WINNER, S.D. — South Dakota rancher John Harter stood on his property in the flat sun, a steady breeze muffling the sound of his voice. Behind him sat mounds of sand hill terrain, just like the ecologically sensitive land south of here in Nebraska. In front of him lay thinly covered pasture and a few dozen cattle grazing. Nearby at an old well, he had stopped to point to water just five or six feet below the surface. He noted the greenest patches of grass where the water level was nearest the surface. Now he looked back at the row of tall cottonwood trees where his pickup truck was parked.
The Keystone XL pipeline would come through right here, he said.
He doesn’t want it to. It’s not a question of terms or compensation. He doesn’t care how much TransCanada pays him. He doesn’t want strangers and heavy equipment tearing a gash through his land, cutting down some of the cottonwoods and burrowing under the sand hills and pasture. He worries that it could take years for the land to recover. And the pipeline, which will be buried about four or five feet deep, will essentially be sitting in water, the same water that lies so close to the surface that his pasture does not need to be irrigated. He worries that a spill or leak will spread to the water because the soil is so porous.
“I worry about what they will do to the tall cottonwoods and what they will do to this view, and the beauty of it is irreplaceable,” he said. The property has been in the family since the 1930s.
Two days before we stopped to see Harter, he had been in court trying to stop TransCanada, which had asked a judge to let it exercise eminent domain and force Harter to let the company onto his land.
“They approached me four years ago,” Harter said. “It’s been kind of a long nightmare is what it ends up to be.”
It was surprising that TransCanada would be able to go to court to exercise eminent domain before the Obama administration decides whether to issue a permit for the pipeline. But all along the proposed route, TransCanada is doing just that so that if the Obama administration approves, it can get to work quickly. The company has said that it has warehoused nearly $2 billion worth of steel pipe and other equipment along the route.
Now Harter has a warehouse full of anger and despondence.
“Negotiating with TransCanada having right of eminent domain is like having somebody trying to rob you at gunpoint and arguing for your billfold when there’s nothing in it,” Harter said. During his talks with TransCanada representatives, Harter recalled, the company people said that if he didn’t sign an agreement for an easement they would take him to court.
“I said I will not be bullied into signing,” Harter said.
He’s looked into other options. He has talked to a wind farm firm about putting up nine wind towers across his land, a project that would pay him annually instead of a one-time fee. Moreover, wind turbines would not leak into his water or contaminate his pasture. He hasn’t decided whether to go ahead.
“The revenues from the pipeline will be very small compared to what the cleanup cost is going to be if we have a spill,” he added. “They don’t care about what they’re ruining out here because it doesn’t affect their bottom line.”
TransCanada says that the landowners opposed to the pipeline are few in number. But John Harter summed up the view of at least a few and maybe many more when he said: “I found out that they have more rights to my property than I do. It really makes me angry when I paid for it, paid the mortgage on it, paid the taxes on it.”
He put it in terms that ranchers and farmers might understand: “I raise cattle and food produce. I can’t go and take someone else’s pasture and declare myself a public utility because food is a life-sustaining thing.”
“My father told me ‘don’t trust those oil people. They are all liars and thieves.’,” he recalled. “And you know what they say about listening to your parents.”