The other DAPL protest

Landowners in Iowa fight controversial pipeline over claims of eminent domain

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Shirley Gerjets, far left, protests DAPL construction on her own property.
Courtesy of Shirley Gerjets/ Bold Iowa

Protesters in North Dakota claimed victory in their fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) on Sunday, following the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ refusal to issue an easement to drill under the Missouri River at Lake Oahe. But the issue is far from over as Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners, the controlling partner to Dakota Access, LLC, appealed to a federal judge on Dec. 5 to grant the company a permit to drill despite the Corps’ decision.

The Standing Rock Sioux, whose reservation lies just south of the drill site, and other protesters have vowed to remain in their protest camps throughout the winter. The 1,172-mile crude oil pipeline is mostly complete along its four-state route, and Dakota Access wants to start transporting up to 570,000 barrels of oil a day from the Bakken Shale in North Dakota to refineries and terminals in Illinois by January.

While it still remains to be seen how the scene will play out in North Dakota, farther down the pipeline a group of landowners in Iowa are fighting the use of eminent domain to bury the controversial pipeline diagonally across that state and through private property. Additionally, law enforcement has made several hundred arrests over the last several months in Iowa as landowners, environmental activists and Native Americans have continually sought to halt the pipeline’s construction throughout the state.

According to Iowa law, hazardous liquid pipelines must be issued a permit by the Iowa Utilities Board (IUB). Dakota Access first filed its application with the Board on January 20, 2015.

The DAPL route in Iowa, which runs through 18 counties and mainly on private land.
The DAPL route in Iowa, which runs through 18 counties and mainly on private land. Energy Transfer Partners

In its application to the IUB, Dakota Access promised to parallel roads and existing right-of-ways when possible, and the company also estimated it would pay landowners up to $189 million for easements across private property.

IUB began holding informational meetings in December 2014, which is when property owner Shirley Gerjets of Calhoun County first heard of the project.

“It started out wrong in the first place,” she says, as citizens weren’t allowed to ask questions and the group was told that surveyors would be coming to individual properties without any recourse to stop them.

“I chased them off two or three times,” says the 81-year-old Gerjets. “And then after they got that surveying done we kept getting letters and letters and letters about this offer and that offer.”

In the end, Gerjets says the company offered her $64,000 to run the pipeline through her 65 acres, an offer she refused.

“My dad worked hard to own this little piece of property,” she says. “He always worked because that was his goal to own his own piece of property and he finally did it [in the early 1970s]. I helped farm the thing so he could pay for it.”

Today, her son helps her farm corn and soybeans on the property.

Cyndy Coppola, another family farmer in Calhoun County, says she was offered $98,000 for an easement to run the pipeline through a corner of her property. The parcel in question has been part of her family farm operation for more than 20 years. Her mother’s ancestors began farming in Iowa in 1848 and her dad started farming after World War II. The family corporation has approximately 1,400 acres under plow rotating between soybeans and corn.

Dakota Access was able to secure voluntary easements for 96.7 percent of 1,295 private properties along the Iowa route, and 100 percent of private lands along the route in the other three states, according to company spokesperson Lisa Dillinger. Ninety-nine percent of the four-state DAPL route runs through private land. 

As a result of its inability to secure all the easements needed to cross Iowa, the company appealed to the IUB as part of the permitting process and asked the Board’s three members to exercise the power of eminent domain, which allows the government to take private property for public use or benefit.

Claiming public safety, energy independence and economic benefit to the state, Dakota Access asked the IUB to grant land easements on private property despite landowners objections. The Board eventually agreed.

The IUB received thousands of objection letters to the project from concerned citizens, environmental activists, landowners and tribal members. In 2015, the Meskwaki Nation, also known as the Sac & Fox Tribe of the Mississippi in Iowa, wrote the IUB in opposition to the pipeline with environmental concerns about drinking water and wildlife habitat, according to the Des Moines Register. The Iowa Tribe, which was moved from the state in the 1830s to reservations in Kansas and Nebraska, also wrote the IUB in opposition to the pipeline, stating concerns over unmarked cultural and sacred sites throughout the state.

In addition, the Board received thousands of letters in support of the pipeline.

On March 10, 2016, after weeks of public hearings, the IUB granted Dakota Access the permit for its route through Iowa, including the use of eminent domain.

