Pipeline threatens the land of generations

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Voices from South Dakota: Views on TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline

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Landowner holds out against big oil

Fighting “big oil” unites tribes and landowners

ROSEBUD, S.D. – In 1868, a U.S. treaty set aside the Black Hills in South Dakota for the occupancy of the Sioux, but the government seized the land nine years later when gold was discovered there. A century later, the Supreme Court awarded the eight Sioux tribes compensation for taking their tribal property all those years ago.

Today, some South Dakota landowners say they’re being treated just like the Sioux were nearly 150 years ago.

“They call us the new Indians,” said Paul Seamans, a rancher from Draper, S.D.

“Basically they’re getting run over like we got run over,” said Rodney Bordeaux, chairman of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. “This eminent domain is just basically taking their lands despite their objections.”

Although TransCanada, the Canadian company proposing the Keystone XL pipeline that would carry tar sands oil from Canada to Texas refineries, is a foreign corporation, it is classified as a ‘common carrier’ and therefore granted public utility status in South Dakota. Public utilities can invoke eminent domain, or a state’s power to seize private property.

“The state granting TransCanada the right to eminent domain really takes the wind out of the sails of the landowners,” said John Harter, a landowner of Winner, S.D.

Harter and other landowners have been collaborating with some of the state’s nine tribes to oppose the Keystone XL pipeline.

“We really need to keep going and keep the political pressure up,” said Bordeaux.

In January, President Barack Obama rejected TransCanada’s permit for the pipeline, citing environmental concerns. The proposed pipeline route would cross over portions of the Ogallala Aquifer, a shallow underground water table aquifer. One of the world’s largest aquifers, it’s a source of pure drinking water that spans parts of South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas.

The White House has allowed TransCanada to reapply, but will not make another decision until 2013. Both the tribes and landowners think the risk of contamination should be a good enough reason that TransCanada be required to reroute the pipeline before reapplying.

“We are sitting on the Ogallala Aquifer right here and when you have a pipeline that’s going to be 25 to 30 miles down the road here, that’s too close,” said Bordeaux. “Nebraska is going to get a reroute … what about us?”

Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman fought to reroute the pipeline’s path through his state to avoid environmentally sensitive areas. But Nebraska still would be affected by a leak in South Dakota.

“Those possibilities of contaminating — it can happen here and it will still affect the people in Nebraska,” said Bordeaux. “And those people don’t get that.”

The concern about a pipeline leak contaminating the aquifer has drawn together Bordeaux and other tribal leaders with landowners in the states.

But Bordeaux said being heard in Washington is an uphill battle against well-connected oil industry lobbyists.

“Us Indian tribes sitting here on the aquifer — you think they’re going to listen to us? Hell no,” said Russell Eagle Bear.

Harter’s land falls within a groundwater protection area. If a leak occurred near his well, it could contaminate the aquifer as well as his cattle, which end up as the meat on kitchen tables across America, he said.

“Your beef can be contaminated if the cattle drink the water or eat the grass,” said Harter. “From pasture to plate, if we have a spill, the public’s at risk.”

In November Harter heads to court, where a jury will decide the dollar amount he’ll receive for compensation from TransCanada’s use of his land. He refused to sign the company’s original offer of $13,300.

“What they’ve offered me in a 40-year period was around $1 per day use of the land or less,” said Harter. “My taxes cost me more than a dollar a day.”

Harter said he’s getting ripped off because he doesn’t have the support of his state.

“A landowner in Nebraska was offered $160,000 to cross his two miles,” said Harter, who owns 1,200 acres of land. “South Dakota sold the people out. They sold us out.”

Until a final price is negotiated, he, like Bordeaux, is putting his faith in Obama to stop the project altogether.

“The politics is a dirty business and it takes a pretty big backbone to stand up to it,” said Harter. “I pray and hope he’s up to the job if he gets re-elected.”

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