Reposted text from yesterday’s Chicago Tribune article.
Dave Schluckebier surveyed the copper-colored farm field as a gusty December wind whipped across the heartland. He stooped to pluck an object out of the neatly plowed soil, pulling up a 2-foot hunk of braided wire cable partially buried in the earth.
“Thank God we didn’t get this in the combine,” Schluckebier said. “This is just the kind of artifact we’ve been finding. Who knows what else we’re going to find.”
The discovery on the sprawling central Illinois farm is a reminder of what lies beneath his feet, slicing a 1.75-mile path across the land where the family grows corn and soybeans. The cable, he said, is a remnant of the construction of the much-debated Dakota Access oil pipeline.
Since June, Bakken crude oil has been flowing through 177 miles of the buried pathway across Illinois, from the Iowa border to a bustling oil tank hub near the quiet towns of Patoka and Vernon, about 1.5 hours east of St. Louis. The Dakota Access pipeline crosses properties in 12 counties in western and south-central parts of the state, including the Schluckebier farm.
A year after high-profile protests against the Dakota Access pipeline turned contentious in North Dakota, the completion of the 1,872-mile, 30-inch-diameter pipeline has been a mixture of potential and peril for Illinois. Farmers whose land was used for the $3.8 billion pipeline complain about damaged crops, unusable fields, lowered property values and the changed character of the land. They worry about the effect on streams and the earth, and fret about a spill.
“What you really think is yours really isn’t anymore,” said Scott Schluckebier, Dave’s brother.
Piece by piece, the pipeline’s owner, Dakota Access LLC, purchased 50-foot-wide permanent easements for the project in 2016. Farmers were paid for the land and are compensated in part for crop damage related to construction.
Dakota Access spokeswoman Vicki Granado said in an emailed response to questions that the company tries “to work cooperatively with all landowners to resolve any issues.” The company says the pipeline is more efficient and safer than transporting oil by truck or rail.
But for some, the pipeline has left them bitter, frustrated and worried about the future.
The Schluckebiers have owned land in southern Montgomery County since the 1860s, and Dave’s son is a fifth-generation farmer. The family owns about 2,500 acres, of which the pipeline runs across 10 acres, and in the aftermath of construction, the fields look “like a landing strip,” Dave Schluckebier said.
The company notified farmers that eminent domain would be used if necessary as it was in Iowa.
“It was forced on you. You didn’t have a choice,” Scott Schluckebier said. “You didn’t have an option. Yeah, you got paid for it. But I would’ve paid to not have it here.”
A local boost
The sentiments are different in the tiny Illinois towns where the pipeline ends its journey. There, the Dakota Access pipeline connects to an oil distribution hub of 82 holding tanks that service five other incoming and five outgoing pipelines that deliver oil to refineries in the Midwest and ports in the Texas Gulf Coast.
The oil companies and their contractors employ a mixture of locals and out-of-towners who grab lunch at the local cafes in Patoka (population 584) and Vernon (population 200) or rent motel rooms in the larger nearby towns of Vandalia and Salem. The oil companies donate money for Patoka’s fall festival — a weekend that includes carnival rides, a parade, a rodeo and a demolition derby — and upkeep of the town park, residents and town officials said.
“They’re really good to help any way they can,” said Cory Hassell, the Patoka utilities superintendent.
The hulking white oil tanks that loom on the outskirts of town along the two-lane U.S. Highway 51 have become a familiar part of the landscape.
“They’ve always been here,” Hassell said. “It doesn’t hurt anything. It supplies a lot of jobs. You don’t even notice them anymore.”
Dan Felchlia lives across Highway 51 from the northern edge of the tank farm. Aside from a few lightning strikes that ignited the tanks and caused small fires over the years, Felchlia said he has no complaints or concerns about the operations.
“It’s helping the economy, it really is,” said Felchlia, 58. “It’s kinda an eyesore being right on the highway, but there’s the economy factor.”
For Edward Parker, who has lived in Patoka for most of his life, the oil industry contributed to his livelihood. Parker worked maintenance on the pipelines for several years, repairing, cleaning and installing pipes throughout the area.
