Carter County landowners file suit against pipeline companies, feds

2013-12-08T00:15:00Z 2013-12-08T00:21:05Z Carter County landowners file suit against pipeline companies, fedsBy ZACH BENOIT zbenoit@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

A group of Carter County landowners has filed a federal lawsuit against several pipeline companies and federal agencies demanding a halt to construction of a pipeline until an environmental review is complete.

In a suit filed in U.S. District Court on Nov. 22, about a dozen landowners and other groups are asking the court to halt construction of a new 16-inch Bakken oil pipeline and declare that the pipeline cannot be build under a 1955 easement for an already-existing line running through their properties.

The suit names as defendants the U.S. Department of the Interior, the Bureau of Land Management and its Miles City field office, the Fish and Wildlife Servie, the Butte Pipe Line Co., the Belle Fourche Pipeline Co. and Bridger Pipeline LLC.

The plaintiffs are listed as Eastern Montana Landowners Group LLC; Cochran Grazing Association; Williams Ranches, Inc.; William C. Frye and Cathy Frye; Castleberry, Inc.; W & W Wear Trust; Jeffrey J. Hadley and Josi M. Hadley; Loehding Ranch, Inc.; Allen D. Elmore; Jeremy Richards; Western Star, Inc.; C & B Grazing District and Bar K Diamond Ranch, Inc.

The complaint centers on the Thunderbird Pipeline, part of a network of several hundred miles of pipeline moving oil from the Bakken formation in North Dakota to facilities in Kansas and Oklahoma, including through Carter County in Montana.

The landowners claim the companies were working with them for more than a year on an easement agreement on their properties but that they ran into "regulatory delays" and didn't use the agreed-upon easement because of the time required for an environmental review.

In early November, the companies quickly started building a new pipeline without environmental review and with a only few weeks notice to landowners, the suit says.

"The pipeline companies claim as authority a group of pipeline easements conveyed nearly 60 years ago," according to the complaint. "The pipeline companies claim these easements are 'blanket' easements that allow the installation of unlimited pipelines across the entirety of Plaintiffs' properties. The easements provide practically no environmental protections and unreasonably low compensation."

Called the Butte Pipeline, that line was installed under a 1955 easement.

According to the landowners' complaint, the BLM told the companies that a second line under the 1955 easement would call for environmental review but that it could replace the old line without National Environmental Protection Act compliance.

The landowners argue that it is not a replacement, but a new line that follows the same route as the planned Thunderbird line. They also say one of the companies is building a "new" pipeline on private land and a replacement line on BLM land.

In their lawsuit, the landowners claim the BLM did not conduct proper environmental reviews before approving the construction and that it, along with the Fish and Wildlife Service, failed to follow the Endangered Species Act and that the line could impact numerous endangered and threatened species along its route.

The landowners are asking the court to declare the 1955 easement be limited in its use as it was intended. They also accuse the pipeline companies of trespassing during the construction.

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