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U.S. Department of State holds public meeting on Keystone XL pipeline in Billings

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A public meeting hosted by the U.S. Department of State to gather comments for an updated statement on the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline became heated as protesters and pipeline advocates argued during the open house-style meeting Tuesday.

A few hundred people showed up at the Billings Hotel and Convention Center to give comment on the federal government’s environmental impact statement for the project, or formally known as the Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement, or SEIS. Groups met outside before the meeting to protest the pipeline, while others came in support.

Keystone XL Meeting

Tom Escarcega Sr. and Ramey Growing Thunder write their comments on comment forms during the Keystone XL environmental impact meeting at the Billings Hotel and Convention Center in Billings on Tuesday, October 29, 2019.

Supporters and protesters provided comments online or spoke in person with a stenographer. Posters about the SEIS lined the room and representatives with different agencies showed up to answer questions. A few discussed their concerns openly during the open house-style meeting.

They hashed out their frustrations of how the public meeting was organized, saying that a presentation of the information and an active dialogue between opposing sides would be more constructive. The Billings meeting on Tuesday was the only one in the state that requested comments for the current SEIS.

Concerns about how landowners are approached by the company that owns the pipeline, TC Energy, previously known as TransCanada, were also raised, while others praised the company’s response and demeanor.

A rally hosted by Northern Plains Resource Council and the Western Organization of Resource Councils was held within a free speech zone enclosed in a metal fence in the convention center’s parking lot during Tuesday’s frigid weather.

Representatives from the Fort Peck Reservation expressed their opposition to the pipeline and the state department’s execution of a public meeting.

A few participants even displayed a large black snake painted with skulls that represented the pipeline.

Keystone XL Meeting

Catherine Bear helps hold a large snake painted with skulls at the free speech area outside of the Keystone XL environmental impact meeting at the Billings Hotel and Convention Center in Billings on Tuesday, October 29, 2019.

The proposed pipeline is slated to cross the Missouri River directly downriver of the spillway of the Fort Peck Dam and upstream of the drinking water intake of the Fort Peck Reservation.

“We weren’t even considered or given a hearing about this dangerous project,” said state legislative senator Frank Smith, D-Poplar, who represents Fort Peck Reservation. “I had to drive almost five hours and 300 miles to be here today. I didn’t see why the department organized this meeting so far away and not in our community.”

Bill Whitehead, chairman of the Assiniboine and Sioux Rural Water Supply System on the reservation, said that the water treatment plant can’t process oil if the pipeline were to leak. Right now, the plant serves 13 schools, four hospitals and, by next year, 30,000 people in total.

Having the pipeline so close to a major water source would be devastating, he said.

“We have a responsibility for each other,” Whitehead said. “When I talk about the water treatment plant on Fort Peck, it serves Indians, non-Indians, Democrats and Republicans.”

Todd Tibbetts, a hay farmer who owns land in Terry, Montana, said that he is in support of the pipeline. The pipeline will travel through his property for about one mile, and said that working with TC Energy has been positive. He believes that the pipeline will support the community financially.

The company calls before they set foot on his property and are aware of the transmission and dispersal of noxious weeds. He’s been treated fairly financially, he said, and believes that the soil dug up for the pipeline will help yield more crops.

A pipeline was installed on his property in 1980, and said that more alfalfa and sugar beets grows there.

He describes them as a good neighbor.

“They’re trying to put their best foot forward.” Tibbetts said. “This is a huge deal.”

The Keystone XL Project would include approximately 1,209 miles of new 36-inch diameter pipeline spanning from the Montana-Canada state line, through South Dakota and Nebraska, ending at the Nebraska-Kansas state line.

The new SEIS incorporates changes in the project since the state department’s 2014 Keystone XL Final SEIS, according to James Dewey, the public affairs officer for the U.S. Department of State.

Those changes include market viability of the proposed project, information on potential accidental leaks, and further analysis of the recently approved Mainline Alternative Route that crosses Nebraska, Dewey said. This route was approved by the Nebraska Supreme Court in August.

Keystone XL Meeting

Tom Curry takes a picture of a map showing the proposed route of the Keystone XL Pipeline during the Keystone XL environmental impact meeting at the Billings Hotel and Convention Center in Billings on Tuesday, October 29, 2019. Curry said he wanted the pipeline to go through Carter County to increase tax revenues in the county.

A 45-day public comment period is set to end Nov. 18. Those who want to send a comment regarding the revised SEIS during this period can visit or can mail their comments. More information can be found here.

The U.S. Department of the State will share these comments with agencies involved in the project, like the Bureau of Land Management, the Western Area Power Administration and others, to seek permit approval in order to issue a final SEIS for the project.


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