“This sets a precedent that eminent domain can be used for anything,” says Ed Fallon, a former state representative, now representing Bold Iowa, a group opposing the pipeline. “If they can come in and take your land for a private oil company’s pipeline, what can’t they take it for? What rights do you have anymore to your own property?”

Ed Fallon and other activists block construction vehicles on Coppola’s land on Oct. 15, 2016. Both Coppola and Fallon were later arrested.
Ed Fallon and other activists block construction vehicles on Coppola’s land on Oct. 15, 2016. Both Coppola and Fallon were later arrested. Courtesy of Cyndy Coppola

The IUB decision was particularly frustrating for Fallon who, as part of the state legislature, helped Iowa tighten its eminent domain statutes in 2006 in response to a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court Case (Kelo v. New London) that ruled in favor of a Connecticut city claiming eminent domain for economic development. “We thought that this pipeline was a no-go because of that,” Fallon says.

Coppola, Gerjets and the other landowners who refused voluntary easements were taken to condemnation hearings for compensation. While Gerjets received $25,000, Coppola was awarded $8,500, both well below the initial Dakota Access offers, sending a chilling message to those who might consider fighting this pipeline or some other project in the future. 

Coppola joined other farmers throughout six Iowa counties organizing an appeal to the IUB’s decision regarding eminent domain. 

“When you boil down to it, you get this question of whether an interstate crude oil pipeline is for public use or a private use?” says the group’s lawyer, Bill Hanigan. “In order for there to be a public purpose or a public use there’s got to be a measurable public benefit. Here we think that the majority of the benefit goes to the nine contract shippers on Dakota Access [Pipeline]. And that those shippers are not the public, for no other reason than it’s permissible now to export the crude oil.”

At the end of 2015, Congress lifted a 40-year old ban on unlicensed crude oil exports after intense lobbying by the oil and gas industry. Approximately 500,000 barrels of oil are currently being exported each day, while the country still imports roughly 8 million barrels of oil per day. Although Dakota Access has appealed to Americans by claiming the pipeline project will help provide energy independence, Energy Transfer Partners is “exceptionally well positioned” to export crude oil, a September investigation in The Intercept shows.

“You, Dakota Access, don’t control the shippers, and the shippers can and will export,” Hannigan argues. “There’s got to be a more substantive and measurable benefit to the public. … Our Constitution requires more.”

But while the group developed their eminent domain case, Dakota Access prepared to start construction.

Gerjets, who is not part of the lawsuit, did everything she could think of to stop the pipeline from running through her property. She made calls and wrote letters to legislators, the governor and even the White House. “One day I was really disgusted with the whole thing, and I thought I’m just going to write to the president and I explained the whole thing and I said we could certainly use your help,” she says. A few weeks later she received a form letter back, but “it didn’t give us any hope at all.”

In response to the fast-paced nature of pipeline construction, the 14 landowners involved in the eminent domain appeal asked the judge to grant a stay on construction until the case was resolved. However, the stay was denied in late August of this year and Dakota Access immediately began construction.

In the southeast corner of the state, a group of roughly 20 activists, calling themselves water protectors in solidarity with the protesters in North Dakota, set up camp outside a DAPL worksite in Lee County, Iowa, in late August. The group, known as Mississippi Stand, camped for roughly six weeks in an effort to stop Dakota Access from drilling and placing pipeline beneath the Mississippi River, which supplies drinking water to several downstream municipalities. Although the group delayed construction several times and more than 100 people were arrested, construction at the site was completed in mid-October.

Cyndy Coppola attempts to stop construction of DAPL on her property.
Cyndy Coppola attempts to stop construction of DAPL on her property. Courtesy of Cyndy Coppola

Back up in Calhoun County, Coppola began attending nonviolent training hosted by activists also protesting the pipeline. So when her nephew called  the morning of Sept. 1 and said the company had begun work on the family land, she grabbed some fellow protesting friends and went to stop the digging. Recovering from a recent hip surgery, Coppola stood in front of digging equipment for a few hours, cane in hand. Eventually law enforcement arrived but “they talked me out of being arrested,” Coppola says. “They couldn’t have been nicer.”

She was later arrested on Oct. 15 on her own property with Fallon, while attempting to prevent construction vehicles from accessing the next parcel of land over. The two say they were never handcuffed and were processed through the jail in a few hours, much different experience than the treatment of the pipeline protesters in North Dakota.

