Landowners fighting condemnation lawsuits brought by company

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Flanagan South Pipeline workers dig and drain a ditch on Copan-area farmland belonging to Ernest Blum’s family. Blum and other area landowners have expressed dissatisfaction with the Enbridge Energy project. MIKE ERWIN/JOURNAL-CAPITAL

Ernest Blum and Chris Ball are neighbors, technically, as Blum’s family farm adjoins the ranching operation owned by Ball.

In reality, however, their homes lie miles apart and Blum lives in Washington County, while Ball is a resident of Osage County. The two met for the first time only recently during unsuccessful efforts to keep a crude oil pipeline from crossing their properties.

Both men — the farmer and the rancher — are involved in continuing litigation with Enbridge Energy over the Flanagan South project. Among other things, they say the Canada-based company has not been forthright in its negotiations with landowners.

“It’s kind of like having a foreign army invade your property,” said Ball. “They came in and tried to take over.”

Meanwhile, construction is moving along on the final sections of the nearly 600-mile-long project. The pipe is about to be put in the ground from the Kansas border down a seven-mile stretch of the Washington County line before angling across nearly 45 miles of Osage County.

Work on the 36-inch pipeline started early this year in Oklahoma, which is the fourth and final stage involved in the Flanagan South project — which extends from an Enbridge terminal in Pontiac, Ill., to its storage facilities in Cushing, Okla. The crude oil eventually is destined for refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast.

When the line is put into service in the late summer, it’s expected to transport 600,000 barrels (or more than 25 million gallons) of diluted bitumen crude oil per day. Flanagan South is being built along the same route as Enbridge’s 60-year-old Spearhead line, which is to carry another 175,000 bpd of the controversial tar sands crude.

Ball says the pipeline workers have rendered portions of his property unrecognizable. Roads have been damaged and gates have been left open or unlocked. Soon after the crews arrived, a wildfire damaged almost 1,000 acres and Ball said he suspects it was started by the pipeliners.

“They’ve denied it, of course,” said the Bowring-area rancher. “It happened Jan. 21 and made a real big mess.”

Of greatest concern to Ball is potential risk the project poses to the safety of his carefully-bred cattle. He estimates that 600 or 700 head are endangered by the pipeline work.

“The pipeline goes through five of our pastures and I told them I didn’t want any of my cattle falling in those ditches they had dug,” Ball said, adding that he’s asked the company to provide some type of fencing.

“They said that if it happened, they would pay for them,” the rancher added. “But, they don’t understand that these aren’t just ol’ run-of-the-mill cattle.”

Ball says Enbridge officials seem to be indifferent about his concerns. He added that the workers had made half-hearted attempts to restore and re-seed the damaged pastures.

“Still, it could take 50 to 100 years to get back to that top-quality bluestem,” Ball said.

Blum said he has also been disappointed with the majority of his dealings with Flanagan South representatives. The pipeline will travel approximately a mile and a half across the Blum farms, which contain the first section in the Osage County portion of the project as well as the final part of the line’s Washington County stretch.

“Enbridge has brought (condemnation) lawsuits against us in both counties,” said Blum.

“They told me they were going to dig the river bank rather than bore under it, so I went and called the (U.S. Army) Corps of Engineers,” said Blum, explaining his concerns that such a method would cause the channel to “wash out the next time we get a big rain.”

The next day, he said Enbridge officials set up a meeting at which they told him they would put rip-rap around the cut area to protect it against washing out.

“We’ll have to wait and see if they actually do it,” said Blum. “They’ll promise the moon and then have pretty much do nothing.”

Blum is particularly incensed about the way the pipeline people handled his request to not cut down a large pecan tree located on the designated right-of-way across his property. He said the tree measured 11 1/2 feet in circumference and was a consistent producer. When the tree was cut down (the day after he’d asked them to spare it) Blum said the pipeline officials called a deputy sheriff to the scene.

“I guess they thought I might try to stop them,” the farmer said.

One of Blum’s primary concerns is in regard to the pipeline’s soil-replacement techniques.

“They’re not separating out enough of the top soil, so it’s getting mixed all together,” said Blum. “When it get puts back in, that top layer (of topsoil) isn’t going to be nearly as deep as it should be — and nowhere close to the way it was.”

Also, when the trenches for the pipeline fill up with water, the workers have pumped the water out to cause pools and leave the field uneven, Blum said, adding that after the project is finished, he will not be able to reach some areas in his fields from the existing paths.

“There are going to be places (where) the fields will pretty much be cut in half,” the farmer said.

When contacted by the newspaper, community relations consultant for Enbridge, Katie Lange, responded to Blum’s claims by saying the pipeline company had “sent a land service superintendent as well as a construction superintendent to meet with Mr. Blum.” She said both of those Enbridge representatives said they had encouraged the landowner to reach out to them if he had any problems (at the pipeline site on his properties).

“This was the first either of them had heard about the topsoil issue,” Lange said.

The Enbridge spokeswoman added that the company would not be able to provide any information regarding the complaints by Ball “since there is pending litigation over some of those matters.”

In explaining the condemnation process he has gone through, Ball said he declined Enbridge’s initial request for permission to build the pipeline across his land. He said he also rejected the first offer the company made for a 50-feet right-of-way, which he recalled amounted to “something like $37 per rod.”

Enbridge next filed a condemnation-action lawsuit against Ball in Osage County District Court, he said, leading the court to appoint three area commissioners who determined the easement value to be $435 per rod — more than 10 times the original amount.

“Basically, I think they’re just trying to beat people down,” Ball says of Enbridge’s negotiating tactics.

Despite the fact that Ball opted to reject the condemnation findings (as a matter of principle), the pipeline company obtained access to the desired right-of-way and was allowed to proceed across his land after paying the sum awarded by the commissioners into a fund set aside by the court. Enbridge subsequently requested a trial to determine exact value of the easement.

“The biggest problem is the power of condemnation, which a company like this can obtain without much effort,” said Ball.

Ball’s wife, Cathi, called the pipeline officials “bullies” and said they were “the most unethical people I’ve ever met.” She made note of the fact that land owned by Americans was being condemned for use by a Canadian company.

“They just condemn the land and go on through, leaving lawyers behind to deal with the owners,” Mrs. Ball said. “They’re so arrogant, it’s ridiculous trying to deal with them.”

She also pointed out that nearly all the workers’ vehicles have out-of-state license tags.

“I don’t know what happened to all those local jobs the pipeline was supposed to create,” Mrs. Ball added.

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