‘A muddy mess.’ Ill. landowners fight FERC over pipeline

By Mike Soraghan | 09/23/2019 07:18 AM EDT

Farmers in Illinois are battling the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission over a new gas pipeline they say is destroying their land. FERC Chairman Neil Chatterjee says the agency is “properly resolving” the issue.

The Spire STL gas pipeline will connect St. Louis to the Rockies Express pipeline.

The Spire STL gas pipeline will connect St. Louis to the Rockies Express pipeline. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission

Farmers in the path of a new gas pipeline in Illinois say construction of the project is wrecking their farms.

Crews building the Spire Inc. STL pipeline, they say, have driven trucks on farm roads they’re not supposed to use and blocked access to their fields. They say topsoil, vital to farmers, got mixed in with useless clay mud, and fields have been flooded.

But Neil Chatterjee, chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, says things are fine.


"Spire is appropriately documenting any environmental compliance issues," Chatterjee wrote to Rep. Darin LaHood (R-Ill.) earlier this year, "and is properly resolving these issues."

The farmers disagree. And they’re backed by an 80-page inspection report from state environmental regulators, who have charged the company with polluting water in the area and failing to obtain a stormwater permit.

"They’re just causing a muddy mess," said Marc Steckel, who says he’s lost entire hay crops from pipeline construction on his farm near Carrollton, Ill. "We’re paying for all the pipeline’s mistakes."

The feud highlights the conflicts between the "energy dominance" agenda of President Trump, who appointed Chatterjee, and some rural landowners who are criticizing its effects.

FERC is overseeing more than 25 major gas pipeline projects as gas companies race to move the bounty of the country’s shale plays to markets. Some are being finished with few problems and with local support. In other places, they’re meeting fierce resistance from both environmental groups and landowners. Those conflicts have increased scrutiny of the agency from environmental groups, state governments, courts and even some conservative groups.

Neil Chatterjee. Photo credit: Federal Energy Regulatory Commission
Neil Chatterjee. | FERC

The Atlantic Coast pipeline has been under legal fire from environmental groups and has been stalled by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, for example. FERC has clashed with New York on what states can do to block pipelines.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit also questioned FERC’s rationale for approving the Nexus pipeline from Ohio into Canada.

Chatterjee has sought to tie FERC to Trump’s energy agenda, dubbing domestically produced natural gas on social media as #FreedomGas and #FreedomMolecules. After FERC approved two gas export terminals in April, Chatterjee called it "probably the biggest energy win to date from this administration" (Energywire, May 31).

Chatterjee, like other administration officials, was touting the geopolitical significance of the United States exporting natural gas. The Spire STL pipeline has a lower profile. It’s designed to steer gas from the Marcellus and Utica gas plays in Pennsylvania and Ohio from the Rockies Express pipeline to the St. Louis area, where Spire is the gas utility.

‘No respect’

In the middle of the Spire dispute are two Republican Illinois congressmen.

Reps. Rodney Davis and LaHood sent FERC a joint letter of support for the pipeline in February 2018, calling it "short, but vital." But a little more than a year later, they asked the agency to check into complaints they were hearing from some of their constituents about Spire’s construction practices.

It’s not clear how Davis and LaHood viewed Chatterjee’s response, as attempts to get comment from them were unsuccessful.

Spire says it’s doing everything it should for safety and environmental protection.

"At Spire, we believe in doing the right thing," Spire spokeswoman Raegan Johnson said. "Spire has gone above and beyond expectations and requirements in the construction and management of the STL pipeline."

But Spire has a safety record with multiple reported incidents. Spire’s Missouri West subsidiary has the highest rate of significant incidents on its distribution lines among operators with at least 10,000 miles, according to data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. Its Missouri East subsidiary ranked third.

And the Spire STL project has had problems. The company says the cost of the pipeline has risen from $220 million to $287 million because of approval delays, unexpectedly wet weather and historic flooding. Because of that, it has asked for FERC’s permission to raise its rates.

FERC approved Spire’s project in 2018, and construction began earlier this year. The agency said it does not comment on "pending matters" when asked about the dispute.

Farmers scoff at the idea that Spire has acted responsibly. About 50 farmers refused to give easements willingly, so Spire used a legal process called "quick take" to gain access to private property before paying to use the land. Resolution of the resulting court cases, and therefore payment, could take two or three more years.

The farmers say the pending legal action hasn’t made construction crews any more careful. Instead, they say, sloppy construction practices have ruined topsoil and flooded cropland.

"There’s just no respect for the landowner," Steckel said.

Many farmers hired a firm called Central Land Consulting to monitor the construction across their land. The firm has filed at least 25 complaints with FERC on behalf of landowners.

FERC responded, generally telling the landowners that it had been monitoring construction and that Spire had appropriately resolved any incidents of "non-compliance."

But the agency said farmers’ complaints that Spire had taken over local roads and was destroying valuable timber on their land were "beyond the scope" of its environmental monitoring.

Central Land Consulting recently filed its own complaint with FERC against the utility.

"It appears that FERC is willing to violate their own procedures in order for Spire to continue their project," wrote Nate Laps, Central’s president of operations.

Hazards and ‘active discharges’

Construction of the Spire STL pipeline.

Credit: Central Land Consulting
Heavy rains have caused problems for construction of the Spire STL pipeline and the farmers in its path. | Central Land Consulting

In April, Davis and LaHood asked FERC to look into complaints from their constituents. Chatterjee responded to them in May, though he cited inspections that occurred before the lawmakers’ letters were sent. While there may have been violations, Chatterjee said, they had been resolved properly.

But an inspector from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency named Paul Kennedy painted a different picture after visiting the area in April and May. He found failed silt fences and creeks contaminated by erosion.

"Multiple locations along the pipeline were identified as water quality hazards and were suspected of previously discharging contaminated water to waters of the state," the inspector wrote. In a second inspection in wet weather, he wrote, "active discharges from multiple locations along the pipeline project were observed."

State officials told Spire at the end of last month that they intend to pursue legal action against the company. Representatives of the company and state are expected to meet on the issue next week.

In response to requests for comment to Chatterjee and FERC, a spokeswoman said the agency wouldn’t comment on pending matters.

Spire originally had hoped to start operations on the pipeline in late spring but now says that won’t happen before mid-November.