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SF Special: Farmers Square Off vs. Keystone Pipeline
“So…umm…could…could I…umm…walk…umm…through Carl’s trees?”
I was a skinny 14-year-old when I pulled my dad’s pickup into Raymond Anderson’s farmyard, shy as a poodle in a wolf pack.
“Carl’s trees” were a lonely half-mile windbreak just a couple miles away from my home farm. “Carl” was Carl Osness, a former resident whose place Raymond and his wife, Lillian, now farmed, near Langford, South Dakota.
“Walk through” was actually code for “to hunt.” Raymond got a kick out of it.
“Well, Gil,” he said, “everyone else just drives right through them. You’re the first one who’s ever asked. So, when you go out there, tell them to get off my land so you can hunt all you want.”
For a high-school freshman, that approval topped taking the homecoming queen to the homecoming dance, and even that would rank a distant second.
From then on, that tree line formed my own little piece of South Dakota heaven. This time of year, you’d often hear the cackle of a rooster pheasant while watching a shimmering red-coated doe and accompanying fawns graze green brome grass shining in the summer sunlight. Come fall, the tree line provided great cover for hunting snow geese that would fly-tree top high. It was where I fetched $70—serious money for a 1970s high-school student—by trapping my first fox.
Editor’s note: The author’s farm was originally in the South Dakota path of the Keystone Pipeline. He is a former neighbor of Raymond and Lillian Anderson.
Another visitor in a white car drove into the Anderson’s farmyard in 2007. Lillian looked outside the window and saw Raymond exhibiting a different mood than the playful one he displayed for me over three decades earlier.
“Raymond is a mild-mannered guy,” she says. “But when he gets agitated, he starts pacing back and forth.”
That day, Raymond practically wore out a path in the farmyard as he verbally jousted with a land agent procuring easements for TransCanada’s Keystone Pipeline. It’s one of several oil pipelines that the Canadian energy infrastructure firm has laid through North America.
“He said, ‘You either take this or you get nothing,’” Raymond recalls. “And I said, ‘You need to leave.’”
“They had no answers for our questions,” adds Lillian. “When they did, they came back with double talk.”
Shortly before that, I’d received a letter from TransCanada, asking if they could survey my family’s farm for the pipeline. I was ambivalent, but I gave them permission. Maybe they would give me good money for the pipeline easement. After all, the country definitely needs a way to transport the oil we all use.
“Do they know how wet it is up there?” my wife asked.
“Hmmm,” I said.
Back then, that region had morphed into a marshy mix of fertile farmland punctuated by steaming swamps. The gallows humor was that the area’s prolific precipitation had shifted crop rotations away from corn, soybeans, and spring wheat to that of a cash crop followed by prevented planting and bullheads.
Ducks, black flies, gnats, and mosquitoes permeated the quarter of land my grandfather had homesteaded in 1884. Three miles away, up to 12 feet of water covered a quarter of land my dad had farmed for decades. In 2011, a local entrepreneur gave rides during the 125th celebration of nearby Claremont on an Everglades airboat, dashing from one slough to another.
The Andersons presented their case at a South Dakota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) hearing in 2007.
They cited concerns like the potential for contamination of shallow aquifers in the event of an oil spill. They also pointed out that an alternative route along the north-and-south Interstate Highway 29 corridor in eastern South Dakota would impact much less farmland.
However, the PUC approved the pipeline and its planned route, 3-0.
“One of the challenges that we have with any pipeline is trying to ascertain the quality of the company and making certain they keep the promises they make,” says Gary Hanson, PUC vice-chairman who voted to approve the pipeline. “We want to be certain as we can, from the standpoint of protecting the citizens and the environment of South Dakota. We also were challenged by the fact that if they check off (meet) all of the requirements in state law, then we are required to approve their application.”
Since the final route didn’t include my family’s farm, I rarely gave it much thought. Over the next year or two, some landowners voluntarily signed easements with TransCanada. Others, like the Andersons, went to court, but chose not to fight the eminent domain process.
Under eminent domain, private property may be seized so long as the seizure is for a public purpose and fair compensation is provided, says David Gange, of the Ganje Law Offices who practices natural resources, environmental, and commercial law in North Dakota and South Dakota.
“The concept of ‘public purpose’ is liberally construed under the law,” says Gange. “So, a seizure could be for a public purpose even when the direct benefactor is a private company, such as a pipeline operator.”
In the end, the Keystone Pipeline become reality. Operating since July 1, 2010, it runs 2,687 miles from Hardisty, Alberta, eastward into Manitoba where it turns south and crosses into North Dakota. It continues running south through South Dakota to Steele City, Nebraska, where it splits. One arm runs east through Missouri for deliveries into Wood River and Patoka, Illinois. The other runs south through Oklahoma to Port Arthur and Houston, Texas.
After PUC approval, there was lots of head scratching going on in my home county of Marshall about the swampy route the Keystone pipeline was to follow.
