LaVerne Johnson popped a Lifesaver mint into his mouth and motioned out in the direction of the field outside his house.
“I want to tell you how brazen these people are,” he said. Johnson’s wrinkled face grew serious as he paused. “These sons-of-bitches don’t have any care at all. They don’t have any care at all about anything,” he said.
Johnson was upset — angry, even. Less than a football field length away, a giant valve sprouted from the ground. To a typical passerby, the valve might be the only sign of the Dakota Access Pipeline. But this is Johnson’s land, and he doesn’t need to look at the valve to see the pipeline’s impact on his property.
In June 2014, the Texas-based company Dakota Access LLC, a subsidiary of Energy Transfer Partners, announced its intentions to build a $3.8 billion, 1,172 mile-long pipeline from North Dakota to Illinois.
Throughout the Dakotas, Iowa and Illinois, Dakota Access started buying up land. Across the Midwest, farmers, environmentalists and Native American tribes retaliated. Riots against the pipeline’s construction stretched along the route, exploding into an especially nasty confrontation in North Dakota in November 2016.
Dakota Access was able to continue its march to Illinois through a reversal by the Trump administration and agreements in Iowa with the Iowa Utilities Board to access land via eminent domain. What land Dakota Access couldn’t buy, it took through eminent domain. Through subcontractors Precision Pipeline and Ellingson Tile, the company began to start construction on the pipeline in June 2016.
The route was set and Dakota Access was in a hurry. Every day the pipeline was delayed, Dakota Access was losing upwards of $20 million dollars, they claimed.
And hurry they did. It took only three years for oil to begin flowing through the Bakken pipeline, but the impact it made in Iowa might take a lifetime to fix.
It was not long after the pipeline was announced that Dakota Access came to part-time farmer Dave Lowman and offered to buy a right-of-way through a 100-acre parcel of his land outside of Ames.
The right-of-way consists of a 150-foot long strip of land. The 30-inch pipeline is typically buried in a middle 50 foot segment, surrounded by two adjacent 50 foot segments that are used to keep the dirt while work is undergoing on the pipeline.
Lowman refused, citing environmental and housing development concerns.
“I didn’t like the offer...plus I thought it was an environmental accident waiting to happen,” said Lowman.
Dakota Access proceeded through eminent domain. The pipeline ran through a 100-acre plot of land that contained some woodland and farmland, crossing a small stream twice in the process. Lowman had been agitated before by the company after they burned the trees they cut down instead of giving it to him like they promised but was astonished to see them working on the pipeline shortly after a flash flood warning had been announced in his area.
“They went out and started pushing my topsoil...they pushed all of the topsoil when it was soaking wet, which was definitely something they said they would not do,” said Lowman.
For Lowman, the ground was virtually destroyed, especially in areas that had previously been used for crops. They were “basically pushing mud and damaging the structure of the soil,” he said.
A few miles west of Lowman, tenant and retired farmer Tom Ross had much the same experience. The oil company accessed Ross’ five acres of farmland through eminent domain after he refused offers of direct compensation. Ross saw firsthand the pipeline’s rapid progress but was not pleased when he found them working in wet conditions.
“They were just ignorant with rain, and they would be out there pushing dirt and driving their Cats...it just got packed as hard as a road; you probably couldn’t pound a hammer into the ground,” said Ross. “I think that [if] you would ask anybody, they would agree with me on it, that as a farmer after a big rain, we obviously stay out of the field, because we knew the consequences that we would pack the ground hard,” he said.
The pipeline’s construction practices were not confined to central Iowa, either. In Fairfield, Iowa, Steve Hickenbottom observed the pipeline wreak havoc to his fields. The owner of about 1,000 acres of farmland, Hickenbottom also resorted to eminent domain when Dakota Access offered to buy a right-of-way on his land. On an eight-acre swath of land running across a 170-acre field, the pipeline was buried deep in the ground.
It took six excavators and eight bulldozers to complete the job, which was too much weight on such a small area of land, Hickenbottom said.
“When you dig [the pipeline] 25, 30 feet deep or even 10 feet deep, you’ve disrupted that normal flow of moisture going through the ground... and when you put the dirt back in and pack it down, the grains of soil aren’t like they were before so now that water, that was flowing through there, is not flowing through,” he said.
Hickenbottom now says that he has water containment issues, something that he has worked half his life to perfect. Terraced ridges built to contain the water flow have been destroyed and the tiling beneath the surface has been ripped apart, Hickenbottom said.
“We’ve been in the drainage business and dirt works for about three generations, and you cannot move 30 feet of dirt and put it back like it was before. You might make it look like it on top, but it's never going to be the same,” he said.
For Hickenbottom, the drainage issues are more immediately concerning than the productivity of the soil. “It isn’t any good remediating the soil if the ground is too wet to farm on,” he said.
