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O’NEILL -- The Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality’s first interaction with people who live along the latest proposed route for the Keystone XL pipeline wasn’t scheduled to start until 4 p.m., but people already were pouring through the doors of the O’Neill Community Center by 3:45.

And they didn’t seem in a hurry to leave an event scheduled to continue until 7 p.m.

If that’s any indication of the degree of interest, pipeline builder TransCanada and the state could be headed for an intense experience here and at three more similar sessions in Neligh on Thursday and in Albion and Central City next week.

DEQ Director Mike Linder said his staff is up to the task, even though this will be its first attempt to regulate a pipeline project.

“We have tremendous depth of experience in our agency,” he said at a media briefing earlier Wednesday.

TransCanada volunteered last year to move the Nebraska portion of the 1,700-mile connection away from the Sandhills in an effort to ease worries about soil erosion and contamination of the Ogallala Aquifer, and to expedite a review process that already has lasted more than three years.

The 2,000-foot-wide corridor would add about 25 miles to the earlier version.

TransCanada spokesman Terry Cunha, on hand from company headquarters in Calgary on Wednesday, said its representatives are making contact with landowners in the new preferred corridor as a step toward surveying individual parcels.

“A very small percentage of landowners have articulated they don’t want to work with us,” Cunha said.

Larry and Terri Funk are among the ones who do. They’ve already signed a document that authorizes access to their land for what they described as “a walking survey,” they said earlier in the day on their farm near Neligh.

Tammy Cheatum and her husband, Glen, aren’t ready for that yet on their farm about five miles from their hometown of Orchard.

“We just said we will not sign anything at this point,” she said.

In an interview on the former dairy farm where she grew up, Cheatum said she has a lot of questions and not a lot of confidence that the outcome from an underground pipe full of oil would be good for her family or her part of Nebraska.

“They ask for permission now. They want forgiveness later.”

Much of the interest from the growing crowd in O’Neill was directed at two rows of tables and plat maps of the area, laid out end to end for perhaps 60 feet.

The maps showed all the land between where the pipeline would enter the state in Keya Paha County and Central City farther south.

That’s where TransCanada is proposing to reconnect with the original route, which moves southward to Jefferson County and the Steele City area.

Not far from the map, Robert Burge and Don Swanson, part of the class of 1963 at Chambers High School, renewed old acquaintances and agreed to disagree about the Keystone XL.

Burge, 66, still lives at Chambers and wants to see the project stopped. Swanson, who lives near the pipe’s Keya Paha County entry point, signed an easement allowing it to cross his property in 2009.

“We’ve got the best water in the world,” Burge said, “and I don’t want to endanger it in any way with a pipeline going through it.”

Swanson said the proposed alternative route would cut his direct involvement from about 2.2 miles to one mile. He doesn’t think Keystone XL can be stopped.

“It’s inevitable,” he said.

Back at their farm, Larry and Terri Funk sat at a picnic table in their machine shed and said they’ve been told to expect a surveying crew in June.

“At this point, we have no issue with them crossing our property,” Terri Funk said.

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They already have a natural gas line under their fields. It’s been there since the 1950s and hasn’t caused any problems.

Larry Funk said he didn’t expect big problems even if the pipeline ruptured in an area where the water table ranges from a few feet deep to much farther down. He sees no reason the oil would permeate the aquifer.

“That’s our opinion,” he said. “Oil and water don’t mix.”

Tammy Cheatum said she’s considered options as ambitious as trying to contact President Barack Obama, who denied a permit for the project in January, because Nebraska’s environmental review still was ahead.

TransCanada recently reapplied, intending to forward the Nebraska route choice, when it’s available, to the U.S. State Department.

She acknowledged that the president had encouraged the company to try again when the Nebraska review was finished and that he also had endorsed construction of the southern leg of the pipeline from Cushing, Okla., to the Gulf.

But she feels a strong need to protect the farm where she and three siblings were raised by their parents, Harold and Claris Heese.

Her father died in a traffic accident at almost the same spot where the pipeline would cross a gravel road. Her mother died in 2010 of breast cancer, after enduring the challenge of raising her children by herself.

“I always knew how much this meant to her,” she said of their farm, “and that’s why it’s important to keep it.”

That might not be possible if there’s an oil spill right down the road.

“They say you shouldn’t get emotional,” she said, “but it is emotional.”

Reach Art Hovey at 402-473-7223 or ahovey@journalstar.com.

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