Proponents and opponents of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline will descend on Albion for a hearing Tuesday presided over by the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality.
The 6 p.m. event at the Boone County Fairgrounds is the only hearing the state’s environmental regulator plans to hold on the alternative route TransCanada wants to use to get around the Nebraska Sandhills.
Randy Thompson of Martell and Susan Luebbe of Stuart are among those planning to testify and among the most outspoken critics of a plan to connect the Canadian oil sands with refineries along the U.S. Gulf Coast.
That’s the case even though the property Thompson’s family owns near Central City and Luebbe’s Sandhills ranch are not on the redrawn route.
“It’s been five years,” Thompson said when asked about his personal history with the $7 billion, 1,700-mile project. “The first few months, I didn’t pay much attention to it. I just thought, 'They’re a foreign company, and we’re U.S. citizens.'”
In part because of their actions and others, TransCanada offered to move the route farther east to respond to concerns about erosion, a shallow water table and relatively porous soils.
That didn’t win the company many points with Thompson or Luebbe, part of the third generation of a ranching family.
“My feelings are just as harsh as they were before,” said Luebbe, citing friendships with people on the alternative route. “I know what they did to us, and they’re doing the same thing to them.”
Just because TransCanada is moving the route 15 to 20 miles east from her ranch and off the official map of the Sandhills doesn’t mean the ground isn’t sandy and the water isn’t close to the surface, Luebbe said.
“If you live there, you damn well know it is.”
TransCanada Vice President Corey Goulet will testify Tuesday on behalf of the company, said spokesman Shawn Howard.
He pointed to recent polling, including a Nebraska Rural Poll by the University of Nebraska, and interactions with landowners, as signs that Nebraskans are feeling more receptive to Keystone XL.
“Not everyone wants the pipeline,” Howard said, “and we understand that. But the feedback we have received has helped us to narrow it down to the route we’ve put in front of NDEQ. And that’s all we can ask for at this point.”
Bob Allpress of Naper is not among the favorably impressed.
He manages family ranching property about two miles from the South Dakota border in extreme eastern Keya Paha County. He said the new route crosses almost 900 acres of the ranch from the northwest corner to the southeast corner and “through our backyard and out the front and to my brother’s place.”
One of his worries is that the chemicals put into the pipe to make the oil flow will cause the contents to sink into groundwater if there's a leak.
“If that doesn’t scare people, nothing will,” he said, “because there will be no way to recover it to keep it out of the aquifer.”
Allpress said the average depth to water in five wells on his property is 14 feet.
He has rejected TransCanada overtures involving an easement and survey access.
“People don’t realize, if they sign a lease with them and they change the route again, TransCanada still owns the leases for what they want to put through here forever.”
Howard disputed the portrayal of TransCanada as a foreign company, pointing to its U.S. pipeline headquarters in Omaha and its track record dating to the 1980s with natural gas pipelines in the state.
The hearing caps a public comment period and sets the stage for the Department of Environmental Quality to offer its final evaluation to Gov. Dave Heineman, who then will offer his recommendations to the U.S. State Department, which is leading the federal review of the project.
NDEQ spokesman Brian McManus said those testifying will be limited to five minutes each. There will be no attempt to organize testimony into pro, con and neutral segments.
“But the bottom line,” he said, “is we will give everybody an opportunity to testify.”
NDEQ’S report is likely to be on Heineman’s desk late this month or in early January, he said.
The project needs approval from President Barack Obama or Secretary of State Hillary Clinton because it crosses an international border.
McManus said State Department officials are expected to be in Albion for an informal question-and-answer session ahead of the hearing.
He’s not ruling out the need to stop the hearing at some point, depending on the lateness of the hour and how many people still want to weigh in. If that happens, reconvening Wednesday morning is an option.