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State offers help with landowner pipeline issues

Posted 11/17/15 (Tue)

By Amy Robinson
Farmer Staff Writer

Some McKenzie County landowners have waited for one, two, and even three years to get issues resolved with the multiple pipeline companies that have emanated to the Bakken in recent years.
But thanks to the Pipeline Restoration and Reclamation Oversight Pilot Program, landowners should be seeing results much more quickly after using the new Department of Agriculture program aimed at settling disputes between landowners and companies.
“This is an opportunity for North Dakota farmers, ranchers, landowners, tenants, and others who need assistance in working with pipeline companies to learn about the pipeline restoration and reclamation program,” says Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring. “The program can help resolve land surface issues and concerns.”
The North Dakota Department of Agriculture (NDDA) hosted town hall meetings in Tioga and Watford City on Monday, Nov. 9, to discuss their pipeline restoration and reclamation program, which was established by the Legislature earlier this year. Commissioner Goehring led the meetings and made himself available for questions following the public meetings.
Goehring explained that the program connects landowners and tenants with an independent ombudsman who helps resolve concerns with companies related to restoring the land.
“The ombudsman’s role is to meet with the landowner and the pipeline company,” said Goehring. “They will be the one to document issues, assist the parties to develop a plan and a timeline to address the issues, and then to monitor the agreement of the work plan. We are going to get a lot better of an outcome than before.”
According to Goehring, the department has received 22 complaints to date, with the majority of complaints related to uneven and rough ground, loss of topsoil, vegetation not being restored properly, and noxious weed control.
“We said we’d do the education and outreach,” stated Goehring, “to minimize the problems, issues, and impacts. Landowners need to get out on their land, identify the items that might be an issue for them at some point, and get them into the easement. At least if they have it in writing, it’s documented. They need to document, photograph, and inventory the landscape before and after pipeline installation.”
“We’re just going to help establish some communication and a reasonable approach to what is going on,” said Goehring. “This is about taking some of that emotion out of it and letting us be the third party.”
Landowners, ranchers, and farmers who attended the public hearing in Watford City complained about several different reclamation issues.
Some of those issues included construction during the wet years and the amount of compaction that has gone way beyond what was ever anticipated. Or how long it takes to get results when pipeline companies shift the blame to a subcontractor or another operator.
Complaints also stated that no till or minimal till has been done and actually getting the ground back to where it was before there was  long-term damage. And not getting the same crop to grow after the pipeline has been laid,  or knowing who to contact and what to do when the easement has been violated.
“There is no till or minimal till. To actually put that ground back to what it was before would take thousands and thousands of truckloads of top-soil,” said one concerned landowner. “Pipeline companies just don’t want to deal with it. It’s long-term damage.”
“I can’t get the land back to what it was,” said another landowner. “I can’t get the same crop to grow. It’s not just a couple year deal. And from the pipeline company you hear, ‘Oh, I’m sorry. Oh ya, I’m going to take care of it.’ And you wonder why we’re frustrated with it. I’ve been on the phone for one to two hours a day, every morning trying to handle these pipeline issues. The commission needs to be proactive. You wonder why you get the F-bomb sometimes. I just get so frustrated and upset.”
Geohring said the ombudsman program is aimed at helping the landowners find the responsible party when issues arise. He also said that he now recommends pipeline companies planning winter pipeline construction to separate the topsoil in the fall and come back in the spring and replace it to help prevent further issues down the road. He said it would help tremendously.
Many representatives from pipeline and oil companies attended the Watford City hearing and made themselves available to talk to the nearly 90 residents who attended the meeting.
The North Dakota Department of Agriculture’s pipeline and reclamation oversight pilot program connects landowners and surface tenants experiencing pipeline reclamation issues with an independent ombudsman to rectify any issue that has arisen since Jan. 1, 2006.
There is an estimated 20,000 miles of underground gathering pipelines in North Dakota says Goehring. And the state is projected to have 36,000 miles of pipelines by 2020.