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SD landowners prepare for Dakota Access oil pipeline

CORRECTIONS: South Dakota Public Utilities staff attorney Kristen Edwards provided the quotes and information in this Dakota Access pipeline story. The quotes were misattributed. Mike Timpson was hired to provide expertise in ag mitigation on the pipeline project. Timpson’s last name was misspelled in the article. This story has been changed to reflect the right information. We regret the errors.

NORTHEASTERN SOUTH DAKOTA — Approximately 136 miles of rolling plains, farmland, creeks, rivers and wildlife habitat stretching from Campbell County to Spink County may be upturned as a result of the big oil boom in North Dakota.

At local diners and gas stations, it’s not hard to find someone who knows a local landowner who’s been asked to sign an easement giving the rights to portions of their land to the company hoping to build an oil pipeline.

Dakota Access, a subsidiary of the Fortune 500 company Energy Transfer, has purchased voluntary easement agreements for nearly 90 percent of the South Dakota land needed to build the pipeline, according to company representative Lisa Dillinger.

One of those signed who signed an easement is Perry Schmidt, a landowner in Spink County.

“I feel it is fair,” said Schmidt, sitting at his kitchen table next to a window overlooking his land and the creek that runs through it. “It’s the safest way to transport oil. And it’ll free up transportation for grain.”

Schmidt said he signed an easement with Dakota Access that binds the company by contract to pay Schmidt an undisclosed amount for three years. The money serves as compensation for the duration that he is unable to farm the land.

With a shut-off in close proximity to Schmidt’s property, along with other safeguards Dakota Access has promised to put in place, he has little concern any situations will prove detrimental to his land.

“I’m not too worried about crude oil leaking into my land,” Schmidt said. “The valve is just north of me on my mother’s land. It’ll be a permanent easement above ground.”

Whether or not Dakota Access will be able to construct a 1,134-mile pipeline to move crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields through 272 miles of South Dakota — including Campbell, McPherson, Edmunds, Faulk and Spink counties — to Illinois will come down to a state Public Utilities Commission decision to issue a permit for the pipeline.

That ruling is due by Dec. 15, though the commission has announced it will make adecision at a special meeting on Nov. 30.

If the company gets the go-ahead, a creek just a stone’s throw away from Schmidt’s kitchen window will be dug under.

Schmidt said it’ll be fun watching workers trying to dig through it, alluding to how difficult it may be to place the pipe underneath the body of water. The pipe will be buried a minimum of 60 inches below the stream.

“If there’s a river that we’re going underneath, it will not be disturbed,” Dillinger said.

Related: Property owners air concerns about Dakota Access Pipeline.

Landowners’ concerns

Locals are more concerned with how the pipeline will affect their land’s ability to remain agriculturally viable, though many feel the safeguards are more adequate than the current system used to transport crude oil.

Faulk County landowner Brent Gabler echoed Schmidt’s comment on the safety of transporting crude oil via pipeline. He said it is the best way to move oil and that it frees up railways to transport grain.

“Grain cars are a big issue right now, but I guess it would alleviate the transportation problems that we’ve had or help,” Gabler said. “There’s thousands of thousands of miles of pipelines in the United States, and if there’s an issue, at least it doesn’t kill people like a train derailing through town.”

Gabler said the proposed pipeline route would cut through approximately 1 mile of his land.

“Because that’s such an agriculturally centered area, we have to focus on that a lot as well — making sure that they have proper plans in place so they can reclaim that land,” said South Dakota Public Utilities staff attorney Kristen Edwards. “That has been a big concern up in that area. I think it’s at the forefront of everyone’s mind because it’s harvest season.”

Edwards said the commission hired Mike Timpson, an expert in agricultural mitigation planning, to make sure the pipeline plans were adequate and consistent with industry standards.

Currently, crude oil from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota is being transported via trains and trucks, sparking talk that transporting crude oil via pipeline is the safest alternative.

Others in the area are not so sure, and some landowners have voiced their concerns through letters posted on the PUC’s website.

“My dad and I started irrigating in 1975, so this will be my 40th year,” wrote Spink County landowner James Frankenstein, who wants more precautionary measures to be taken by Dakota Access to ensure that his irrigation system is not interrupted. “My son is farming with me and is going to take over. I want him to have the same opportunities that I had.”

With a maximum operating pressure of 1,440 pounds per square inch, Frankenstein noted in his comments how a small crack at the bottom of the pipeline could result in oil seeping into his aquifer before officials are even aware of the leak.

He added that he is aware the chances of a leak are slim, but has found “erring on the ‘safe side'” to be a good policy. He would like the pipeline to pass on the edge of his fields, putting it 1,000 feet or more from his irrigation wells.

Last week, Frankenstein told the American News that his attorney is handling the case and declined further comment.

Campbell County Emergency Management Director Larry Goehring has heard more negative comments lately, which may be providing more conversation for the patrons of Herreid’s Super Stop than watching the live auctions on the diner’s TV.

“Initially, when (landowners) came out this spring, it was positive,” Goehring said. “There’s been more negative comments as of late, but overall, people want it to come to Campbell County.”

The PUC’s website includes emails and comments of parties, including one from the Bantz, Gosch and Cremer law firm inAberdeen, that describes discrepancies within an unnamed client’s easement. One item listed explains how the land could not recover from the work in less than 10 years, which conflicts with how easements compensate farmers for only three years of land recovery time.

According to one point made in the letter, the easement states that the landowner is compensated for crop damages occurring during the installation of the pipeline and for the next three years, though an expert witness testified that it takes 10 years for the ground to recover from such work.

For the landowners who refuse to sign easements, Dillinger said the company will try to use eminent domain as a last resort. That’s a legal process in which land can be gained — even if a property owner doesn’t want to sell — if a project is in the public interest. The landowner, though, is still entitled for fair compensation.

Related: Some farmers in West Texas raise concerns about pipeline.

Drinking water concerns

Some of the most vocal opposition has come from the southeastern part of the state, where concerns stem from the threat the pipeline could pose to the Harrisburg, Tea and Sioux Falls region’s drinking water. Some northern South Dakota residents have also raised concerns about drinking water.

During a public input hearing in Redfield on Jan. 15, Spink County landowner Shirley Holt raised questions concerning what could happen to the area’s drinking water, provided by WEB Water, in the event of a leak.

Dakota Access Vice President for Engineering Joey Mahmoud responded at the meeting by saying that the company would go above and beyond current requirements to prevent drinking water from being affected by a spill or crude oil within the pipes.

“As far as the WEB county water at our last meeting, there was actually somebody there that brought up a similar question,” Mahmoud said, according to the meeting transcript. “And I guess there is a study that shows that over time, if crude oil sat next to a PVC pipe, that there’s a potential of crude oil being able to migrate into that water line. That happens in a stagnant environment over a long period of time in a controlled atmosphere. So the reality of that really happening is very low. I’ll tell you, we are working with the water districts to lower and move their pipes and to actually case those pipes to add added mitigation and protection just to ensure that if there was a situation, that we would not contaminate the water supply.

“We’re doing that. We’re committing to do that with the water district to protect those assets. Even though we think it’s a very, very, very remote possibility, it’s not even worth the chance, so we’re just committing to do it and working with them to employ those mitigation measures,” Mahmoud said.

If the PUC approves a permit for the pipeline, Dakota Access plans to start construction in early 2016. And that work will no doubt be a prominent conversation topic for both landowners and residents in Campbell, McPherson, Edmunds, Faulk and Spink counties.

This article was written by Shannon Marvel from American News, Aberdeen, S.D. and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.