Posted 11/10/15 (Tue)
By Kevin Killough
Pipeline reclamation has become a point of contention as two North Dakota industries clash.
The Department of Agriculture held a town hall meeting Monday in Tioga as part of an outreach for a program that helps farmers who are experiencing reclamation issues and finding difficulty getting an adequate response from companies.
Agricultural Commissioner Doug Goehring said the state has more than 20,000 miles of pipeline in the ground.
“The fact is we’re going to have another 20K more by 2020,” he said.
The program attempts to bridge communications between companies and farmers by providing technical assistance to the farmers. When requested, the program also provides mediation between the pipeline owners and landowners.
“It’s great when you get two parties talking,” Goehring said.
So far, the program has only 22 cases and Goehring said the low number has garnered some criticism the program is not working.
Goehring said the program is assisting many farmers who haven’t opened official cases because it puts some weight behind their complaints.
“There’s a lot going on and they don’t necessarily have to call us,” the commissioner said.
Tom Wheeler, vice-chair of the Northwest Landowners Association, confirmed companies are being more responsive to farmers’ complaints due to concerns about showing up on the program’s public case list.
“If a certain company is on that list again and again, it shows a pattern,” Wheeler said.
Richard Schmidt was among the farmers who participated in the town hall discussion. He asked any representatives of pipeline-owning companies to identify themselves.
Among the companies that sent representatives to the meeting were Kinder Morgan, Tesoro, Hess, Bridger Pipeline, Enbridge, SM Energy, and Diamond Resources.
Goering encouraged the audience to refer to the program when talking with an unresponsive company about reclamation issues, and it may help get their attention.
One of the biggest issues landowners face is knowing who to contact to address issues. Companies have mergers and acquisitions, and there’s a string of contractors and subcontractors involved in pipeline construction.
Some farmers at the meeting spoke of being passed from pipeline company to contractor to subcontractor and meeting dead ends in a game of “pass the buck.”
One landowner suggested companies should mail notifications when company contacts change.
“There’s just so much turnover,” the landowner said.
Marcy Lautenschlager, senior right-of-way agent with Diamond Resources, said she likes the idea.
“I think that would be a proactive way to address that issue,” Lautenschlager said.
Goering spoke of how the culture of the state creates misunderstandings when communicating with companies.
He said farmers have an expectation of respect for the land they often feel doesn’t need explaining. And they make agreements with a handshake, only later to have no way to hold the company to the agreement.
“Not all the time do they understand or recognize the culture,” Goehring said of the pipeline companies.
Many of the other issues involve top soil, reseeding, and rough land.
Goehring explained these problems often result from the fact pipeline contractors are not farmers. So they don’t understand how their actions impact agricultural work.
Tim Sundhagen illustrated the problem by relating how a legally required “one call” to identify infrastructure before digging led to what Sundhagen called a “nightmare.”
Sundhagen was about to remove rocks from his section of land, a common and important practice in North Dakota farming.
With so many pipes in the ground, there are often multiple owners who will need to come out and mark the location of pipelines and cables.
He ended up getting multiple calls from utility owners asking questions about where he was removing rock and how far he’d have to dig.
Sundhagen had trouble explaining to the representatives he couldn’t answer their questions until he found the rocks, which could be anywhere on the section. And he wouldn’t know how deep he’d have to dig until he saw how big the rocks are.
Goering did note there are cases where a failure to resolve an issue is not the company’s fault. Sometimes landowners get so fed up with the problems, they won’t allow contractors to come on to the land to evaluate and address the situation.
“There is an element out there of frustration and fatigue,” he said.
He said he hopes by opening up channels of communication, the program will build greater trust and save time and resources in resolving reclamation issues.