“We’ve always had a good relationship with them,” said Parker, as he dug into a plate of ham, eggs and hash browns at Joyce’s Cafe in Vernon. “They’re really involved in the community. This area is slightly depressed, so it’s definitely an asset for the community.”
The natural gas and oil industry supported 235,000 jobs in Illinois in 2015, according to the American Petroleum Institute, a trade association. Private investment in energy infrastructure, API said, could contribute $47 billion to the state’s economy through 2035.
Dakota Access said it will pay an estimated $750,000 in property taxes during its first year of the pipeline’s operation in Illinois.
Since November, 360,000 barrels per day have been flowing through the Dakota Access pipeline, according to Genscape, an energy and commodities transparency company. The pipeline has a capacity of 520,000 barrels a day. Dakota Access said it does not release flow data.
About 55 percent of the oil that flows into Patoka on the Dakota Access pipeline heads south to the Nederland-Beaumont-Port Arthur area near the Texas Gulf Coast, Genscape said. Some of it heads north toward refineries in Whiting, Ind., and Lemont.
The Patoka hub is the second-largest pipeline crossroads in the Midwest, behind Cushing, Okla. The tanks have a total of 19 million barrels of crude oil storage available, according to Genscape.
“It’s a pretty essential cog in the wheel of the distribution system,” said Hillary Stevenson, Genscape’s director of oil markets.
The crude oil from the pipeline is transported to refineries, where it is turned into gasoline, diesel fuel, kerosene, heating oil, asphalt and petrochemicals, Stevenson said.
Other local officials said the addition of the Dakota Access pipeline has had a minimal effect on the local economy and people’s opinions on nearby oil operations.
“It’s just another pipeline, it’s nothing that’s anything that’s new,” said Steve Fox, the Marion County clerk and recorder. “The tanks have been here for years. I think the local people see it as a positive; they don’t see it as a negative.”
The tank farm, as Fox calls it, is continually growing, and he said three new tanks were built this year.
Marion County has received modest property tax revenue as a result, sending a small amount of money toward municipalities and the schools, he said.
“It’s brought in some extra dollars that weren’t there before,” Fox said.
Vernon Mayor Chester Burks, who can see the giant tanks from his home, said the pipeline opening has had little effect on the town.
“The tank farms don’t help us one bit. They don’t help the people here in the community at all. It’s all big business,” said Burks, who has served as the town’s mayor for 50 years. “It doesn’t do anything at all for Vernon and Patoka.”
But most people don’t object to their presence, he said.
“They don’t ask us anything. They do what they want,” Burks said. “We’re not hard to get along with.”
An altered landscape
Shoal Creek, with its tree-lined banks and rippling water, is a haven for otters, muskrats, deer and the occasional bobcat. The Dakota Access pipeline now runs underneath the creek on its way east.
Construction of the pipeline has altered the creek bank and left the farm field susceptible to flooding, said Jim Carroll, the Schluckebiers’ neighbor who operates adjacent farms in the area about 60 miles south of Springfield. Especially in the spring, water spills into the bottomlands.
“I’ve got lots of problems with the pipeline, but this is the biggest one right here,” said Carroll, as he pointed to the creek and picked up hunks of stone left over from construction. “It’ll continue to get worse, unless they do something about it.”
Carroll said the pipeline has brought only hassles.
“I’d just as soon they’d have kept their money and their pipeline,” he said.
Granado, the pipeline spokeswoman, said eminent domain was not used in Illinois, and all of the property owners agreed to terms.
The company is “committed to the safe operation of Dakota Access for decades to come,” she said via email.
“We perform work regularly up and down the pipeline along the right of way as part of our ongoing operations and maintenance,” Granado said. But “continued payments are not made on our permanent right of way.”
A few miles to the east along the quiet country roads that jog over a ridge and skirt the dormant farm fields, Dave Schluckebier said construction has changed the composition of his farm’s soil, turning some of it into a powder and other parts into a soggy mess.