Hickenbottom planted corn in the field last year and assessed the damage that the pipeline had wrought. Although there was a drought throughout the growing season, it was obvious to Hickenbottom where the pipeline lay. “Where they went through with the pipeline, [the yield] was like zero. It drew some stalk but there was no corn,” he said.
“It Will Never Return to its Original State”
For Boone native Keith Puntenney, soil health is a major concern and a negligible yield from farmland is a worst-case scenario. Owner of 610 acres, Puntenney did not hesitate to challenge Dakota Access’ right to eminent domain when the company came calling.
A lawyer and farmer by trade, Keith Puntenney has been at the forefront of the charge against the oil company, helping to take a lawsuit challenging their right to eminent domain in Iowa to the Iowa Supreme Court.
Therefore, when Dakota Access started construction on Puntenney’s and close friend and neighbor LaVerne Johnson’s land, Puntenney’s perspective was only affirmed. Using a commercial drone to gather pictures of the construction, the farmers found evidence of Dakota Access damaging their soil.
“We know that there is a lot of really deep subsoil compaction based on the pictures and everything else we have discovered,” Puntenney said.
Puntenney also discovered that Dakota Access had been mixing the topsoil and the subsoil, something that could be very damaging to crops.
“They changed the till, they changed the composition of the soils, they totally disrupted the enzymes and the micronutrient activities that has been percolating there for over 10,000 years,” he said.
Combined with other construction malpractices, such as soil compaction, poor drainage, pipeline placement and soil remediation among other things, Puntenney believes that Dakota Access has effectively destroyed the productive capacity of much of the 6,000-acre route the pipeline took across Iowa.
“It will never return to its original state. It is marginal if most of it can return to productive corn or soybean use... much of it will never be productive from an economic standpoint,” he said.
The Silent Thief
As a leading research university in agronomy, Iowa State is aware of the pipeline’s potential risks to cropland in Iowa. In a partnership with Dakota Access, scientists led by Mehari Tekeste at Iowa State are researching the pipeline’s impact upon the soil. The research project is aimed squarely at evaluating the effects of pipeline construction and soil compaction and remediation of the soil.
This research is funded by a $600,000 subsidy from Dakota Access. A spokeswoman from parent company Energy Transfer Partners only responded to the Daily through email.
“We are pleased to have partnered with Iowa State University on this research project and look forward to the project’s development over the next couple of years. Regarding the Dakota Access Pipeline, we are pleased to confirm that it has been safely operating for nearly a year. We understand that landowners and others have varying opinions on infrastructure projects such as Dakota Access. We always strive to work cooperatively with landowners, as we will be part of the communities through which we pass for decades,” the company said.
Tekeste declined to disclose any information on the project to the Daily, stating only that findings of the study won’t be published for another year or two.
While Tekeste looks into the impacts of the pipeline, other researchers such as Dr. David Kwaw-Mensah are also in the process of studying the effects of soil compaction. Kwaw-Mensah is a research associate at Iowa State who specializes in soil management and is not affiliated with the pipeline research project.
“[Soil compaction] increases the soil bulk density, which in effect impacts the volume of roots that can grow in that soil,” he said. “When the roots of that plant cannot explore a wider volume of the soil, it means that the plant will not have enough nutrients, it will not have enough water and the plant won’t have enough air and this is what affects root growth,” he said. “Some people call it the silent thief,” he said. “It steals from a plant.”
Central Iowa’s soil is composed of largely of loam clay, which Kwaw-Mensah thinks is some of the worst soil to conduct construction in.
“When they crush the soil like that, especially with a good clay content and it dries up, it becomes like concrete. It's hard, like cement,” he said.
There are other problems, too. “The amount of water that a soil can hold also reduces when subjected to compaction," Kwaw-Mensah said.
This will result in drainage issues, which can damage the crops surrounding the affected area, he said.
Right now, the biggest issue confronting farmers is how to fix it.
“It’s like you have a wound. The wound would take time to heal. But once it heals, the scar is the there. And in case you want to remove the scar... if you are going to use some products to remove the scar, it is going to take some time,” he said.
According to Kwaw-Mensah, the soil could take anywhere from a minimum of three years to decades to start being remediated, and even then, it might never be fully restored to its original condition. For farmers, this often isn’t feasible economically.
“A year that goes by without a farmer using his land to make an income is like slow death,” said Kwaw-Mensah.
An Issue of Compensation
The past few years, farmers have needed every scrap of land they own. According to figures released by Iowa State University, the average price of corn per bushel from 2015 to 2017 dropped 37 cents and soybean prices dropped nine cents.
This, coupled with unproductive land and expenses to repair the soil surrounding the pipeline, leave farmers in a daunting situation.
Dakota Access is required by law to pay for taking land through eminent domain. The company paid Puntenney $16,000 for two and a half acres, a sum that Puntenney says is gross undersell.
