ENID, Okla. —
A growing number of Major County landowners are opposing a planned crude oil pipeline they say threatens their water source, which also is the primary water source for Enid.
Glass Mountain Pipeline LLC, a joint venture of Tulsa-based SemGroup Corporation, Chesapeake Energy Corporation and Gavilon LLC, in May announced plans to construct a 210-mile crude oil pipeline to carry crude from Arnett and Alva collection sites to Cushing.
The Arnett and Alva spurs, each planned to carry up to 90,000 barrels of crude per day, join near Cleo Springs in Major County, atop the Cimarron River Aquifer and near the city of Enid’s largest field of water wells.
From Cleo Springs, the pipeline continues with a capacity of 180,000 barrels of crude oil per day to Cushing. The project also calls for 440,000 barrels of intermediate storage.
Land acquisition contractors for the pipeline company currently are negotiating contracts and crossing rights with landowners in the Cleo Springs area. Some landowners already have signed contracts, while others have pledged to fight the pipeline route in court.
Steve Regier was one of the first landowners in Major County contacted by SemGroup. Regier is trustee for his mother’s land near Cleo Springs, land on which SemGroup plans to merge the two smaller pipelines and construct a large storage facility.
“We were the first ones they contacted around here to do this, because it’s a key part of their deal,” Regier said.
He said he and his mother didn’t want to sell the land, but didn’t feel they had any choice.
“She wasn’t looking to sell, but they were telling us, ‘Sell to us or we’re going to condemn your land and take you to court,’” Regier said. “She’s had to work her entire life to pay for that land, and now she has to sell it. It really bothers her a company can come in and force you to sell your land.”
They signed a contract to sell 34 acres of land — land on which Regier said SemGroup plans to build a storage and pumping facility, including two 158,000 barrel tanks.
Regier said he’s not happy about having to sell the land, but he’s more worried about the water.
“The real issue here is the water,” Regier said. “When you have a pipeline, it’s not a question of if it’s going to leak, it’s when it’s going to leak. Thirty years from now, if they have a leak in that thing, who’s going to clean it up? That’s what we’re worried about.”
Regier said far more people should be concerned about the pipeline’s placement, because it crosses a water source that feeds not only rural landowners and towns in Major County, but also Hennessey, Kingfisher and Enid.
“Our biggest concern is the pipeline is coming right through the heart of the best of the Cimarron Terrace Aquifer,” Regier said.
According to the Oklahoma Water Resources Board, about 87 percent of Enid’s permitted water production comes from the Cimarron Aquifer, with the largest concentration of wells near the planned pipeline junction.
“The more we learned about this, the more we know we need to protect the water,” Regier said. “All the price issues over the land are really irrelevant if we pollute the water, and all these people out here and the cities don’t have water to drink.”
Danny Ewbank, owner and president of Ewbank Inc. Water Well Drilling, said he has been hearing a lot of concerns over the pipeline from his clients in the Cleo Springs area.
“Naturally, we’re all concerned about groundwater pollution, and they’re running that pipeline right through the most prolific water source in Major County,” Ewbank said. “Water for Enid, Cleo Springs, Fairview, it all comes from right there.”
Ewbank said he, like most people in the area, supports the oil and natural gas industry.
“Oil and natural gas is an important supporter of our economy, and we all know that,” Ewbank said. “But, sometimes dollars and cents override common sense when it comes to the construction details on a pipeline like this.”
Ewbank said the company should consider an alternate route that crosses the Cimarron Aquifer in a less-vulnerable area.
“Rather than run that pipeline through the heart of the Cimarron Aquifer, I would rather they consider running it through an alternate route that might be less susceptible to creating serious problems if they ever have a leak,” he said.
Ewbank acknowledged pipeline design is meant to prevent leaks, “but little chances and no chances aren’t the same.”
“You’re probably never going to have a project like that that has no potential for problems, and you have to get those chances as low as possible,” he said. “Protecting our groundwater has to be a priority. It’s not just an issue of what’s the least cost for them to put the pipeline in.”
Jack Warfield of Cleo Springs said the first large irrigation well in Major County was drilled back in 1952 on his parents’ land, land over which the pipeline now is planned to cross.
Warfield, who holds a degree in ecology and is retired from Arizona Natural Resources, also wants SemGroup to pick a different route for the pipeline.
He said the proposed route passes through sandy soil atop the best section of the aquifer, a combination he said would be disastrous in the event of a leak.