“You’re going along fine, and then all of a sudden the tractor’s like, ‘Ahhhhhhh,’” he said. “It’s like a bog you get into.”
The pipeline was buried at least 4 feet deep in agriculture fields.
Ken Olson, a soil scientist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has conducted research on the effects of pipelines on the land, including Dakota Access. He said pipeline companies are generally very careful about the construction and try to minimize damage or make it right with landowners.
“They try to address it. It’s not perfect, but they try to do the best they can,” he said.
But disturbed or compacted soil is not going to return to normal overnight, he said.
“It does take a few years to probably restore the productivity to what they originally would have gotten,” Olson said. Eventually the soil should recover. “But if you have a spill or something else happens, you have to go back in, and so you have to restart the clock.”
The Schluckebiers said their crop yield on the soil above the pipeline was down 50 percent this year. Other areas above the pipeline were choked with 6-foot weeds during the summer, leading to worries that the weeds may return in the future. The family is financially compensated for crop loss for three years. The Schluckebiers will be protected by contract for one more year, but the brothers worry about the long-term effects on the land.
“God forbid, what if there is a leak, what are we going to do?” Scott Schluckebier said.
A trio of young women arrived at the farm to gather pecans from one of the family’s pecan trees. Inside the family home, Dave Schluckebier grabbed one of his mother’s Christmas sugar cookies from the fresh-baked pile atop the kitchen table.
“I wouldn’t mind taking a bullet every once in a while if I thought it would help us locally, help the economy or even the U.S. economy,” Scott Schluckebier said. “But it’s not going to help us one bit.”
Elsewhere in the state, other farmers have similar concerns. Donna Clampitt, who with her husband, Gary, has owned a 160-acre farm in Hancock County since 1979, said she never wanted the pipeline to cut through her property. When a representative for the pipeline company came to her house in 2015, she told him, “I don’t believe in it. I don’t want it.”
After it became clear the couple had few options, they worked with a lawyer to hammer out a settlement with Energy Transfer Partners, the parent company of Dakota Access, for the permanent easement that ended up being about double the company’s initial offer.
“I did not want this to happen, but there was nothing you could do about it,” Clampitt said. “I hope it will be OK. But I know it’ll never be what it was, and I think that’s the thing that really bugs me: It’s never going to be the same. It’s a pipeline. It’ll leak somewhere, sometime.”
The pipeline cuts a diagonal path across the Clampitt farm. This year the fields’ yield of corn was down 30 to 40 percent because of the existence of the pipeline and the aftereffects of the construction, Clampitt said. The Clampitts were covered this year because an agreement that pays them 80 percent of the cost of a typical yearly yield. In 2018, that drops to 60 percent and the reimbursement ends in 2019.
The negotiation process made for some trying times for those in the proposed path of the pipeline.
“It was just about all you could do to not wake up in the morning feeling like someone was going to hit you in the back with an oar,” Scott Schluckebier said. “Boy, they promise you all kinds of things when they’re trying to get you to sign on the dotted line.”
Like the Schluckebiers, Clampitt is worried about the compacting of the soil around the pipeline and said the construction also damaged drain tiles on the property and a dry dam.
Clampitt closely monitored the company’s work on her property and said construction crews were careful and respectful, working seven days a week and late into the night. But claims that the pipeline would mean a boost in local jobs seemed to be a stretch, she said, because the crew hailed from elsewhere in the country and stayed in trailers across the Mississippi River in Iowa.
The Illinois Commerce Commission approved the pipeline in December 2015. But Clampitt said the permitting process was a sham.
“The whole thing just stunk,” she said. “You knew it was a cut-and-dried thing. It was going to pass.”
The Schluckebiers agree.
“You just can’t fight big money, big oil, big corporations,” Scott Schluckebier said. “There’s nothing you can do.”
When the agreements were completed, Schluckebier said some people in town were envious of the family’s monetary compensation. But he said that misses the point.
“I’d have given it all away,” Schluckebier said, “to keep it all away from us.”