By JAN LARSON McLAUGHLIN
BG Independent News
Local landowners who dug in their heels against eminent domain have won the battle to keep a pipeline from crossing their properties.
Kinder Morgan, the company building the Utopia pipeline, has filed a motion to give up its appeal of a court order that denied its right to use eminent domain. Instead, the pipeline company has decided to reroute the line.
“We are continuing to refine the route to have the least impact from the landowners’ standpoint, from the environmental standpoint,” Allen Fore, vice president of public affairs for Kinder Morgan, said Monday.
The exact route of the Utopia pipeline is still being determined, and Fore would not say if the pipeline route was avoiding Wood County all together. However, he did state the new route would steer clear of the Wood County landowners who would not budge in their opposition to the pipeline.
The use of eminent domain is the “last resort” for Kinder Morgan, Fore said. In some cases, the company uses it as part of the negotiation process. “That’s not at all unusual,” he said.
The pipeline company has 95 percent of the property in Ohio needed for the line through voluntary acquisition, according to Fore. “We’re confident we’re going to get to 100 percent. We’re pleased with where we are with our progress.”
“We’ve been successful in finding alternative routes,” Fore said, adding that the new route will be announced “very soon.”
Maurice Thompson, of the 1851 Center for Constitutional Law which represents 26 Wood County landowners, said it is unclear if the rerouting will just avoid the landowners covered by the court ruling or all of those opposing the pipeline in Wood County.
“Everything we’ve heard is their intent is circumventing Wood County entirely,” Thompson said Monday.
It has been suggested that Kinder Morgan may be shifting south to use a pre-existing pipeline in Hancock County.
“That’s what we’ve argued all along,” Thompson said. “Use existing pipelines instead of taking more land.”
Last year, Wood County Common Pleas Judge Robert Pollex ruled that Kinder Morgan does not have the authority to use eminent domain since the Utopia pipeline would be transporting ethane for a private company – not for public use.
The ruling came as welcome news to many landowners in Wood County.
“They can really put the screws to Ohio landowners” and pay them “unfair low rates,” Thompson said of pipeline companies, if eminent domain is used.
Thompson had argued that Utopia did not qualify for eminent domain. Unlike pipelines that are sending gas to supply energy for public consumption, the Utopia pipeline would be sending ethane, a byproduct of the fracking industry, to a private plastics company in Ontario, Canada.
Kinder Morgan was planning to start construction last year on the $500 million ethane pipeline from shale sites in southeast Ohio to Canada. The proposed Utopia line would run south of Pemberville, then north of Bowling Green, then cross the Maumee River south of Waterville.
Kinder Morgan claimed the company had the power of eminent domain to bury the pipeline in 21 miles of Wood County. At that point, Fore said he was confident the decision would be changed on appeal.
The pipeline case was heard by all three common pleas courts in Wood County because Kinder Morgan has sued so many resistant local landowners, Thompson said.
The landowners’ arguments were two-fold, Thompson explained. First, the private pipeline will provide no public use so it does not qualify for public domain authority. Second, the pipeline company did not explore alternative routes as suggested.
The local families had asked that the pipeline company consider placing the line along road right-of-ways, to avoid going through farm fields or housing lots. The Wood County commissioners have also asked the company to consider routing the pipeline along highways to lessen the burden on landowners.
Jerry Bruns said last fall that he had no intention of selling out to the pipeline company. His farmland near Pemberville has been in his family since the 1860s.
“It’s basically going to damage the soil of the farm,” by compacting the ground, he said. Despite claims by the pipeline company that the soil will be restored to its present condition, Bruns has seen the effects of such projects. A portion of his fields was packed down by a heavy truck five years ago, “and nothing is growing there yet,” he said.
Thompson said the goal was not to put an end to the pipeline, but just make changes that protect landowners.