Pipeline halted in N.D.; Iowa farmers continue to fight it

By Stephen Davies

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WASHINGTON, Sept. 15, 2016 - The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe's protest against the Dakota Access pipeline has received so much attention that President Obama, while on his recent Asia trip, was questioned about it by a Malaysian student at a press conference.

Obama did not address the legal issues raised by the tribe, but he did say that historically, “the way that Native Americans were treated was tragic.” In addition, “this issue of ancestral lands and helping them preserve their way of life is something that we have worked very hard on.”

Two days later, U.S. District Judge James A. Boasberg ruled against the Standing Rock Sioux in its challenge to an Army Corps of Engineers permit that, the tribe said, allowed the pipeline company, Energy Transfer Partners, to disturb sacred grounds.

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Despite that decision, however, the Justice Department, the Department of the Army and the Interior Department issued a statement the same day saying they would put a halt to any of the disputed pipeline work on Corps lands in North Dakota. The stoppage will continue “until (the Corps) can determine whether it will need to reconsider any of its previous decisions regarding the Lake Oahe site under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) or other federal laws.”

A few hundred miles to the Southwest, another group of landowners in Iowa also got an unfavorable ruling recently.

About a dozen farmers challenging the construction of the 1,200-mile pipeline through portions of their fields lost their bid for an injunction that would have prevented ETP from digging trenches and burying the pipe sections, which are 30 inches in diameter.

A Polk County district judge found that the Iowa Utilities Board acted within its legal authority when it approved the pipeline in March. In his Aug. 29 ruling, Judge Jeffrey Farrell said the public interest and the costs of altering the pipeline route to avoid the affected parcels favored allowing the project to proceed.

But the litigation will continue. One of the plaintiffs, Keith Puntenney, who farms 600 acres in Boone and Webster counties, said he expects the matter to end up in the Iowa Supreme Court.

In an interview Tuesday, Puntenney said he was optimistic that the landowners will eventually win, because Iowa law says farmland cannot be taken for public use, and the pipeline, according to one of the plaintiffs' court filings, will have, at best, an “incidental benefit to the people of Iowa.”

Puntenney said that following Farrell's ruling, ETP rushed to install the pipeline on three properties of those who have sued the company. He said the company did not notify county supervisors, who were supposed to be on site.

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“They're trying to put it in as fast and hard as they can,” he said. Puntenney, who is running for the Iowa state senate as a Democrat, also said ETP has conducted work under wet conditions, which makes it impossible to put the soil back the way it was.

Puntenney said he had grown soybeans on the four acres of his land that now contain part of the pipeline, and that the soil will take a long time to recover.

“It took 10,000 years to get the soils where they are now,” he said, referring to the rich, black earth in west-central Iowa. “It's going to take the rest of my lifetime” for it to become productive again.

Puntenney, 70, said the right-of-way used for the pipeline was condemned, and he was compensated. He wouldn't say how much he received, only that it “wasn't much.”

In addition to the damage to his farm, Puntenney says he and the other plaintiffs are concerned about the risk of spills that would foul the 11 major rivers and hundreds of other streams the pipeline will traverse in Iowa.

An ETP spokesperson said the company did not comment on pending litigation.

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