“That’s a very low amount for the land,” he said. Puntenney was planning on adding his sum of his farmland to the wind turbine field that surrounds his property, which would have made each acre worth more than $10,000 with increases in payments over time.
Puntenney will be arguing that Dakota Access didn’t take into account the potential value of the land in a district court in 2019. “The problem is that when you destroy land, you are destroying the future value of the land... everything you put on it is losing money,” Puntenney said.
Hickenbottom also thinks that the pipeline reduces the value of his land, due to its location in the fields.
Since the pipeline cuts diagonally across the field, it significantly depreciates the rest of the 162 acres in the field, Hickenbottom said. “You’ve not only touched eight acres, you’ve affected the whole 170 acres... you can’t fill an eight acre strip out,” he said.
Hickenbottom believes that Dakota Access did not take this into consideration when he was compensated. “They didn’t pay me near what that ground was worth,” he said.
Hickenbottom was paid $15,000 for eight acres. According to the Iowa State University Farmland Value Survey, the value of eight acres of similar land in Southeast Iowa was estimated to be upwards of $30,000.
In the survey, the average value of all the grades of farmland (low, medium and high grade for crop production) per acre in central Iowa was estimated to be $8,097. In southeast Iowa, the average value of all grades was approximated to be $6,864 per acre.
Hickenbottom estimates that the tile that had to be repaired from the construction and other remediation costs have totalled more than $100,000 and will largely come out of his own pocket. As of May 2018, Hickenbottom has been paid for a blunder in the pipeline’s construction and for five years worth of crop damages.
Ross has been paid for crop damages and says that he has been compensated fairly for his losses. “They have been very good at not questioning the payments for damages. They’ve been good about that,” he said.
However, Puntenney and Johnson haven’t been paid yet. Those who have been fighting Dakota Access with lawsuits and haven’t made any side agreements have been ignored, Puntenney said.
“We have not gotten paid for anything. For crop damage, for remediation, for anything. Dakota Access has just walked away from us and said ‘see you later,’” said Puntenney.
Energy Transfer Partners responded, stating that "our restoration efforts along the route, including in Iowa are still in progress, which is why our easement agreements contained a payment schedule for crop loss, which is 100% the first year, 80% for loss year two, and 60% for year three."
In the end, however, Hickenbottom says that one of the most valuable things he has lost is time. “I spent 30 years fixing this [land] up... I don’t have another 30 years to fix it again,” he said.
A Persistent Problem
When the Iowa Utility Board granted Dakota Access the right to put a pipeline through Iowa, the Board required that the company follow an Agricultural Impact Mitigation Plan to help keep soil destruction to a minimum.
Puntenney has compiled his findings on whether Dakota Access followed the guidelines to construction into a large case study. According to Puntenney, what he has seen so far indicates that Dakota Access has not.
Independent inspection firm ISG is currently inspecting the surface and subsurface soils, drain tile and soil remediation in 13 of the 18 Iowa counties. Once the inspections are finished, the ISG reports will be sent to the county auditors where they can be accessed. The county supervisors will then decide whether Dakota Access followed the Mitigation Plan.
While ISG could not give the Daily a timeline on when the reports would be completed, Puntenney is confident it will be within the next couple of months. Currently, Puttenney and Johnson are touring several local county boards and presenting their findings.
“We are helping people get ready to go to the county and say ‘hell no’ and then the county will have to investigate,” he said. “We have 1,257 parcels and 910 landowners at risk here. That’s what we have in 17 counties. And most of them don’t know how much damage has been done, and we are trying to let them know,” Puntenney said.
A Fight for the Future
When the battle against Dakota Access started, Puntenney and Johnson knew that they were not going to be fighting for only themselves.
“I’m old and LaVerne’s old — we're both in our 70’s. Our farms were legacy farms to be passed on to the next generation, and we were trying to protect those acres and our farms in general to be passed on to the next generation,” Puntenney said.
Hickenbottom also has his kids in mind, and passing the farm down is his whole objective. But now, he is not sure that he wants to.
“Right now, depending on what comes out of this whole thing, I don’t know if I want to try to pass it on to my children, I mean would you? Would you feel comfortable leaving them with that kind of liability?” he said.
Three years ago, farmers across Iowa experienced Big Oil through the Dakota Access Pipeline. Some, like Ross, have had relatively minor issues compared to the experiences of Hickenbottom. But for all, the pipeline will have an impact lasting long beyond their own lives.
“It’s taken hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years for the soil to create its structure that it has, and when you go down that deep and tear everything up and put it back, it’s just not that simple,” said Ross.
For farmers like Hickenbottom, the whole experience has left more than just a bad taste in their mouths.
“I have not talked to one person who has had the pipeline go through even if they consented to it would do it again today if they had to do it over again,” he said. “The trouble is, it’s not over yet. But the media hype is done,” said Hickenbottom.