While Coppola continued to monitor the construction on her property, she simultaneously protested the pipeline in other areas of the state. On Sept. 10, she was arrested with 19 others in Boone, where the pipeline runs beneath the Des Moines River, which supplies drinking water to the 500,000 residents of Des Moines farther downstream. Later, on Nov. 10, three members of Mississippi Stand halted construction at the site for 17 hours after crawling into the pipeline.

By Sept. 12, the work was mostly complete on her property, Coppola says, however debris was still littered throughout the work zone and the work crews continued to use her property as an access point. Both Gerjets and Coppola claim the crews worked around the clock and in wet, rainy conditions, which further destroyed their land and goes against the IUB permit.

“You just feel like [the land] is a part of you,” Gerjets says. “And you just feel like a part of you has been raped, in other words. That’s just the way it feels. They took it away from you and did whatever the hell they wanted to.”

“The farm is not going to be the same for a long long time,” Coppola says. She’s worried about compacted soil, damaged topsoil, turned up rocks, metal and other debris left behind by the pipeline. And most importantly, she’s worried about potential oil leaks in her soil.

“To me it’s only a matter of time until these pipelines leak because it’s corrosive, crude shale [oil] that’s going through these pipes,” Coppola says. “It just makes sense that sooner or later there will be a leak.”

After construction was complete, Gerjets’ son sought advice from a soil scientist.

“He just sort of grinned, and he said, ‘You just well forget it. You’ll never get that soil back to its production in your lifetime,’” Gerjets says. Iowa’s rich and fertile loam soil depends on the annual process of freezing and thawing to break up the dirt and replenish nutrients, she says. Not only is the earth so compacted around the work site, but she’s also been told the pipeline will be hot, never dropping below 40 degrees. 

“Right through that 150-foot-wide stretch is never going to raise much [again],” she says. According to Coppola, Dakota Access is only required to pay for three years of crop damage to the farmers with pipeline running under their land. 

Now that construction of DAPL is nearly complete throughout the state, opponents in Iowa are relying on a successful eminent domain appeal to halt oil from ever flowing from North Dakota to Illinois.

While Mississippi Stand founder Jessica Reznicek and a few others have been on hunger strike in front of the IUB building in Des Moines since Nov. 21, asking the agency to revoke Dakota Access’ permit, Coppola and the other landowners await their Dec. 15 court date. Coppola and her family have already spent $30,000 in legal fees and others have spent even more, she says. If they are successful, Hannigan promises they will sue Dakota Access for trespassing, both for the pipeline and for every barrel of oil that flows through. If they aren’t, they will appeal further, he says.

Seperatley, Gerjets is appealing her condemnation hearing, hoping to get more compensation for her land. But ultimately she hopes the pipeline never becomes active, both through the efforts of the Standing Rock Sioux and their supporters as well as a successful outcome to the eminent domain lawsuit.

“I hope we can keep them from ever getting oil through it,” Gerjets says. “I’m glad the Indians got what they got up there [at Standing Rock]. I’m very proud of them for their stand. I just wish he (President Obama) would stop the whole thing instead of just that section up there.”

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The four-state route of the Dakota Access pipeline. Energy Transfer Partners

But whatever Obama has already done or may do in the last six weeks of his administration, it may not be enough to stop Dakota Access. If the company loses the eminent domain dispute in Iowa, Hanigan fully expects them to appeal that decision. Additionally, it seems evident from his statements on the issue that President-elect Donald Trump he will give his full approval of the pipeline after he takes office Jan. 20. He has also invested $500,000 in the pipeline, although a Trump spokesperson recently claimed he sold off his shares. Standing Rock Sioux tribal chairman Dave Archambault II has said he’s willing to open dialogue with the President-elect, hoping to convince him the recent Army Corps decision is necessary. Although he hasn’t addressed the issue in Iowa, Trump has a long history of attempting to use eminent domain claims to secure properties for his own development aspirations

When it comes to the Dakota Access Pipeline, much remains unclear. But one thing is certain — both the Standing Rock Sioux and the landowners in Iowa aren’t backing down.

Additional reporting by Claire Woodcock.

Correction: In the fourth paragraph above, the sentence “Dakota Access first filed its application with the Board in October 2014” has been corrected to read “Dakota Access first filed its application with the Board on January 20, 2015.” We regret any inconvenience caused by this date change.

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