By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog
LINCOLN – Despite snow-packed roads and interstate closings, farmers and ranchers from Nebraska traveled to the state capitol Wednesday to beg lawmakers – sometimes tearfully — for more protection of their land from companies that want to build oil pipelines across it.
Rick Hammond, a Hamilton County farmer, told lawmakers he’s been “rassling with” TransCanada over its proposed Keystone XL pipeline for about four years. He said he felt coerced by TransCanada to sign an easement allowing the company to build the pipeline under his land. The pipeline route has since been altered and avoids his land, but now it crosses his sister’s land.
TransCanada has been working for several years to get the necessary state and federal permits to build a pipeline that would carry tar sands oil from Canada to Texas oil refineries.
Rick’s daughter, Meghan Hammond, said four years ago, a town hall meeting was held in the tiny village of Hordville and a banker advised landowners to take TransCanada’s offers for easements. She said the company hired a Baptist minister from Tennessee to be a land agent and her family held out for awhile but eventually “caved” and signed the dotted line because they felt they had little choice. And because TransCanada had the ultimate hammer hanging over them: eminent domain, or the right to take their land if an agreement couldn’t be reached.
“It is a threat,” Rick Hammond said outside the hearing. “You’re a single guy against a multi-billion-dollar company.”
Fullerton Sen. Annette Dubas said it’s time to revisit Nebraska’s eminent domain laws and has introduced a bill, LB152, that would require companies or public entities to have their permits before threatening to condemn land. She said when faced with the prospect of having to allow an oil pipeline to be built on their land through condemnation, landowners have a “strong, almost visceral” reaction.
“Many landowners were astonished that a foreign company had the right to take their property,” Dubas told the Judiciary Committee during a public hearing on her bill. “They had more questions than answers and were left feeling intimidated and afraid.”
Several landowners asked that an emergency clause be attached to the bill so that it would go into effect immediately after being signed and stop TransCanada from threatening condemnation to Nebraska landowners on whose land they intend to build the pipeline.
The bill does not single out pipeline companies and would apply to other governmental entities that have condemnation power, which generated opposition from railroads, cities and public utilities. For that reason, Ken Winston of the Nebraska Sierra Club wants the bill to be amended to only apply to oil pipelines.
Susan Dunavan, a York County landowner, said she’s been threatened with eminent domain over the past two-and-a-half years.
“Nebraska needs stronger eminent domain laws to protect its citizens,” she said. “No landowner or citizen should have to face the threat of eminent domain by a condemner that does not have their permits in place or has not proven their public purpose.”
James Tarnick, a fourth generation farmer and rancher, said he and his neighbors have been “hounded and harassed by TransCanada” as it tries to secure leases.
“We should not be forced into eminent domain for the private gain of a foreign company,” he said.
Donna Roller, whose York County farm is near the proposed Keystone XL pipeline path, said TransCanada has shown “total disregard for citizens.”
“Why are we not for the people of this state? Why are we not for our water? Why are we not for our rights?”
John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union, said he’s never seen such an outpouring of concern from farmers in his 22 years at the helm, calling it “appalling” the way landowners have been squeezed and coerced by TransCanada.
“Nothing in my experience even begins to compare to the amount of unhappiness and landowner distress over the use of eminent domain as in the case of the pipeline,” he said.
But representatives of cities and public utilities said the bill would could increase their costs and delay projects. Some projects can’t even get all permits until property is secured, they said.
Union Pacific Railroad and BNSF Railway also oppose the bill – saying they like to notify landowners early and only use condemnation as a last resort. A BNSF lobbyist said the company has only used condemnation once in 10 years in Nebraska.
Curt Smith, executive director of the Nebraska chapter of Associated General Contractors or “the highway guys,” said the legislation could cause significant delays because permits aren’t always acquired right away.
Lee Hamann, a lawyer representing TransCanada, said the company only has two years to acquire property and could run out of time if the bill passed. He said it would compress the process and reduce time to educate landowners. He said TransCanada works hard to have good landowner relations.
“We wish everybody could be happy but they aren’t,” he said. “But we do try very hard to do it.”
After the hearing, Hamann said he’s been on both sides – representing landowners and companies – and has never seen a company that treats people as well as TransCanada.
“It makes no sense to harass people,” he said. “TransCanada keeps a close eye on their land agents and if somebody gets out of line they get rid of them.”
He said people’s opposition to the pipeline makes them emotional, and it’s impossible to make everybody happy.
“We understand that not everybody is thrilled about having a pipeline across their land,” Hamann said.
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