LINCOLN — First an obscure Nebraska beetle, now a famous national bird.
The American bald eagle poses the latest potential complication for a proposed crude oil pipeline through the state.
Bob Allpress, who lives on a ranch near the South Dakota border, has been watching bald eagles along the Keya Paha River for at least 10 years. When he realized a legally protected bald eagle nest was in the pipeline's route, he said he notified state environmental officials.
But Allpress said his concerns were never acknowledged, so he recently contacted a federal wildlife agency.
Federal wildlife biologists and officials with the company proposing to build the pipeline said avoiding the eagles will require relatively minor construction adjustments rather than another reroute.
But the apparent lack of attention to the nest by the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality in a recent review of the proposed pipeline route makes Allpress and others wonder whether anything else was missed.
“This report is seriously flawed and needs to be revised,” he said.
Mike Linder, the department's executive director, said that though the report does not specifically address the Boyd County nest, it does state that the company must not kill or disturb protected species during the construction and operation of the pipeline.
“While every particular individual situation might not be discussed in the report, there are safeguards in place for situations like this,” he said.
Gov. Dave Heineman said on a radio call-in show Monday that he still is working through the 2,000-page report. He has until next month to decide whether to approve the new route.
The U.S. State Department, which was recently notified of the eagle nest, is the agency charged with deciding the project's overall fate.
TransCanada is seeking to build the 1,700-mile pipeline to carry 830,000 barrels of crude oil daily from western Canada tar-sand mines to refineries on the Gulf Coast. Up to 25 percent of the oil could come from North Dakota's booming oil fields.
The highly controversial pipeline was rerouted at the behest of Nebraska's elected officials. They wanted to keep it out of the fragile, porous soils of the Sand Hills, where a spill could more quickly contaminate the vast water supply in the Ogallala Aquifer.
This is not the first time wildlife has turned up in the debate over the highly controversial pipeline. One of the objections to the original route was that it would have disturbed prime habitat for the endangered burying beetle, an insect relatively few people had heard of.
The new proposed route avoids much of the prime beetle habitat along with what state officials consider the most vulnerable portions of the aquifer.
TransCanada spokesman Shawn Howard said Monday that the company will take the same precautions with eagles and their nests.
“Our environmental team is aware of the nest,” he said. “We will not impact the roost tree.”
The bald eagle was taken off the endangered species list in 2007, and its population continues to grow nationally. The bird also has built more and more nests in Nebraska, somewhat to the surprise of biologists.
Nonetheless, the federal government continues to provide special protection for the birds under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act of 1940. The act prevents the “take” of eagles or their nests without a federal permit. The law also prohibits people from disturbing the birds during nesting season in late winter and early spring.
Allpress, a retiree who lives near Naper, said he and others in the area enjoy watching the pair of eagles that fledge their young along the river each spring. After their original stick nest was destroyed by a storm in 2012, the eagles built a new one in the same area. Although the pipeline route crosses his family’s property, the nest is on neighboring ground, he said.
Allpress said he wrote to the state agency about the nest three times but never heard back. He also testified about it last year at a public hearing in Albion.
A critic of the pipeline project, Jane Kleeb of Bold Nebraska, said it's a red flag when the state's environmental agency doesn't address a clear threat to a protected species in its report.
“The bottom line is it shines a light on the inadequacies of the current report sitting on Gov. Heineman's desk,” she said.
Linder, the department's director, said the report clearly states that TransCanada may have to make “micro-alignments” to address protected species, historical and cultural resources, and specific landowner concerns along the route.
Bob Harms, a biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service in Grand Island, said timing construction to avoid the nesting season also could meet the requirements of the law.
Federal biologists also are planning to fly by helicopter over the portions of the route in Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska, looking for eagles' nests, Harms said.
“Really, the first step is to determine whether we have an issue,” he said.
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