“We all wondered about it,” recalls Paul Symens, an Amherst, South Dakota, farmer and a Marshall County commissioner. “Had they gone four miles to the west, it would have been wet, but not for as long as where they went. And they would have had better soil to work with. But they went through miles of wet ground.”
“It was just terrible,” says Kent Moeckly, a Britton, South Dakota, landowner. “I watched them put it in just north of here (the Anderson’s farm). They would dig the trench, and the water would just pour in.”
Pipeline workers placed concrete weights (also called saddles or collars) on the pipe where water posed buoyancy concerns.
The laying of pipeline on the Anderson’s cropland did not go smoothly, say Raymond and Lillian.
“The south end had some virgin soil we wanted protected,” says Lillian. “But they went through it.”
Lillian said she called TransCanada officials when workers laid pipe on wet ground.
“I said, ‘this is not acceptable,’” she says. “They made an agreement not to be on the ground when it was wet.” However, workers persisted, she says.
The Andersons say pipeline workers did not separate clay from topsoil when filling in the trench. Subsequent crops had difficulty growing in this clay-topsoil mix. This was compounded by soil fill that was twice brought in due to the pipeline washing out.
“I tried to tell them that water (via overland flooding) would wash out the pipeline (trench),” says Raymond. “They had to haul in dirt a couple of times and they still made a mess out of it.”
The second fill also contained rocks and weeds, says Lillian. She says TransCanada planted the easement strip twice, with nothing growing except foxtail and other weeds. Finally, their son, Scott, who now farms their land, planted a cover crop that’s doing better after proper seeding.
Others have had more positive experiences with TransCanada. Don Tisher, an Amherst, South Dakota, farmer, rented 80 acres that was in the pipeline’s path. He felt TransCanada did the best job possible to restore the ground.
“It is a little different, but I think they did it to best of their ability,” he says. “They took the vegetation out, pushed the topsoil off, and covered the trench backup with the topsoil.”
The pipeline did not go through the Symens’ family land, but TransCanada did rent some ground on which to store pipe to be laid.
“They treated us very well,” says Symens. “I can’t complain about it.”
To the north of Marshall County, though, the pipe that was laid on Bob Banderat’s land passed through wet grassland. Banderat, who farms in southeastern North Dakota near Cogswell, says cows became stuck in a muddy mix of rain, sand, and topsoil.
“They came across our land in October, and they actually had to pump water continuously out of the trench where it crossed a township road,” he says.
Eventually, though, the pipeline was completed and began moving Canadian tar-sands oil without issue.
One May morning in 2011, though, Banderat was getting ready to check his cow herd during calving.
“My daughter, who was 16 at the time, came running into the house and said oil was shooting up at the pumping station,” he says. “I thought, ‘Yeah, right.’ But I went out there, and sure enough, at the pumping station a mile and one half away, I could see it, shooting up just like Old Faithful.”
Banderat then called TransCanada to inform them as the geyser continued to spew oil. In all, 500 barrels (21,000 gallons) of oil were lost. The spilled oil wasn’t due to a pipeline leak, but due to equipment failure at the pumping station, says Bill Suess, spill investigation program manager for the North Dakota Department of Health.
“The frustrating part is the spin they put on everything,” says Banderat. “They said ‘Our guys detected it right away, and we had it shut down in minutes.’” Instead, he says it was due to his phone call that it was shut down after approximately 50 minutes.
“That doesn’t sound like a ‘state of the art’ leak detection system to me,” he says.
In 2016, around 400 barrels (16,800 gallons) leaked in southeastern South Dakota near Freeman.
Then last November, 9,700 barrels (407,400 gallons) spilled out of a pipeline on Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) land near Amherst, about 10 miles northeast of where Raymond and Lillian Anderson live. (As a comparison, an Olympic sized swimming pool 50 meters long, 25 meters wide, and 2 meters deep holds 660,430 gallons of water.)
“As I drove closer to the point, it hit me,” recalls Moeckly. “It was the terrible stink of crude oil.”
“From my perspective, the pipeline company could have not been more fortunate of where it happened and when it did,” says Symens.
The water that plagued the pipeline’s installation in the latter end of the 2000s had receded, although the spill occurred near a drainage ditch. Still, the drier conditions decreased concerns about water contamination, he says.
An accident occurred when a driver tipped over a truck of contaminated soil, but as a whole, the cleanup went well, says Symens. TransCanada just settled with Marshall County to pay $350,000 for road and bridge repair (from cleanup traffic). “They asked us to take an assessment of what it would cost, and basically they went with our figure,” says Symens.
Prediction vs. Reality
The equipment failures and leaks that have occurred thus far on the Keystone Pipeline don’t coincide with predictions made prior to construction. A spill analysis conducted by the global risk management company DNV GL used historical data obtained from U.S. Department of Transportation databases. The firm estimated the chance of a Keystone pipe leak was no more than once every seven to 11 years across the entire length of the pipeline in the United States, depending on product and throughput.
