September 19, 2008

Complaints ‘Falling on Deaf Ears,’ Safety Advocate Suggests

By Tom Beyerlein Staff Writer

Rockies Express Pipeline executives expected to encounter rougher terrain -- literally and figuratively -- as they etched the giant natural gas line eastward from the vast flatlands of Wyoming, Kansas and Missouri to the towns and farms of Illinois, Indiana and Ohio.

Their expectations were met.

"There's no question we've had pockets of resistance from people who would like to see us go somewhere else," said REX LLC President Douglas Walker.

Hundreds of citizens have complained about the project, and REX has sued more than 200 landowners in Ohio, Indiana and Illinois to obtain easements through the process of eminent domain. But it's not just property owners who are fueling the resistance. For example:

- The Ohio Power Siting Board, consisting of leaders of numerous state agencies, lobbied the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to require REX to use alternative routes they say would minimize environmental risks to the Little Miami River and Big Darby Creek, both federally designated wild and scenic rivers. REX opposed the alternatives, which would have added costs, delays and a whole new set of affected landowners along the route. FERC sided with REX; the state has asked for reconsideration.

- The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency is evaluating REX's impacts on water quality in Warren and Butler counties before deciding whether to certify the project there. A public meeting is set for 6:30 p.m. Sept. 24 at Edgewood High School in Trenton.

- Murray Energy Co., Ohio's largest coal mining operation, says REX's proposed path through its present and future mining land in Belmont and Monroe counties would disrupt its business and endanger the public because the mines could collapse on the high-pressure pipeline, causing an explosion. The two energy companies are trying to work out an agreement; if they can't, REX may have to move the pipeline.

- In late August, REX sued two Indiana counties in federal court, saying they were interfering with the project by trying to regulate it with local ordinances. Indiana officials are worried REX could contaminate the Hoosier Hills aquifer, the sole drinking water source for 37,000 ratepayers in central Indiana. They're also concerned about the pipeline's close proximity to buildings. REX argues that FERC has exclusive rights to regulate interstate pipelines.

Walker said it's impossible to avoid all conflicts with a project as large as REX. "You have to balance the greater public good and the individuals' rights," he said, "and the individuals do have rights."

But Carl Weimer, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust in Washington state, said he has received more public complaints about the 1,679-mile REX than any other project. "REX is getting a reputation around the country of being a place where (the public's) issues are falling on deaf ears."

Locally, several landowners contacted by the Dayton Daily News said REX representatives have been overly aggressive in pushing them to grant easements, threatening them with eminent domain proceedings long before FERC approved the project.

They say REX is rushing to get final approvals and get much of the work completed before the Bush administration leaves office. And time is money for the project; its estimated cost has ballooned from $3 billion in 2005 to $5.6 billion today.

Gail Alford of Monroe said REX originally planned to locate a compressor station behind her home, and hosted a site visit with FERC officials in July 2007. "It was like having a party in your backyard and not being invited," she said.

REX moved the compressor station to a site near Interstate 75. The company fought for months before agreeing to install a fire hydrant at the site as Monroe officials required.

"It's like they think they're above any local or state restriction," Alford said. "It looks like they're more concerned about cost than safety."

Dennis Pickett, administrator for Warren County's Clearcreek Twp., said REX representatives were evasive when they first met with local residents in 2006. REX wouldn't show Pickett the easement language and "never gave me an answer that rang true" when he asked why the route was so far away from the existing pipeline corridor.

"I asked them some very direct questions and I got some very indirect answers," Pickett said. "It really made me very suspicious of everything they were doing."

Ohio environmentalists are concerned about REX's crossings of the Little Miami and, especially, the Big Darby, which was named by the Nature Conservancy in the 1990s as one of 12 "last great places in the Western Hemisphere."

REX proposes to use a process called horizontal directional drilling, or HDD, to bore underneath the two streams in an effort to avoid impacts on the ecosystems. State natural resources officials say that while HDD usually is successful, in some cases it can allow releases of drilling lubricants into the streams, endangering aquatic life.

Ohio officials have been meeting with REX, and company spokesman Allen Fore said he expects the parties to reach an agreement on the issue "very shortly."

Environmentalists also oppose REX's location near the Hoosier Hills aquifer. "We saw a problem with a private company being able to threaten a community's source of drinking water," said Nathan Holscher of the environmental group Rivers Unlimited in Cincinnati.

"Obviously, this is a major source of concern for us," he said.

"Any threat, no matter how relatively small, has enormous consequences for a community," Holscher said.

FERC overruled Indiana officials' request that REX be routed away from the aquifer, but local officials are contesting the issue with FERC and trying to use local laws to thwart REX, which in turn has sued them in federal court.

REX officials say they're trying to negotiate settlements to resolve conflicts whenever possible. Fore said REX has acquired rights of way for nearly 95 percent of the 3,000 tracts of land on the 639-mile REX East route. REX West, though slightly longer, had only 1,700 tracts.

Walker said that some of the conflicts involving REX stem from "fear of the unknown."

"Natural gas transmission is a silent industry in a lot of ways, unknown to a lot of the population," he said. "It's a very efficient and safe way to deliver energy. When we're done (with construction) and (the land is) restored, it's pretty much out of sight, out of mind."

Contact this reporter at (937) 225-2264 or [email protected]

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