Landowners testify Summit ignored requests for route changes

By: - September 19, 2023 4:46 pm

Lyon County landowner Gregory Kracht says a Summit Carbon Solutions reneged on a route change on his property. (Courtesy of Iowa Utilities Board livestream)

A Lyon County landowner in the path of Summit Carbon Solutions’ proposed carbon dioxide pipeline system alleged on Tuesday that the company punished him for not signing an easement by choosing a less-desirable route through his property.

Gregory Kracht was among several landowners who testified at the start of the fifth week of the company’s evidentiary hearing with the Iowa Utilities Board. They are among the first of dozens of remaining landowners who are subject to eminent domain requests from the company and have yet to testify.

Those requests could force easement agreements that would allow Summit to build and operate its pipeline on land it doesn’t own.

The company wants to lay more than 2,000 miles of pipe in five states to transport captured carbon dioxide from more 30 ethanol plants to North Dakota for underground sequestration.

The IUB has indicated it wants to conclude the hearing by the end of this month, but those who have yet to call witnesses say that is unlikely. Many of those yet to testify are farmers, and their ability to participate might be complicated by harvest season, which has begun.

Landowner concerns

Those who testified on Tuesday said Summit declined to adjust its route to avoid them despite adjacent landowners who are willing to host the project, and despite their concerns about locating the pipeline in a flood-prone area and near a potential residential development.

Reluctance to change the pipeline route was part of the reason North Dakota rejected Summit’s permit application last month. The company has since made hundreds of adjustments to the route in that state.

“Over the past two years, Summit Carbon Solutions has made approximately 3,000 adjustments to our project route based on feedback from landowners, policymakers, and other stakeholders or to avoid identified sensitive areas,” said Sabrina Zenor, a spokesperson for the company. “That deliberate approach is part of the reason why landowners in Iowa and across the Midwest have embraced our project.”

Kracht, the Lyon County landowner, testified that he bought land near the Missouri River more than 10 years ago as an investment. He said he paid “too much” for it but thought he could turn a profit by selling plots to people for their homes.

“The idea behind paying too much for it, in my opinion, was because there was great potential in developing it because (it is) picturesque and just the lay of the land,” Kracht said.

County records show he bought about 180 acres of land for nearly $1 million in 2011.

Kracht said after he initially outright rejected signing an easement, he reached a tentative agreement with the company’s agents for a different route on his property. He said the original route would block road access to more than half of the property.

But Kracht said the company later reneged on that route change when he offered a counterproposal during negotiations.

“They had the route back where it wouldn’t work,” he said. “It seemed as a punishment to me for not agreeing with them at the time.”

A Palo Alto landowner who farms land near the Des Moines River said the pipeline should be moved across the river because his property is prone to flooding that could lead to a pipeline rupture.

Jamie Moser testified that heavy rainfall floods his farmland near the river at least every other year and that standing water can persist for months. When the river floods, it creates new channels on the land that in the past have been two feet deep, he said.

“This is like the worst place to put a pipeline,” Moser said.

The federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration issued an advisory in 2019 that warned pipeline operators to closely monitor flooded areas for signs of shifting ground.

“Operators should be aware that severe flooding, river scour, and river channel migration may create unusual operating conditions that can adversely affect the safe operation of a pipeline,” it said.

Moser said landowners on the other side of the river are more willing to sign easements.

Moser also took issue with how the company’s agents have documented their contacts with him and his family. He said the agents claimed to have had face-to-face talks with his father, who previously owned the land but died in 2020.

Documenting contacts with landowners is important evidence for the eminent domain requests to show the company made sufficient effort to negotiate agreements.

David Skilling, a Kossuth County landowner, said Summit refused to move the pipeline off his property to adjacent land owned by people who have said they would sign easements.

He said he is also worried about the threat of a pipeline break in his area and is concerned that local emergency responders won’t be prepared to handle a carbon dioxide plume it might create.

Under certain conditions, such plumes have the potential to travel long distances and suffocate people and animals. Summit has declined to reveal the areas of the state it has identified that might be at risk if its pipeline system ruptures.

“There’s so much that’s being left unsaid,” Skilling said. “We don’t know about the plume. We don’t know anything about the emergency reaction.”

Board agrees to limit examinations

Questions during Skilling’s testimony elicited multiple objections from Summit’s attorney for potentially violating the rules of the hearing.

The primary purpose of the hearing is to allow for the cross-examination of witnesses who have already submitted written testimony, but several times on Tuesday the questions went beyond that scope.

Erik Helland is chairperson of the Iowa Utilities Board. (Photo by Jared Strong/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Extraneous questions and the sometimes lengthy responses they elicit have the potential to prolong the hearing. That potential is heightened in this stage of the hearing because most of the remaining witnesses are pipeline opponents who are being mostly questioned by attorneys who represent pipeline opponents.

Erik Helland, chairperson of the IUB, said Tuesday that he will restrict questions that are likely to result in duplicative testimony.

“District court clearly and succinctly affirmed the board’s ability to limit friendly cross (examination) and rely on pre-filed testimony heavily,” Helland said. He added: “The board will continue to restrict and run a very tight course.”

Despite that decision, an attorney for Summit gradually stopped objecting to certain questions throughout Tuesday’s testimony. Sometimes the process of objecting has taken longer during the hearing than allowing a witness to answer a question.

Legislators make an appearance

Three state legislators also testified on Tuesday, including Rep. Steven Holt, a Denison Republican who has been among the most outspoken against Summit’s proposal.

He led the passage of legislation in the Iowa House this year that would have restricted the use of eminent domain for carbon dioxide pipelines. The bill was not taken up by the Senate.

Rep. Steve Holt, R-Denison, has been an outspoken opponent of eminent domain for carbon dioxide pipelines. (Photo by Katie Akin/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

“My objection is not to the pipeline being built,” Holt said. “My objection is to the use of eminent domain to seize the property of my constituents to build something that I think is a private, economic development project and does not fit the requirements for the use of eminent domain.”

Holt is part of a group known as the Republican Legislative Intervenors for Justice. He was the group’s first witness to testify. The second was state Sen. Sandy Salmon, R-Janesville.

“The very fact that Summit Carbon is still pursuing this project in an agricultural state where landowners depend heavily on private property rights being protected to make their investments … is absolutely breathtaking,” Salmon said. “I am almost 70 years old, and I’ve never seen anything like this. To me, this is outrageous, reprehensible, brazen and shameless action and all Iowans can see it.”

Rep. Charley Thomson, a Charles City Republican, is also expected to testify for the group later in the hearing.

Separately, state Rep. Charles Isenhart, a Dubuque Democrat, testified on Tuesday that he doesn’t think Summit has adequately proven the environmental benefits of its project. He also said it might be possible to sequester carbon dioxide underground in Iowa rather than transport it with a pipeline out of state.

Ryan Clark, a bedrock geologist for the Iowa Geological Survey, testified that there might be places in the state that are suitable for sequestration. Those places would be found by drilling numerous test wells, which would be time-consuming and expensive, he said.

“It is our belief that the potential is there,” Clark said.

The hearing is scheduled to resume Wednesday.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Jared Strong
Jared Strong

Senior reporter Jared Strong has written about Iowans and the important issues that affect them for more than 15 years, previously for the Carroll Times Herald and the Des Moines Register.