In South Dakota, this equates to one every 41 years at any location along the 220 miles of pipeline in South Dakota.
That contrasts with two major leaks in South Dakota that have occurred since the pipeline’s 2010 start.
“It’s not an issue of if it will leak again, but when,” says South Dakota Sen. Jason Frerichs (D-Wilmot). He says there were regulatory moves made by South Dakota legislators from 2016 through the 2018 state legislative sessions, but they didn’t make it out of committee.
Instead, South Dakota lays out the red carpet for these firms, he says. TransCanada was the top recipient of a South Dakota construction tax refund program for businesses that was repealed July 2015 with $14,140,231.60. It’s important to note, though, that numerous other businesses—including farm cooperatives, ethanol plants, and wind firms –also took advantage of these refunds that tallied $113,075,398.76 from July 1, 1996 to June 30, 2015.
“I am a lawmaker, accountable to the people,” says Frerichs. “It happened in my district. I just feel I am not informed enough on what is happening. Even though TransCanada was nice enough to give us an update on how things were going during recovery, they did not tell us until many months after the fact that the leak was (nearly) twice the size of what was estimated (from 210,000 gallons to 407,400 gallons.) I worry about what we are not told. This goes back to the the South Dakota PUC, and the (South Dakota) DENR (Department of Environment and Natural Resources). Those are the people who are should be asking those questions.”
Hanson is. He says the Keystone Pipeline is not performing to the level that TransCanada said it would. The PUC permit provides for the construction and operation of the facility. If the PUC so determines, it can pull the Keystone permit pipeline, he says.
“I took a serious look at it, especially when we were informed that the leak was twice over the size that the company initially told us,” says Hanson. “I am very concerned because they told us they would have the most modern leak detection system up to date, and it would not allow leak of this magnitude.”
Hanson says the PUC was aware of the abnormal amount of water in Marshall County during construction. However, he says experts supporting the pipeline assured the PUC the pipeline would satisfactorily carry the oil.
“And in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, we are required by law to accept what they present as evidence,” he says.
The pipeline’s leak detection system caught the sudden drop in pressure within seconds, and shutoff occurred within minutes, says Robynn Tysver, spokesperson for TransCanada. Technicians began arriving in a couple hours, with the cleanup winding up this spring.
“We are disappointed that Amherst happened, but we cleaned it up,” says Tysver. “We have attempted to put the land back exactly the same way it was. We are thankful that no one was injured.”
Last week, the National Transportation Safety Board determined the spill was due to a fatigue crack. It likely originating from mechanical damage to the pipe exterior by a metal-tracked vehicle during pipeline installation. According to the NTSB, it to a critical size, which resulted in the pipeline rupture.
The Land, Not the Money
All seemed back to normal at the spill site in mid-May. No smell of oil remains. A pair of surprised mallard ducks flew out of the nearby drainage ditch. Bare black soil that was later seeded will give no visual trace where the spill occurred.
“The cleanup is ongoing and it my understanding at this juncture TransCanada has continually maintained that they are responsible for all the cost of remediation and restoration,” says Hanson.
Most people in the area are satisfied the way the way they were treated by TransCanada, says South Dakota Rep. Susan Wismer (D-Britton) who also represents the region. “As an accountant, I saw people whose land it crossed who got good money for the easements,” she says.
Conversely, Wismer wishes South Dakota would do more to protect concerns landowners have regarding pipelines. “We trust everyone to be a good corporate citizen,” she says. “South Dakota goes too far in that way, absolutely."
“They want the appearance of being this wonderful caring company," says Lillian Anderson. “If you are, then do what you promised when you came here. That is asking you to be a responsible company.”
Tysver responds that TransCanada is working hard to build the safest pipelines it can. “It’s unfortunate that they are still not comfortable, that they are still opposing the pipeline,” she says. “We continue to believe that pipelines are the safest way to transport crude oil in the product in the United States.
“I’m sorry that you still oppose it,” adds Tysver. “I think that you do.”
Tysver has a point regarding pipeline safety. Spills and accidental releases don’t occur just with pipeline. Last month, a train derailment in northwestern Iowa spewed around 230,00 gallons of oil into Iowa’s Rock River.
Then again, I don’t know if I’m as much anti-pipeline as I am pro-Raymond and Lillian Anderson or pro-Bob Banderat. This country needs some way to transport the oil it consumes. Respect, though, for the folks who grow the food this country and world needs is also required.
“It was never about money,” Lillian says. “It was concern about the damages to the land that will take years to correct—if it is ever back to its original quality. Our land wasn’t meant for a pipeline. It was meant to produce crops. I really think Raymond is a steward of the land. He values what it produces and why it produces. And as a steward of the land, he wanted to protect the land.”
That’s something even a 14-year old shy as a poodle in a wolfpack back in 1975 can understand.