Protests over construction of the Dakota Access Oil Pipeline near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota has triggered sympathy demonstrations across the nation, including in Arkansas. But Arkansas activists are also protesting a newly permitted 440-mile long underground oil transport project called the Diamond Pipeline.
According to Houston-based Plains All American, the $900-million-dollar Diamond Pipeline will provide a Valero refinery located in Memphis, Tennessee with domestic sweet crude oil sourced from a Plains All American storage facility in Cushing, Oklahoma. The oil will be processed into gasoline, diesel and jet fuel to supply the greater Memphis and eastern Arkansas regions.
Late this year, Arkansas activists staged two public protests to draw attention to both the Dakota Access and Diamond Pipeline projects. Alison Millsaps attended one of the gatherings. The Pope County resident says her family several years ago was forced to negotiate property easement with Plains All American land agents to accommodate the Diamond Pipeline. Walking to a bluff line near the route, she points to a freshly scoured right of way leading down the mountain to Big Piney River, below.
"You can see where they've cleared on either side of the river," Millsaps says. "The loss of control is very painful. You lose your sense of what happens on your property and in your life.”
In early 2015, she and other affected property owners sought legislative relief, bringing their concerns before the Arkansas House Insurance and Commerce Committee, where Democratic State Representative Warwick Sabin, District 33, Little Rock, introduced House Bill 1870, “The Property Rights Protection Act.”
“One would assume that private property rights would be sacrosanct in our country and in Arkansas," Warwick Sabin says. "And we would want to do everything that we can do to make sure people feel that their rights would be protected under the law." His sponsored bill, however, failed. He plans to reintroduce the measure this coming legislative session.
“In this case the question comes down to is it really a public use in Arkansas simply to move oil across our state," Sabin says, "oil not for the use of our citizens but for interstate commerce.”
Sabin says his measure would serve as a property owner's bill of rights in effect preventing power of eminent domain abuse by private pipeline companies which would have to demonstrate public use before the Arkansas Public Service Commission.
Sabin is also concerned about Plains All American's environmental record. The company is facing criminal charges after one of it's pipelines in May of 2015 ruptured in Santa Barbara County in California, accidently spilling 140,000 gallons of crude oil into the ocean and contaminating a section of Refugio State Beach. Warwick Sabin says his bill would hold pipeline companies accountable to using the highest quality materials and construction standards.
"It’s the least we can ask," he says, "of anyone seeking to convey oil across some of the most important watersheds and beautiful natural spaces in Arkansas."
Arkansas property owners historically have been willing to convey right of way for public utilities, which are subject to public scrutiny and environmental review. Petroleum pipeline projects are not, which has led more Americans to question if the industry, currently exporting a glut of fracked oil and natural gas, should be allowed to take private land for corporate profit.
Plains All American spokesperson, Brad Leone would not comment on the California oil spill indictment, disclose the number of right-of-ways purchased in Arkansas for the Diamond Pipeline, nor the amount of acreage negotiated for the route. But via email he did say the entire route has been cleared and construction is underway, to be completed later next year. He also says that Plains All American conducted extensive environmental analysis and field surveys, and made route alterations to accommodate certain property owners. Unlike public utility facilities, petroleum pipeline projects are not subject to federal or state environmental review, except in cases of navigable waterway crossings, which must be permitted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Clarksville City Councilwoman Danna Schneider says she didn’t learn the pipeline would cut through her city, population 10,000, until she read an article in the newspaper about two Johnson County property owners being forced to grant easements for the Diamond Pipeline.
"The property owners went to court," she says, "and found Arkansas eminent domain legislation allows them to take your property.”
Schneider brought the Plains All American pipeline issue before Clarksville city council showing it would cross two public drinking water intakes along two creeks, downstream from Lake Ludwig, the city' public water supply. Council voted to reroute the pipeline completely out of the watershed, but by then, all right-of-ways had been purchased. Danna Schneider says the council then filed to intervene with the Arkansas Public Service Commission. But then last minute, she says, Plains All American cut a deal.
“At 4 oclock the day before the Public Service Commission hearing," she says, "they deposited $6.6 million dollars into an escrow account that would pay for protective mitigation. For both of our intakes.”
Most of the money will be used by Clarksville Light and Water Company, the city's utility, to build a new water intake for the main Spadra Creek facility upstream of the planned Diamond Pipeline, and for other improvements. Still, Danna Schneider remains worried a toxic oil spill, similar to what occurred in Mayflower, Arkansas several years ago, where an Exxon pipeline ruptured, could devastate her town.
“We do not want a pipeline here in Johnson County, or in the state of Arkansas, at all," she says.