Portions of the Keystone XL pipeline awaiting construction.

Vague Answers, Questionable Credentials Define Keystone XL Hearings in SD

Jacqueline Keeler

Vague answers, a lack of tribal consultation, and a top engineer’s questionable credentials emerged on Tuesday as TransCanada Corp. argued its right to run the Keystone XL pipeline through South Dakota.

“I think it's been proven TransCanada does not have the safety record they are trying to say they have,” said Joye Braun, a Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe member whose mistrust only grew as the hearings before the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) dragged into a second week. “Also the tax revenue will not be what they are saying. Most importantly though, is that there are serious questions regarding safety to our drinking water for the state and tribal communities.”

The evidentiary hearings began on July 27 over whether conditions surrounding the original permit had changed enough to make the PUC require that TransCanada start over with a new application, or whether the company could merely get recertified without revisiting any of the elements of the original permit issued in 2010.

Previously the PUC had rejected numerous witnesses, including noted climate scientist James Hansen, excluded because climate change had not been addressed in the original permit.

RELATED: Climate Scientist James Hansen Shut Out of Keystone XL Hearings in South Dakota

TransCanada’s testimony was punctuated by evasive answers from company witnesses when questioned about poor management practices by citizens (Native and non-Native) whose lands and communities are in the pipeline’s path. Lawyers representing tribes and organizations, including the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, the Yankton Sioux Tribe, the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, Dakota Rural Action and Bold Nebraska, also asked pressing questions.

At one point, while under cross-examination by Elizabeth Lone Eagle, TransCanada's environmental toxicologist Heidi Tillquist would not say whether Lone Eagle’s community of Bridger on the Cheyenne River Sioux reservation had been assessed as “inhabited” in her environmental study of the project. When pressed to answer by Lone Eagle, attorneys and finally the commissioners, Tillquist refused to do so, citing Homeland Security issues.

It also emerged during cross-examination of TransCanada engineering manager Meera Kothari—the engineer in charge of the entire $8 billion, 1,700-mile-long Keystone XL project—that she is not actually licensed to practice engineering in the U.S. She qualified this admission by stating that all actual engineering on the project was done by another firm, UniversalPegasus.

The Keystone XL engineering manager avoided answering Yankton Sioux Tribal attorney Thomasina Real Bird’s question as to whether she considered the Keystone 1 pipeline’s track record of 14 spills in one year to be safe. Kothari repeatedly claimed she did not understand the question, until she was finally directed by the commissioners to answer it.

Then Kothari brought the room to an uproar when she answered, “Yes, in my professional opinion, it is safe.”

It also became apparent during cross-examination of TransCanada witnesses that there had been no consultation with tribes or non-Native landowners concerning the building of the Keystone XL pipeline near their communities and water sources.

Paul Seamans, chairman of Dakota Rural Action and a lifelong rancher in central South Dakota, questioned Tillquist about the pipeline crossing the Cheyenne River 76 miles from the water intake for the local community. Tillquist claimed that if there were a spill it would not travel that far, since the 2010 Kalamazoo River spill from an Enbridge pipeline—the largest and most expensive spill in U.S. history, with cleanup costs estimated at $1.21 billion—traveled only 35 miles downstream. However, in the case of the Kalamazoo spill, a dam helped contain flow; there is no such dam on the fast-flowing Cheyenne River. Also, Seamans pointed out that in Tillquist’s environmental assessment report for TransCanada she stated that the oil could in fact reach the Missouri River. The Cheyenne River empties into the Missouri downriver from the water intake.

Carlyle Ducheneaux, Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe’s Environmental Protection department coordinator, testified about the impact the pipeline would have on his tribe. He also told Indian Country Today Media Network that he had concerns regarding the pipe’s being buried 25 feet under the Cheyenne River due to scouring of the river; by his estimates, on average the river scours between three and six inches of its bottom per year, so 25 feet is not deep enough to keep the pipeline buried and unexposed for the 40- to 50-year lifespan of the pipeline.

Investigation of a 2014 spill in the Yellowstone River, for instance, revealed exposed pipeline that had originally been buried many feet below the riverbed.

RELATED: Yellowstone River Oil Spill Raises Concerns About Keystone XL Impact

Tillquist was also questioned about the threat of benzene fallout—a carcinogenic airborne pollutant resulting from oil spills—to the Cheyenne River Sioux community of Bridger in the advent of a pipe breakage. Lone Eagle and other community members became concerned by the fact that their community, a mile from the proposed pipeline, is within the evacuation zone published on Keystone’s online maps. Benzene clouds at 3,000 parts per million have been reported during breaks, and the oil itself is rife with harmful chemicals, witnesses said.

“A single sample of tar sands oil included chemicals that cause cancer in humans and produce serious and permanent birth defects in children,” a 2013 Environmental Working Group report stated.

Tillquist took issue with the term “cloud” and insisted that it be called “vapor.” She also stated, when pressed by Lone Eagle, that she was personally fine with pipes near her children and water resources and had raised her own kids within 100 yards of a pipeline; when asked what kind of pipeline, she said she did not know.

The financial viability of Keystone XL also came into question, making local headlines when TransCanada pulled its own witness, projects president Corey Goulet, off the stand when he admitted under cross-examination that Keystone XL may have lost contracts to even carry oil due to present low oil prices.

The hearings were scheduled to end on Tuesday, August 4th but have been extended and may run through the rest of the week. Faith Spotted Eagle of the Brave Heart Society, and a member of the Ihanktonwan Treaty Steering Committee and the Ihanktowan General Council, expressed concern about the rising crime that has been documented with the advent of temporary workers housed in so-called man camps.

RELATED: Will Keystone XL Pipeline Pump Sexual Violence Into South Dakota?

“Man camps are inhabited by young and single men who are suddenly away from their families, spouses, and have the financial means to use and abuse illicit drugs,” Spotted Eagle said in pre-filed testimony. “The result is easy to predict and does not require any scientific analysis—these young men, unfortunately, increase the crime rates including violent crimes, sexual crimes, and drug-related crimes. It is common sense that these men will need recreational outlets and will seek these at nearby casinos, including ours.”

The tribe runs the Fort Randall Casino and Resort, and like all federally recognized tribes, it lacks jurisdiction over non-Natives. Spotted Eagle sees this combination of lack of enforcement capability with the negative impacts of the man camps as a serious threat to the work of the Brave Heart Society to improve the lives of the women of her tribe.

The lack of clear answers may not deter the PUC, which was expected to approve TransCanada’s request for recertification.

“We are hopeful that Keystone XL recertification will be rejected, but if it's not we are ready to do what is necessary to stop this pipeline from being built,” Braun told Indian Country Today Media Network.

“It doesn't matter that the PUC doesn't recognize the importance of treaty and reserved rights,” Spotted Eagle wrote on Facebook. “What matters is that we do and have never stopped believing and honoring what commitments were made. What goes around truly does come around and the world is in trouble. When you have a conflict, ‘they will be back because the world is round.’ ”

There were also rumors that President Barack Obama will reject the pipeline when Congress is out of session later this month.

“What I’m hearing from multiple sources is that he is going to turn down Keystone when we’re out in August,” Senator John Hoeven of North Dakota (R) told Bloomberg’s Ari Natter after a speech last week on the floor of the Senate about Keystone. “I got a couple sources, and that’s what they’re saying. But I can’t tell you who.”

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