Tensions grow between landowners, Enbridge over survey workA group of Carlton County landowners is crying foul after survey crews began work along one of the proposed routes for Enbridge’s Sandpiper pipeline.
By: Wendy Johnson, Pine Journal
A group of Carlton County landowners is crying foul after survey crews began work along one of the proposed routes for Enbridge’s Sandpiper pipeline. The route, part of which follows a different configuration from the company’s existing pipeline, runs across private lands previously untouched by major utility corridors.
Landowners say the pipeline stands to negatively impact farmlands, forest lands and wetlands and, in some cases, their personal livelihoods. A group of them has formed the Carlton County Land Stewards to try to convince Enbridge, the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) and the county to follow an existing corridor that would stand to have less negative impact.
Landowners received letters in late April requesting permission to go on their property.
“Surveying requires trained specialists to walk the pipeline right-of-way across each property, sometimes leaving small, temporary stakes in the ground so that they and other environmental specialists will be able to keep track of the boundaries,” the letters read. “In some cases, they may need to dig small holes for wetland and/or cultural resource assessments. Any holes will be dug by hand and filled before the crew leaves your property.”
According to Enbridge Public Affairs spokesperson Lorraine Grymala, permission to place survey stakes is part of the survey permission agreement.
While some of the landowners granted their permission, several did not.
Attorney Paul Kilgore, legal representative for Enbridge, sent a letter in late September to those who refused to grant permission to survey their land. Kilgore referenced Minnesota statutes asserting the utility company’s right to allow survey crews to come on private property prior to obtaining endorsement of its Certificate of Need and Route Approval from the PUC.
Members of the Land Stewards group say they interpreted the letter as a threat of prosecution for non-compliance and took exception with the company’s interpretation of its rights.
Jerry Von Korff, an attorney hired by the Carlton County Land Stewards, said at present, there is no legal obligation for a property owner to allow Enbridge access to their land.
“Enbridge says public utilities have been granted the right of eminent domain,” said Von Korff told the Pine Journal, “but that claim ignores the fact that a public utility cannot use the right of eminent domain until it gets authority to use it through a certificate of need and a route permit issued by the PUC….So it is way premature to be acting as if Enbridge is conducting eminent domain proceedings.”
Von Korff said he has subsequently had discussions with both Enbridge’s attorney and with a PUC staffer regarding the issue.
“My understanding is that the PUC staff does not agree with Enbridge’s contention that it has a right to enter for surveying purposes without the landowner’s permission,” said Korff.
Bret Eknes, manager of facilities permitting for the PUC, told the Pine Journal on Tuesday he concurred with that understanding.
“Enbridge has no right of eminent domain until the permits are granted out,” Eknes said. “My sense is that they’re trying to gather environmental information along the route to use in the permit application, but this point there is no contractual agreement.”
Grymala stated, however, that survey work on lands along a potential pipeline route is not so much a question of eminent domain as it is standard procedure in formulating the company’s permit applications.
“As part of the Minnesota PUC process, Enbridge must conduct various field surveys (civil, environmental, archaeological and wetland delineation) and site evaluations along the proposed construction corridor,” the Enbridge spokeswoman said. “This survey work is done prior to an application being submitted and is used throughout the regulatory process to inform discussion, agency review and public comment well before a permit is granted.”
Grymala said accurate and current route information on the proposed pipeline route is necessary for regulatory permitting processes and to identify appropriate construction and restoration techniques.
She went on to say Kilgore’s letter was simply a request for “a more formal engagement” of various landowners in order to address any concerns they may have felt weren’t being addressed through their assigned Land Agent which may have hindered their granting survey consent.
“At no point is legal action threatened,” Grymala said. “Similarly, the letter does not assert any position with regard to eminent domain, much less assert that Enbridge is so authorized to act. To be clear, the letter provided to landowners did not represent that Enbridge was authorized to pursue survey access through eminent domain; we’re committed to building positive relationships with landowners and communities in which we operate.”
In the meantime, at least some of the local landowners claim Enbridge is coming in to survey their land – with or without their permission.
Terry Hall, who owns 120 acres of land on County Road 4, said he was approached by Enbridge to check his land for wetlands and/or burial grounds, for which he granted his permission. But when he and his wife were on a fall color walk on their property a few days later, they discovered that their land had been surveyed and stakes place “all over” their property.
Hall said a man called on behalf of Enbridge that evening, asking permission to come onto their land within two or three days to survey. Hall said he told the caller that someone had already come and surveyed without their permission, at which time the Enbridge representative said he would “look into it.” That’s the last that Hall has heard.
Stan Hultgren, who owns 100 acres of farm and forest land on County Road 4 had a similar experience. By the time someone actually called him on the phone and said a survey crew would be on his land in a week or 10 days, the survey flags had already be posted on his property without his permission.
“A line of the flags runs from the northeast corner of a 22-acre field to the southeast corner, kitty corner right across cropland with new seeding,” said Hultgren.
Hultgren said once again, the representative did not offer an explanation for the mix-up and he has had no word since.
Matt and Loretta Cartner have property south of Wrenshall, and when neighbors noticed stakes marking the proposed pipeline route on their property last week and called them where they were vacationing in Utah, they were very surprised. The couple said they had told Enbridge it did not have permission to survey, and they were distressed to learn that crews had been on their property.
Loretta commented, “If this is how they disrespect our private property rights now, I’m very concerned about the treatment we’ll face when there’s a pipe in the ground.”
When asked Wednesday what action Enbridge plans to take if a landowner patently refuses to give permission to enter their land, Grymala stated, “Surveys will not be performed on their property at this time and we will rely on data available online.”
Grymala said Enbridge plans to submit its applications for a certificate of need and route permit next week.
Eknes said the PUC’s timeline for a final decision on a certificate of need application is 12 months and nine months for the route permit. He said depending on the level of controversy and the complexity of the application, those deadlines could be extended another three months, so overall it will probably be a year to 15 months.
Eknes confirmed that the PUC has had a few calls and letters regarding the controversy within the county but declined to say if that has any impact on the actual permitting decisions.
Carlton County Sheriff Kelly Lake stated that dispatch records show at least one formal complaint from a landowner about Enbridge survey crews coming on their land without permission. She said it is appropriate for a landowner to place such a call if they question the presence of anyone on their land illegally, and in most cases the misunderstanding can be worked out among the landowner, the deputy and the other party.