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County asks for delay in Sandpiper public comment period

Lowell Schellack presents county commissioners a map of proposed pipeline routes, asking for more time to study the latest proposal. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

By Sarah Smith

The Hubbard County Commission voted 4-1 Tuesday to ask for a delay in the public comment period for the Sandpiper crude oil pipeline slated to run along county lines.

This comes at a time when Enbridge, Inc., has proposed a new pipeline through Minnesota to carry oil and is planning two expansion projects through the state.

The request came at the behest of Friends of the Headwaters (FOH) citizen group that appeared before the county board Tuesday.

The issue is heading before Minnesota’s Public Utilities Commission eventually. Right now the deadline to submit comments is April 4. The board voted 4-1 to push it back to Aug. 1. What weight the PUC will give the request is unknown.

“We certainly respect the input of the local officials,” said PUC assistant executive secretary Dan Wolf.

The issue of alternative routes is ongoing, Wolf said. On March 17, a scheduling conference will be held to set timelines as to what routes will be considered. But the April 4 deadline is not a drop-dead time to cut off public comments, he said.

“There will be more hearings and more time to comment,” Wolf said. An administrative law judge will conduct hearings in the area likely in October when public comments will be taken.

Representatives Lowell Schellack and Willis Mattison introduced themselves as the FOH’s representatives and asked for the extension so that much of Hubbard County’s transient population could become informed about the pipeline that would carry crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken Formation east through Hubbard County to Superior, Wis.

The company’s proposal to build another pipeline came Monday.

But the county board’s request is for an extension on all PUC projects if they fall into the winter, when much of Hubbard County’s “snowbird” population isn’t residing here. It’s not specifically aimed at the pipeline project or at Enbridge.

“We have a transient population,” commissioner Matt Dotta noted. But he noted that “we are specifically asking for this project to extend this public comment period.”

Commissioner Cal Johannsen, the lone “no” vote, said seasonal residents have a responsibility to keep abreast of local developments that could affect their Hubbard County property values. The more delay to projects makes the costs rise, he said.

The citizens group said they had real concerns about the pipeline, including potential leaks and other environmental harms.

“It’s going through the cleanest and most pristine lakes,” Schellack said. The Hay Creek resident said if a pipeline were to burst underground it could potentially cause untold damage.

He said too many valuable aquifers and chain-linked waterways could be threatened by a pipeline that is slated to carry 375,000 barrels a day on top of the lines already transporting oil.

It is unclear how many pipelines run through the county but Assessor Bob Hansen said six intersect at the Farden Town Hall in northeast Hubbard County.

One, like Southern Lights, is a subsidiary of Enbridge.

Schellack said1.5 million gallons of crude oil have been spilled in Minnesota over the last 30 years. He cited a 2010 spill into the Kalamazoo River that shut down 35 miles of river for a two-year-period. “Once it escapes the pipeline it separates,” he said, adding that he wants to prevent such occurrences in Hubbard County. If such a spill got into the Straight River aquifer it could compromise city drinking water and important irrigation wells, he said.

“Even without a spill, a pipeline on your property decreases the value of the property and your tax value,” Schellack warned. Hansen isn’t sure about that. Just like being located under a power line, he said, local property values over pipelines have remained stable in the area.

“If your home is within 50 feet (of a large line), there is some discount there,” Hansen of power lines. “I have talked to other county assessors. No one has told me they’re discounting” power lines and pipelines.

“They’re not finding identifiable market differences,” Hansen added.

“I’ve never seen a study that the property value is lost,” said Enbridge spokeswoman Christine Davis. The Sandpiper line would follow an existing pipeline.

But FOH doesn’t want to open the possibility for more leaks, the group maintained, by introducing brand new opportunities.

Mattison said FOH was not asking the board to either support or reject the power line. He said the complicated topic deserves more time to be studied by the public.

“It’s not a question of if it will leak,” Mattison said. “It’s when and where. We need to find the safest route.”

“We have a huge dependence on oil,” said board chair Kathy Grell. “If it wasn’t in my backyard whose backyard would it go into? It has to go somewhere.”

“People need to understand the process,” said FOH member Mary Adams. “I can’t see why it wouldn’t be OK.”

Another FOH member said the pipeline would outlive everyone in the boardroom, but that it would affect everyone’s grandchildren.

“Let this information come out,” Dewane Morgan urged. ”All we’re asking for is a few months.”

Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.

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