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Small Nebraska Town Prepares for Contentious Keystone Pipeline Hearing

The American Petroleum Institute and other groups to bus 150 pipeline supporters to town of 1,300. Local people worry they won't get time to speak.

Sep 27, 2011
Birds flying through the Nebraska sandhills

On Thursday, a team of State Department officials will settle into the high school gymnasium in Atkinson, Neb.—population 1,300—to hear what local folks think about the Keystone XL pipeline.

They're likely to get an earful, not just about the oil pipeline but about the way the State Department has organized the hearing.

Public comments will be accepted on a first-come, first-serve basis, a State Department spokesperson said, just as they've been at all the hearings the agency is holding during this final stage of the Keystone XL review process. Each person will have three to five minutes to speak; due to time constraints, only the first 100 or so through the door usually get a chance to make their views heard.

But people in Atkinson say they need a different system. They've heard that busloads of pipeline supporters will arrive long before the meeting's 4:30 p.m. start time, to stake out the coveted spots. That puts them at a disadvantage, because many of them are farmers and ranchers who can't take the day off work to line up early.

A spokesman from the American Petroleum Institute confirmed that a coalition of business and labor groups, including API, plans to bus 150 representatives to the meeting. He said all the people are from Nebraska, but they live far from Atkinson and the coalition wants to give them a chance to speak.

More than 500 people attended a State Department hearing Monday in Port Arthur, Texas. Most of the 100 speakers were pipeline supporters who talked about job creation and energy security. Another hearing on Monday, in Topeka, Kan., was dominated by environmentalists.

Jane Kleeb, executive director of the anti-pipeline group Bold Nebraska, said her group decided not to bus people to the Atkinson meeting because Nebraskans already "overwhelmingly support rerouting the pipeline."

"We have grassroots support; the unions had to bus in their support," she said, referring to Tuesday's hearing in Lincoln, Neb., which she attended. Kleeb said she talked to some the union members and found that many of them came from outside of Nebraska.

On Thursday, Kleeb and nine other members of Bold Nebraska will attend the Atkinson hearing to help landowners sign in early.

"We feel confident that the landowners will be there and ready to speak," Kleeb said.

Atkinson's chief of police, Tim Larby, is worried about security. He expects 800 to 1,000 people to show up at the high school gym, which can accommodate 1,200. An overflow room with a video feed will be available if the crowd swells.

"I cannot control that environment" if there's a rush at the door, said Larby, who emphasized that he has no opinion on the pipeline and is concerned only about safety.

"I'm the one who has to mop it up" if people are unhappy after the hearing, he said.

In discussions with State Department representatives, Larby said he suggested using a lottery system to select the speakers. Others think people should be asked to write their names on pro or anti-pipeline lists and speakers chosen alternately from both sides.

The State Department spokesperson said it's too late to change the logistics of the meeting. The first-come, first-serve format was announced two months ago, the spokesperson said, and there were no complaints back then.

But the agency will be flexible once the meeting begins, the spokesperson said. If the first 100 people all have the same viewpoint, for example, some could be asked to cede their time so others can speak. Those who don't get a chance to speak can comment via email, fax or written letters.

Fears About the Aquifer

Cindy Myers, a nurse who lives 10 miles outside of Atkinson and a couple miles from the proposed pipeline route, is taking Thursday off so she can line up early. Local landowners are desperate to be heard, she said, because they worry that oil from the pipeline could leak into the Ogallala aquifer and contaminate their water wells. Like many landowners, Myers wants the pipeline rerouted out of the sandhills.

The water here is so pure that "everyone drinks straight from the aquifer," she said.

The Keystone XL would be the first oil pipeline to run through the Nebraska sandhills, an ecologically sensitive region that overlies the aquifer. In Nebraska, the Ogallala aquifer supplies 78 percent of the water used by residents and industry and 83 percent of the state's irrigation water.

Even Nebraskans who support the pipeline—including Republican Gov. Dave Heineman—have begun urging the State Department to reroute it away from the aquifer. Some are also calling for a special session of the state legislature to propose alternate routes.

Atkinson lies near the northern edge of the sandhills. The aquifer here is particularly vulnerable to potential oil spills, said Myers, because the groundwater sometimes bubbles up to the land surface. In the spring "our meadows are so full of water, you sink if you get off the road."

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