Nebraska's environmental concerns are represented in a new route for TransCanada's Keystone XL pipeline that is currently before President Barack Obama for approval, a state water expert told the Rotary Club on Wednesday.
John Bender, program specialist with the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality, called the process of locating the pipeline through the state gratifying.
Working 35 years in the water quality division, Bender said the task of addressing Nebraskan's initial concerns about the threats to the Ogallala Aquifer and Sand Hills proposed a departure from his typical work monitoring rivers and waste water.
He described the task as a fact finding mission. His team, led by project manager Pat Rice, offered a “scientifically defendable” boundary of the Sand Hills, identified potential environmental risks and organized public hearings where Nebraskans could voice their concerns.
After receiving the department's final report, Gov. Dave Heineman sent a letter Jan. 22 to President Obama approving the 195-mile route through the state. He noted that it avoids the Sand Hills and many areas of fragile soils in Northern Nebraska.
The pipeline, which needs the President's approval to cross the U.S. border, will carry crude oil steamed out of tar sands in Canada 1,700 miles to refineries on the Gulf Coast.
As part of the final report, Nebraska officials asked TransCanada to conduct a rupture test. He said authorities pointed on a map at an existing pipeline and asked TransCanada to tell local responders what was in the pipeline. In 17 minutes, the company was able to inform simulated emergency responders the exact composition of material that would have been involved in a spill.
Bender said identifying the material is not necessarily an easy undertaking.
The crude oil that is extracted from the tar sands has flow qualities compared to molasses. Bender said it has to be diluted so it move through the pipe, there may be synthetic additives and the product sometimes goes through a preliminary refinement.
Bender said in the case of a spill, Nebraska responders will have timely information about how to deal with it.
The new pipeline route could involve localized ground water, but does not pose a contamination threat to the Ogallala Aquifer, an underground holding basin of fresh water that provides irrigation for farms in eight states.
TransCanada is responsible for spills and is required to hold $200 million in liability insurance.
Bender said state officials toured TransCanada pipeline construction sites in Texas and found no scarring of the land in the 110-foot corridor within a year after a pipeline is complete.
Page 2 of 2 - “I know I might sound like a supporter of this pipeline, but these are just the facts. This is what we found out," he said.
Construction of the pipeline will not harm the environment, he said.
In addition to moving the initial route eastward around the Sand Hills, Bender said TransCanada agreed to amend routes to avoid wellhead protection areas near the towns of Western and Clarks.
The state's DEQ became involved in the fall of 2011 when opposition rose to the pipeline and Gov. Heineman called a special session of the state Legislature. Nebraska did not have specific laws governing pipeline construction.
Bender said his team was told to evaluate the project under the lens of the National Environmental Policy Act and said TransCanada agreed by December of 2011 to avoid the Sand Hills, if the state could define the Sand Hill's border.
He said the Great Plains region is divided into eco-regions and one region is called the Sand Hills, but it took input from Sand Hills maps, the United States Geological Survey, the U.S. Forest Service, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Kansas and agricultural resources to establish a border.
TransCanada agreed to move further east than the identified border, Bender said, because soils in the region appeared similar to those of the Sand Hills.
He said President Obama earlier denied a permit to TransCanada because environmental reports were not complete, but invited the company to re-apply.
It took nine months between the new application and Bender's final report. The process included public hearings in O'Neill, Neligh, Albion and Central City. There were 160 people registered to make comments at the Albion hearing and 108 actually spoke. One hearing did not end until 2 a.m.
Bender said public input had an impact on where the pipeline would be built.
“The concerns of Nebraskans, those that really mattered at these public hearings, Keystone responded to. We got 'er done,” he said.