OMAHA (CN) - Three environmental groups say construction of the 1,700-mile tar sands pipeline from Canada through the Sandhills of the Great Plains will do irreparable harm. They claim spills from the pipeline, which already have occurred, threaten the vitally important Ogalalla Aguifer, and will do more harm by the "clearing of rare, native grasses and trapping and relocating [of] an endangered species."
The Center for Biological Diversity is joined by the Western Nebraska Resources Council and Friends of the Earth in the federal complaint against the Departments of State and the Interior and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The environmentalists describe the Keystone XL Pipeline as "a highly controversial, proposed pipeline that, if granted a transboundary permit and other federal authorizations, will transport synthetic crude oil mined from the tar sands in northeastern Alberta, Canada, entering the United States in northeastern Montana, snaking south-southeast across South Dakota, the Sandhills and the Ogallala Aquifer in Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma to refineries in Illinois, Oklahoma, and the Gulf Coast."
The giant pipeline has spurred widespread condemnation from environmentalists, who concerned not just by the potential for leaks and spills along the giant project, but because oil extraction from tar sands is an environmentally dirty, energy-costly process that yields dirty oil that must be extensively refined, consuming more energy and producing more toxic byproducts.
The XL Pipeline includes Phases 3 and 4 of the Keystone Pipeline. Phases 1 and 2 have been operational since June 2010.
"Keystone I has leaked at least 14 times since it started operating, spilling more than 20,000 gallons of crude oil," the plaintiffs say. Similar spills near the Ogallala Aquifer would contaminate water in the enormous, ecologically and economically vital aquifer, according to the complaint.
The Ogalalla Aquifer, an enormous but shallow aquifer underlying parts of eight states, from Texas through lower South Dakota, produces about 30 percent of the groundwater used for irrigation in the United States. It also produces more than 80 percent of the drinking water to people who live over it. The aquifer is being rapidly depleted from overuse and inadequate rainfall.
The environmentalists sued the State Department because due to the international aspect of the pipeline, it participated in plans for the project with the Department of the Interior and the Fish and Wildlife Service.
The plaintiffs say the defendants arbitrarily and capriciously "authorize(ed) construction activities - including but possibly not limited to clearing of native grasslands and relocating endangered species - for the Keystone XL Pipeline" before statutorily required environmental processes were completed.
They claim the threatened whooping crane could be hurt, as its "5,000-mile, primary migratory path overlaps with hundreds of miles of the proposed pipeline. Already rare, with just 338 remaining animals, the proposed pipeline and the construction activities are destroying habitats, including native grasslands and wetlands that provide important feeding and resting locations during the cranes' fall migration through the Sandhills."
In its environmental impact statement on the pipeline released this year, the Environmental Protection Agency "expressed continued concerns about the pipeline's significant potential environmental impacts that must be avoided to provide adequate environmental protection. EPA also criticized the State Department for failing to consider ... alternatives that would avoid the Ogallala Aquifer and the Sandhills," according to the complaint.
Another endangered species, the American burying beetle, will be affected and efforts to relocate it already have begun, in violation of federal laws that require a record of decision before such work can be performed, the plaintiffs say.
"These relocation activities are being conducted in order to clear a 100-mile-long, unvegetated strip along the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline route in the Sandhills, where endangered beetles will no longer be allowed to survive. Once cleared using equipment, the unvegetated strip will be maintained until the next stages of pipeline construction - topsoil removal, grading, and trenching - begin. ... TransCanada is conducting these activities now ... because waiting for federal approval for the Pipeline 'might have delayed work a year,'" according to the complaint.
The environmentalists say that the only federal authority granted to TransCanada, the pipeline's chief proponent, "is a 'research permit' provided to TransCanada's consultant, Dr. Wyatt Hoback of the University of Nebraska-Kearney. ... The Omaha World-Herald reported that TransCanada has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to hire Dr. Hoback and a crew of about 15 to 18 people to trap and relocate American burying beetles in order to clear the pipeline route."
The American burying beetle bury the carcasses of small animals such as birds and rodents, for the larvae to feed upon. They are unusual insects in that both beetle moms and dads take care of the little ones.
The environmentalists say the defendants violated the National Environmental Policy Act. They seek temporary and permanent injunctions and costs. Their lead counsel is P. Stephen Potter, of Gothenburg, Neb.
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