ROCKWELL CITY, Iowa (AP) - Some Iowa landowners are raising concerns about construction of the Dakota Access oil pipeline, saying crews have left behind debris and disrespected their land.
A landowner grew so frustrated with Dakota Access Pipeline workers that she delivered a garbage bag to county supervisors that was full of metal debris collected from her fields.
A northwest Iowa rancher was so fed up from his cattle repeatedly escaping that he mailed a bill to the pipeline company for the costs of constantly chasing his animals.
Countless others across Iowa also have petitioned county inspectors, supervisors and state regulators, claiming that questionable construction practices are worsening tensions between landowners and Dakota Access LLC, builders of the 1,170-mile pipeline.
It's evidence that even as the pipeline nears completion in Iowa, opposition to the pipeline and the way it has been built shows no signs of ebbing. And some say the state has failed to do enough to protect landowners who now have pipeline running through their property. Dakota Access, however, maintains it has upheld its commitments to landowners.
In Boone County, about five landowners have asked county supervisors for help, Supervisor Tom Foster said. Several have complained of problems with drainage tile disruptions or crews working in wet conditions.
But Foster said landowners have not had much luck finding cooperation from Dakota Access.
"I think the landowners just wish they’d get it done and get out so they can get on with their lives," he said.
Cyndy Coppola said she and her nephew have found several 30-inch steel rings and other debris on their 80-acre family farm in Calhoun County. She was astonished to see that crews have no garbage bins on site to collect refuse as they go.
"I guess our biggest complaint is they show no respect," said Coppola, 68, who lives in Des Moines and was arrested for trespassing while protesting construction on her land in October.
Inspectors have assured Coppola that crews eventually will come back to clean up the site. But she's skeptical, even as she watches debris getting pushed underground by heavy construction equipment. She worries that buried debris will eventually end up wrecking a combine during harvest.
"We don’t think they’re going to make any effort to unbury what's already been covered up," she said. "That's a joke, because they’ve just gotten by with it all along."
Pipeline supporter: 'Get a life'
Dakota Access spokeswoman Vicki Granado said the company takes its construction commitments "very seriously." And she said no complaints concerning the 1,295 parcels under construction in Iowa have been determined to be founded by the Iowa Utilities Board or county supervisors.
"It is our goal to maintain this record throughout the rest of construction," Granado said, "which is nearing completion in Iowa."
She said complaints about debris or rocks being left in fields are premature, since cleanup "simply has not yet begun on many properties and is still in process on others."
Bill Gerhard, president of the Iowa State Building and Construction Trades Council, said landowner complaints are mostly sour grapes from people who opposed the pipeline on principle. He said pipeline installation is "going great" in Iowa.
"These guys need to move on," said Gerhard, a member of the pro-pipeline Midwest Alliance for Infrastructure Now. "There's an old saying — the dogs howl and the caravans pass. These people need to get a life."
Not all complaints created equal
As of late October, the Iowa Utilities Board had received 22 official complaints about construction practices, including 10 involving landowners.
IUB, which granted Dakota Access' permit to build the pipeline, is in various phases of investigating those grievances, said IUB spokesman Don Tormey.
Three complaints filed in the spring have been fully investigated and dismissed.
Aside from IUB, landowners can alert county-hired inspectors about construction problems.
All but one of the 18 counties in the path of the pipeline has hired an outside firm to ensure that contractors are following construction rules laid out by the state. Polk County is handling the inspections in-house.
Evan Del Val, a civil engineer with ISG, which was hired by 13 of the 18 counties, says 38 inspectors are working to troubleshoot problems on the ground, rather than sending complaints on to IUB.
Inspectors often determine that landowner concerns don't qualify as violations of construction agreements.
"A lot of complaints aren’t violations," he said. "They’re just that: They're complaints."
Inspectors can enforce only those stipulations found in state laws, in the IUB-approved construction plans and in individual landowner agreements with Dakota Access.
Many landowners are dismayed that crews work in wet soil, conditions farmers would avoid for fear of tearing up their land. But once the topsoil is peeled back, the pipeline company is free to work, Del Val said.
"I acknowledge that it doesn’t look great," he said. "But in terms of it being a violation, I don’t really have the authority to do anything beyond what the code says."
'That doesn't really satisfy anybody'
Storm Lake attorney John Murray, who has represented landowners along the pipeline route, said two problems crop up with pipeline construction: The rules are too lax, and construction crews aren't following them anyway.
As an example, he pointed to cases of crews pumping water without permission from the pipeline trench onto crop fields. That practice is not allowed unless the pipeline has reached an individual agreement with the landowner, Murray said.
The state's accountability system revolves entirely around county inspectors, he said, though he stopped short of assessing how those inspectors are performing.
"If the county inspector enforces the plan and if the county inspector is the communicator and is the documenter of complaints and will issue written violations, it actually works," Murray said. "But if the county inspector does not do those things, then the process does not work."
Aside from the county inspectors, a process exists for county boards of supervisors to look into complaints and petition the IUB, said Keokuk County Attorney John Schroeder. But that process doesn't do much to solve problems in the moment.
"It seems to me that there doesn’t really appear to be any available practical, immediate way to address apparent violations," he said.
Schroeder said the lengthy IUB complaint process may result in some remedial action or a civil fine. But it does not award damages.
Landowners must petition county compensation commissions for damages 90 days after work is completed.
"What's the point of filing a petition or complaint with the Iowa Utilities Board if there's no corrective action?" he said. "Then they’re left with a civil fine or penalty upon the pipeline. That doesn’t really satisfy anybody."
'They didn’t do what they said'
David Lowman said crews performed work in his Story County fields the day after a late August flash flood dumped more than 2 inches of rain. No farmer would have torn up muddy cornfields that way, he said.
"I consider it to have been way too muddy and wet to do a proper job," he said.
The pipeline crosses a wooded area where Lowman planted walnut trees nearly 47 years ago. He said crews agreed to leave piles of branches and felled trees that he could sell for firewood.
Instead, construction workers torched the mammoth piles of branches.
"They burned up $10,500 worth of firewood," Lowman said. "They didn’t do what they said they were going to do."
Pocahontas attorney James Hudson worries that pipeline crews are woefully unprepared to navigate northwest Iowa's complicated web of underground drainage tile. He represents drainage districts in the area and has practiced drainage law for decades.
Hudson said he supports the pipeline — he believes pipes are a safer way to move oil than trucks or trains. But he said contractors don't seem to know much about farmers' private tiling systems and public drainage districts.
"I've never encountered the lack of understanding and cooperation as I have experienced with Dakota Access Pipeline," he wrote in an Oct. 25 letter to the Iowa Utilities Board. "The fact that there are serious problems in the construction of this pipeline is not surprising."
Where the pipeline stands
The Dakota Access pipeline is nearing completion in Iowa. The company reported to the Iowa Utilities Board that 100 percent of the pipeline had been welded, 90 percent of the pipe had been lowered and 88 percent had been backfilled by Oct. 30. The pipe had been backfilled in 14 of the 18 Iowa counties it crosses.