By BLAKE NICHOLSON
BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — North Dakota regulators who want to fine the developer of the Dakota Access oil pipeline for not getting proper authorization for a project diversion meant to avoid Native American artifacts are now looking into whether the company also removed too many trees during construction.
The North Dakota Public Service Commission planned to discuss both matters during a closed executive session on Friday. The commission’s stated goal is to have resolutions to the disputes possibly by its next public meeting, which is scheduled for Wednesday, Chairwoman Julie Fedorchak said.
The $3.8 billion pipeline, being built to move oil from North Dakota to a distribution point in Illinois, has long been a subject of controversy. Much of the opposition has come from American Indian tribes and environmental groups, which have expressed fears of spills and other accidents.
Those objections have been to little avail so far, though. The pipeline is now built and scheduled to begin operating by June 1, said Vicki Granado, spokeswoman for the Texas-based developer, Energy Transfer Partners. Besides getting the pipeline up and running, the only real remaining tasks are various sorts of mop-up work, such as restoring trees that were removed during construction.
A report in December from the third-party inspector Keitu Engineers and Consultants Inc. identified 83 sites along the 380-mile pipeline corridor in North Dakota where trees might have been cleared away in violation of the state Public Service Commission’s orders. The report, compiled by the analyst Dean Mostad, doesn’t estimate the number of trees that were affected.
Granado insisted to The Associated Press that ETP hadn’t violated the terms of its permit. Mike Futch, ETP pipeline project manager in North Dakota, said in a letter sent to a commission attorney in March that it’s possible that the company had cleared trees out of the disputed areas before the company and commission reached an agreement in June 2016 concerning how large an area could be affected. The company had submitted its tree-replacement plan about two months before, in April.
That plan called for two trees to be planted for every one that was removed. To learn how the replacements were faring, the company was also to conduct inspections annually for three years. Before the plan could move forward, though, it had to win the Public Service Commission’s approval.
On Monday, Western Plains Consulting filed comments with the commission on behalf of landowners, saying ETP’s tree replacement plan called for planting far fewer species than were removed and that a “flawed approach” to soil work could result in trees “being planted and growing well for five or ten years, then dying.”
Fedorchak said ETP could be fined for any violation of the Public Service Commission’s removal orders.
North Dakota officials have already proposed a fine of at least $15,000 to punish the company for not first going to the Public Service Commission for permission to divert the path of the pipeline. That diversion, which occurred in October, was meant to keep American Indian artifacts from being disturbed by the construction.
ETP maintains it hadn’t intentionally violated state rules and has asked for the case to be dismissed.