Ahead of Pipeline’s Expected Approval, Foes Gather in Boone

Landowners' attorney Keith Puntenney speaks Sunday in Boone. Photo: Jon Lemons/Iowa Informer

A week and a half away from the Iowa Utilities Board’s expected decision to approve a construction permit for the Bakken crude oil pipeline, opponents of Dakota Access LLC’s project met at a public forum Sunday afternoon in Boone. About 80 people sat in a high school auditorium listening to a panel of speakers discuss possible litigation and direct-action protests they will likely pursue in the event that the IUB does sign off on the project. (Currently, Iowa’s the only of the four states the pipeline would cross whose regulators haven’t already given the project their blessing.)

Keith Puntenney, an attorney, founder of the Private Property Rights Coalition, and landowner along the pipeline’s route, said he thought IUB approval was likely. If that’s the case, he explained, he and other pipeline opponents would proceed with a two-pronged approach: directly appealing the IUB’s decision and, after county compensation boards rule on how much money resistant landowners get in return for Dakota Access burying pipe across their properties, filing eminent domain lawsuits.

Dakota Access has said it has reached voluntary easement agreements for 80 percent of the more than 1,250 parcels along the pipeline’s proposed route through Iowa. Panelists provided a similar count, saying about 290 of the parcels the company is eyeing are owned by landowners unwilling to grant it access to their properties.

Puntenney referred to two of his fellow panelists, former state lawmaker-turned-environmental activist Ed Fallon* and Boone County Supervisor Tom Foster, as “heroes” for their work opposing the pipeline. In 2006, Fallon played a prominent role in strengthening the state’s laws against eminent domain seizures; last October, Foster and Boone County’s other two supervisors voted to urge the IUB to deny Dakota Access the permit (read more about that, and other local efforts opposing the project, on our timeline).

“I’m not surprised, but I’m disappointed, that other boards of supervisors have not taken a stand to help protect our rights as landowners.”

A key contention in an eminent domain fight, as Puntenney mentioned, would be that Iowa law stipulates that the practice is to be used for projects that serve a public good, whereas the pipeline would be for private profit and provide little to no benefit to the state.

“The pipeline company and its advocates in the political structure here in Iowa have found a way around that by somehow classifying a pipeline as a public utility,” Fallon said. “Nobody’s being fooled by that. I’m not going to be able to put a spigot on that pipe and get oil for my use.”

Fallon introduced another option for resisting the pipeline, should it be granted the permit as expected from the IUB: direct action. “If those landowners [of the 290 parcels] want to continue to stand up against the pipeline company, we should stand with them,” he said, adding, to applause, “And we should not be afraid to stand with them even if it means standing in front of bulldozers.”

Foster opposes the project in large part over the use of eminent domain. “The law is very specific with intent for the good of the public,” he said, before chiding other boards of supervisors for not taking a stand. “I worry all of us will one day look back at this time in history and realize one more right’s been taken. I’m not surprised, but I’m disappointed, that other boards of supervisors have not taken a stand to help protect our rights as landowners. It is hard for some to do the right thing.” (Foster didn’t name any specific boards, although the Story County Board of Supervisors, asked last November to pass a resolution putting concerns over the pipeline on paper, demurred.)

Paul Cienfuegos, a community rights organizer from Portland, Oregon, who is visiting Iowa for a workshop next weekend at the Trinity United Methodist Church in Des Moines, commended Foster for his board’s action. The next step, he urged, was to pass ordinances, rather than just resolutions, at the local level, such as one passed in Sugar Hill, New Hampshire (PDF), to establish legally binding rules that, collectively between communities, could serve as the basis for new state laws protecting land against private corporate interests.

(Last year, supervisors in Calhoun and Buena Vista counties enacted rules for additional rules regarding pipeline construction through drainage districts. The changes led to since resolved legal action by Dakota Access.)

Also speaking Sunday was Donnielle Wanatee of the Sac & Fox Tribe of the Mississippi in Iowa (better known as Meskwaki Nation). About a year ago, members of the tribe came out against the pipeline. Wanatee spoke specifically to the damage the pipeline could cause to Iowa’s waterways and disruption it might create near tribal burial grounds. “Our people, we bury our dead on the north side of the Iowa River, and this pipeline is going to go between Des Moines and Ames,” she said. “We know a spot where we bury our dead south of Ames. The people lived on the south side and their spirits remain true.”

Another panelist, environmental science professor Danielle Wirth, discussed her former role at the Iowa Department of Natural Resources regulating petroleum companies. She called the surety bond put up by Dakota Access in the event of a pipeline leak or spill — $250,000, all that’s required under state law — “wholly inadequate.” That amount, she said, was the same you might see with groundwater contamination caused by a gas station for just the engineering costs before the start of any cleanup.

The IUB has said it plans to announce a decision on the pipeline permit on March 9 or 10.

Disclosure: A decade ago, before forsaking activism for a career in journalism, I volunteered on Ed Fallon’s gubernatorial primary campaign.

Gavin Aronsen
Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.