LINCOLN — The last time an environmental controversy touched Boyd County, Neb., it bitterly divided families and congregations. Hard feelings still haven’t completely healed 20-odd years later.
Back in the 1990s, signs lined the highway protesting a proposed low-level radioactive waste repository in the remote, rural county.
Law enforcement officers kept the peace at dozens of tense meetings and confrontations.
There was even a hunger strike. Back then, you were either “pro-dump” or “anti-dump.”
The $151 million project was never built. But the topic is still avoided in conversations.
“It’s not like it was, but it’s still there,” said County Board Chairman Jim Reiman of Butte. “People don’t forget.”
Now the county finds itself crossing a new environmental minefield: The newest route for the Keystone XL pipeline, announced last week, crosses a corner of the north-central Nebraska county.
But early indications are that residents might not erupt as harshly over the pipeline project as they did over the waste facility.
Only eight miles of the county would be crossed by the pipeline route, and it’s in the southwest corner of the county, far from the two biggest towns — Butte, the county seat, and Spencer, home of the recently consolidated high school that serves most of the county.
Several individual landowners would benefit, receiving thousands of dollars in lease payments in exchange for right of way for the 36-inch crude-oil pipeline, which will be buried 4 feet underground.
The personal property taxes that would be paid by the pipeline developer for 15 years also are viewed as desirable for a struggling county.
“Hell, I wish they’d go right through the middle of the county,” Reiman said. “As a landowner, that wouldn’t bother me any. As far as the taxes, this little county is struggling. It would be a godsend.”
To be sure, there are already Boyd County landowners lining up to block the pipeline. It would mostly carry diluted bitumen — an oil extracted and thinned from Canada’s tar sands region — but also traditional crude oil from western North Dakota’s booming oil fields.
And even before Boyd County was added to the pipeline route last week, there were a couple of tense meetings with concerned landowners. After one with the County Board this spring, the sheriff was asked to attend future meetings to head off any confrontations.
Bold Nebraska, one of the major groups opposing the pipeline, held an informational meeting this weekend for concerned landowners on the new route. And the environmental advocacy group is scheduled to speak Monday night to the local natural resources district board in Butte about its worries about pipeline leaks.
But, at least initially, views seem to be more divided than over the waste facility, which was opposed by 93 percent of Boyd County residents in a 1992 poll.
“I’d look for maybe a battle to erupt, but the area where they’re going, I think they’re going to have people who will be OK with it,” said Tommy Higgins, a landowner in the Naper area.
Higgins, who opposes the pipeline due to the risk of contaminating groundwater, said the new pipeline route just misses his property and now is diverted around some of the most vocal opponents of the project in nearby Keya Paha and Holt Counties.
But a TransCanada official rejected the idea that the route was moved to avoid the loudest critics, or that the company will have any additional hassles in routing a pipeline through Boyd County.
“I don’t think we’re going to change our approach,” said Grady Semmens, a spokesman from the company’s Calgary, Alberta, headquarters. “It’s certainly all about treating landowners with respect and giving them fair compensation for use of their land.”
One of the leading opponents of the waste site was Lowell Fisher, a Spencer rancher who staged a 30-day hunger strike in protest in 1990. While he was a leader in the anti-waste facility group, Save Boyd County, he doesn’t plan on leading protests against the pipeline.
“People will be upset,” said Fisher, a 72-year-old rancher. “But it will be up to the next generation to fight it. It won’t be me. We did ours.”
He said he’d be fighting the pipeline if it crossed his property, but this project is different in a couple of ways from the waste site. Individual landowners would get some benefit, via the payments made for right of way, and a lot of workers would get jobs during construction, Fisher said.
“The other deal was a total downer,” he said, with only a handful of permanent jobs created at the waste site.
It would not have been a total downer financially: One condition the state set for accepting the waste site was that nearby communities would get $2 million a year in compensation once the facility opened. Some preliminary compensation, $300,000 a year, helped build a new community center and a school addition in Butte, the town closest to the proposed waste site.
TransCanada began contacting Boyd County landowners in the new path last week.
Not all landowners were sure their property would be crossed. The land in that area was described as rough by local landowners, a mix of rolling pasture land crossed by tree-lined creeks that lead to the Niobrara River on the south and the Keya Paha River on the north.
Duke Hobbs of Ewing said he’s still waiting to learn if his Boyd County land is in the new pipeline path, though he owns property elsewhere, north of Neligh, that will be crossed by the pipeline. He said he’s not opposed to the project.
“If they say it’s going through there, you know you can’t stop it,” Hobbs said. “As soon as the election is over, (President Barack) Obama is probably going to approve it. You should just as well get the best deal you can get.”
Higgins, who is a member of the Lower Niobrara Natural Resources District board, said that he, as well as the NRD, remains opposed to the project.
The NRD, in a unanimous vote, recommended relocating the pipeline farther east, so it parallels the company’s smaller Keystone pipeline that went into service across Nebraska in 2010. Soils are less porous there, and the aquifer is harder to reach in the event of a leak.
Reiman, the County Board chairman, thinks a slim majority of that board supports the pipeline. That would be in contrast to the waste site, which was opposed by the County Board.
“It’s going to go someplace, and we need the oil,” he said. “Why not have it come this way?”
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