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Proposed Sandpiper crude oil pipeline draws concerns at PSC hearing

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GRAND FORKS, N.D. – One North Dakota man worried aloud whether a spill from Enbridge Energy’s proposed Sandpiper crude pipeline – a stretch of which would be buried in the bed of the Red River south of Grand Forks – would ruin the town’s drinking water supply.

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Another said constructing the project on its proposed route could irreparably harm a patch of untouched prairie nearby.

And a local worker with a history of building Enbridge pipelines sang the company’s praises for not cutting corners.

North Dakotans got their first shot Wednesday at swaying the state’s Public Service Commission, which is reviewing Enbridge’s application to build in North Dakota nearly 300 miles of its 612-mile pipeline.

The commission has scheduled two more public hearings on the project: Thursday in Devils Lake and Feb. 27 in Minot.

Enbridge is partnering with Marathon Petroleum Corp. on the $2.6 billion project. If approved and constructed, Sandpiper would carry 375,000 barrels of Bakken crude per day to the company’s facility in Superior, Wis., plus another 225,000 barrels per day to Clearbrook, Minn.

“This is an enormous project, nationally and internationally. The reality is this would move more than twice as much North Dakota oil as the Keystone project would,” Commissioner Randy Christmann said, comparing the Sandpiper to the long-delayed and much-talked-about Keystone XL pipeline.

Enbridge lawyers and staff also made their case before the commission, and about 75 area residents packed into a courtroom at the University of North Dakota’s Law School on Wednesday. Brian Bjella, a Bismarck attorney representing the project, painted the Sandpiper as a necessity to cope with North Dakota’s growing status as the nation’s second-largest oil producer.

With Bakken region production expected to grow in the next decade, “existing pipeline capacity will not be enough to support production by 2017,” Bjella said.

Enbridge, an Alberta-based energy company, filed its application for the Sandpiper with North Dakota in late October. If approved, construction would begin this year with plans to finish in early 2016.

Chuck Goyette, a resident of Red Lake Falls, Minn., questioned where crude pumped through the Sandpiper would be shipped and sold after its journey east.

“I’m wondering if all this tearing up the countryside … is really benefiting the people here,” he said.

Robert Seabloom, a professor emeritus at UND, worried about the pipeline’s impact on Oakville Prairie, a 900-acre patch the school bills as “one of North Dakota’s last untouched slices of original grassland.” He urged the commission to consider a route that would avoid the prairie, which is used for research.

Seabloom said the digging required to bury the pipes would permanently alter the landscape, noting that a pipeline built through a chunk of the prairie in the 1960s has had lasting effects.

“It probably wouldn’t be the same even after 50 to 60 years,” he said.

But what really worries him, he said, is the pipeline industry’s track record of spills. A repeat of the spill reported last year near Tioga, which released more than 20,000 barrels of oil, would be “totally devastating” to the Oakville Prairie.

Citing the prairie’s value as a biological research site, Phyllis Johnson, UND’s vice president for research and economic development, also asked that the route be moved.

Jerome Gunderson wondered why he wasn’t informed that the Sandpiper’s route would zig-zag across his farmstead in Thompson. He didn’t find out until a friend tipped him off Tuesday night, he said.

Gunderson also voiced his concern about the impact of a leak or spill on Grand Forks’ drinking water. If oil were to be released by the portion of the pipeline buried underneath the Red River, it could drift north into town, he reasoned.

“If there’s ever a spill, we’re going to ruin the entire water system for Grand Forks, he said.

So why not run the pipeline north, Gunderson asked. Public Service Commissioner Brian Kalk responded that would merely push the bad drinking water into a different community.

“Yep,” Gunderson quickly chimed in. “No matter where you put this thing, it’s in someone’s backyard.”

If you go

What: Public Service Commission hearing on the Enbridge Sandpiper pipeline

When: 8:30 a.m. Thursday

Where: Robert Fawcett Auditorium, Lake Region State College, 1801 College Drive N., Devils Lake, N.D.

What: Public Service Commission hearing on the Enbridge Sandpiper pipeline

When: 8:30 a.m. Feb. 27

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Forum News Service
The Forum Communications News Service is the premier news wire service covering the Upper Midwest, stretching from the oilfields of western North Dakota to the plains of South Dakota and to the shores of eastern Minnesota. For more information about the services we offer or to discuss content subscriptions, please contact us.
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