“This is a sandy area, and the water’s real good, but if you ever had an oil leak in that sand, it’s going to go, it’s going to get away and into the water, and you’re not going to be able to contain it,” Warfield said. “This pipeline could be moved to an area where we have clay or hard ground, where it’s not as susceptible to damage and we’re not going right through our good groundwater.
“There should be a light bulb going on for people in Enid, because that’s where your water comes from. Once we lose that, it’s gone, so we have to look at this seriously now.
“You have to stand up for something, and you better stand up for your rights on drinking water. It’s very important people from this area know this is proposed, and that we all stick together and make sure this is moved to a safe area instead of through the heart of our aquifer.”
Landowners, conservationists and Cimarron Aquifer consumers may wonder why any regulatory agency would approve a pipeline route through the “heart of our aquifer.” The answer: the state agency that regulates the oil and gas industry has no authority to approve the pipeline’s route.
“Once the pipeline is built, we make sure the line is operated properly and meets material safety rules ... but we don’t have much to do with it until it’s built,” said Matt Skinner, spokesman for Oklahoma Corporation Commission.
Skinner said the corporation commission “inspects and audits” pipelines to ensure proper operation and adherence to construction standards after they’re built, but “we do not approve the routing or have anything to do with approval of the placing of an intrastate pipeline.”
Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality spokeswoman Skylar McElhaney said DEQ likewise “does not have regulatory jurisdiction over the construction or route of an oil pipeline.”
She said DEQ only becomes involved with pipelines if there is a spill, and then only in a support role to the corporation commission.
Brian Vance, director of information for Oklahoma Water Resources Board, said OWRB has no authority over pipeline routes or their potential impact to groundwater.
Dave Bary, spokesman for the Environmental Protection Agency Region 6 office, and Tamara Young-Allen, spokeswoman for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, both said their agencies have no regulatory authority over the Glass Mountain Pipeline because it is not a federal project, is funded by private industry and doesn’t cross state lines.
None of the agencies listed above could name any state or federal authority with the responsibility or capacity to approve the pipeline route or review its potential environmental impact.
The only authority standing between the proposed pipeline’s route and the Cimarron Aquifer may be a growing group of Major County landowners who refuse to sign crossing contracts for their land.
Some landowners report tensions are rising between themselves and land acquisition contractors eager to finalize contracts without a legal battle.
“They’re terribly pushy, and they’re throwing around a lot of threats about eminent domain,” said Ryan Koehn, who owns land west of Ringwood in the pipeline’s proposed path.
“We’ve had other pipelines come across us with no problem ... everybody out here has,” Koehn said. “With these people, it’s a 100 percent different deal.”
If contracts aren’t signed, state statutes support the pipeline company’s use of eminent domain to condemn the land and force its sale.
According to state statutes, “Any oil pipeline company, organized under the laws of this state, shall have power to exercise the right of eminent domain ... for the purpose of securing rights-of-way and sites for pumping stations, storage tanks and depots.”
While eminent domain power is granted to pipeline companies, the manner and timing of the condemnation is up to the courts, said Enid attorney Mike Bigheart.
“Basically, the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the Oklahoma Constitution both provide that private property will not be taken without just compensation,” Bigheart said. “Government entities and other entities granted the right of eminent domain can’t just take someone’s property. There has to be due process involved.”
“Any entity claiming eminent domain has to negotiate in good faith with the owner,” Bigheart said. “If they’re not able to negotiate a fair price with the owner, then they can use eminent domain to condemn the property.”
From there, Bigheart said the process enters a protracted court phase. The district court appoints three appraisers to value the land at issue, and either party can object to the appraisers’ report and request a jury trial.
Koehn said he and a number of other landowners plan on taking the pipeline project through that court process.
“I don’t plan on signing anything,” Koehn said. “The way they’re dealing, we’ll be better off going to court.”
Wanda Srader, whose land lies close to Koehn’s and in the planned pipeline route, said the water issues are worth the court battle.
Srader was one of about 30 landowners unhappy with the pipeline route to attend a recent meeting. She is helping organize another meeting, scheduled for 6 p.m. Saturday at the Ringwood Fair Building to organize landowners’ opposition to the pipeline.
“We just want to get everyone together who’s affected and get more people involved in this,” Srader said.
Srader said she and other landowners have a simple message for the pipeline company.
“We just want to tell them to go away, to take their money and their problems somewhere else,” she said. “If they want to claim eminent domain, then they can see us in court. We just want them to leave us in peace, leave us alone, and leave us with our clean water.”
SemGroup Corporation did not respond to requests for input on this article. According to the company’s May press release announcing the pipeline, it expects to commission the line in fall 2013.
For a closer look at the source of Enid’s water, revisit our Sept. 9 story here.