensitive Sand Hills.
The new route now bypasses some areas of sandy, erodible, Sand Hill-like soil in northwestern Holt County, sending the path of the 36-inch, high-pressure pipeline on a more eastward path across Keya Paha County, just south of the South Dakota border, and then across the southwest corner of Boyd County.
The route also was altered to avoid wellfields that provide drinking water for two small towns in central and southeastern Nebraska, Clarks and Western.
The new route was developed based on public feedback on a proposed pipeline corridor that was released in April. In July, state regulators, suggested that the company adjust its plans to avoid areas of sandy soil and shallow aquifers in Holt County and bypass the wellfield at Clarks, which is northeast of Grand Island along the Platte River.
Russ Girling, TransCanada's president and chief executive officer, said the changes reflect the company's “shared desire to minimize the disturbance of land and sensitive resources in the state.”
“TransCanada shares the goal of protecting key water and natural resources with Nebraskans,” he said.
The news of a final route being submitted to the state was cheered by supporters such as Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., and a pro-pipeline group, the Consumer Energy Alliance. Both said the pipeline would increase energy security for Nebraska and create needed construction jobs.
“With these concerns addressed, it makes sense to move forward with completion of the project as expeditiously as possible,” said Michael Whatley, executive vice president of the alliance.
But landowners such as Higgins and Dr. Rich Miles of Omaha, who owns a ranch along the Niobrara River that will be bypassed by the latest revision, remain skeptical.
Higgins, a member of the Lower Niobrara Natural Resources District, which governs groundwater issues, said he's concerned pipeline leaks could contaminate underlying aquifers.
Miles, a retired cardiologist who used to work at a clinic in O'Neill, Neb., said he's glad the pipeline will bypass the sandy soils on his ranch north of Stuart, Neb. But he said he's still worried about the diluting chemicals that will be carried in the pipeline, such as benzene, a cancer-causing substance.
Diluents are used to thin the thick bitumen extracted from Canada's tar-sand mines so it will flow through the pipeline.
“I'm a long ways away from being convinced it's a good thing for Nebraska and the people who live here,” Miles said.
The 1,700-mile-long, $7.6 billion pipeline would carry 830,000 barrels of crude oil per day from western Canada to refineries on the Gulf Coast. Up to 25 percent of the oil could come from North Dakota's booming oil fields, a company spokesman said.
Last week, Miles and other landowners in the northwest corner of Holt County showed a reporter a sandy blowout, deep washouts and other highly erodible areas on the route TransCanada had outlined this spring. The newest route avoids those areas.
Jane Kleeb of environmental advocacy group BOLD Nebraska said a recent poll showed that 65 percent of Nebraskans approved of the pipeline if it avoided the Sand Hills and the Ogallala Aquifer, and the only way to do that is to move to route farther east, to parallel the existing 30-inch Keystone pipeline.
“The new route still crosses high water tables, sandy soil which leads to higher vulnerability of contamination and still crosses the Ogallala Aquifer, the lifeblood of Nebraska's economy,” Kleeb said.
National environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and National Wildlife Federation also criticized the new route, saying that tar-sand mining is a dirty way to extract oil and that America should look at alternatives.
Grady Semmens, a spokesman for TransCanada, said the new route crosses fewer miles of sandy soil, 36 miles compared with 59 on the previous route, crosses fewer streams and has less impact on endangered species. The American burying beetle, an endangered species, was of particular concern.
Semmens added that even traditional crude oil has some hazardous chemicals in it and that pipelines have been safely transporting oil for decades.
The latest route alterations were submitted Wednesday to the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality, which will review them and hold public hearings this fall, likely no sooner than November.
“An initial scan of the report indicates that it responds to some of the comments raised by the NDEQ and the public, but a full evaluation will now begin,” said Mike Linder, DEQ director.
The DEQ's final recommendation is expected to be forwarded by the end of the year to Gov. Dave Heineman, who will have the final say on the new route.
The route changes will also be submitted to the U.S. State Department, which will make the ultimate decision to approve or deny the pipeline project.
Construction has already begun on a portion of the pipeline from Cushing, Okla., to the Gulf Coast. Wednesday, a trio of protesters chained themselves to a tree-clearing machine to object to the project.
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