(CN) – U.S. Senator Ron Wyden has called for a federal investigation into tactics used by a Canadian pipeline company working to secure the rights to build a natural gas pipeline in rural southern Oregon, after elderly landowners claimed the company harassed them and trespassed on their land.
Wyden’s letter, obtained by Courthouse News, asks Stephen Boyd, assistant attorney general for legislative affairs with the U.S. Department of Justice, to investigate landowners’ claims that Jordan Cove Project and its parent company, Pembina, used abusive tactics to try to get them to sign agreements allowing the construction of a natural gas pipeline on their land.
The proposed Pacific Connector pipeline would connect an existing hub in Malin, Oregon, to Pembina’s proposed liquefied natural gas terminal 229 miles away in Coos Bay, Oregon.
Attached to Wyden’s Aug. 21 letter were two documents from landowners detailing what they say are the company’s attempts to bully them into signing easement agreements.
“These letters contain concerns alleging that Pembina is using possibly abusive business practices toward landowners opposed to the Jordan Cove LNG project,” Wyden wrote. “These landowners include seniors and widows, and grievances include alleged trespassing, harassment and intimidation.”
One of the attached letters is from Larry Mangan, 72, the Coos County representative for the Landowner Advisory Council – a volunteer group of landowners along the pipeline route that advocates refusal of the easement agreements. Mangan says he and other members of the council have collected stories from elderly landowners describing land agents under contract with Pembina falsely telling them that the project is a “done deal,” that the company already has the authority to take access to their property under eminent domain, and that they have to sign agreements now in order to get any compensation.
Paul Vogel, spokesman for the Jordan Cove Project, calls those accusations “patently false.”
“Neither Jordan Cove nor its parent corporation, Pembina, conducts business in this manner,” Vogel said in an email. “That’s why we have voluntary easement agreements with 75% of the private landowners along the pipeline route, for 82% of the private landowner and timber company miles.”
Permits for the project are pending with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and other state agencies. In January, FERC will issue a final record of decision, the major green or red light that would also determine the exact location of the pipeline route. At one point, Mangan’s ranch was on the proposed route, but it’s now on two of the alternate routes.
Vogel says he objects to landowner accounts Mangan claims to have collected, in part because Mangan is no longer on the proposed route.
“The conduct of the non-affected landowner collecting hearsay and making statements that have no basis in fact may be another matter entirely,” Vogel said.
The other letter Wyden forwarded is from Cynthia Garrett, 65. After she refused to sign an easement agreement, Garrett claims a low-flying Pembina helicopter nearly caused her cattle to stampede into her creek this past October. She says she complained to Pembina land manager John Stevenson, who allegedly verified the incident and told her he would “take care of it.”
Garrett objected to the placement of a block valve – a large, above-ground valve used for maintenance and emergency access – in the meadow just outside her kitchen window. Jordan Cove says it offered to do geotechnical surveys on Garrett’s property to see if it could move the valve. Garrett doesn’t remember that offer, but says she stopped letting company representatives on her property after they repeatedly drove through her hay field when she wasn’t home and, on several occasions, cut down her shrubs.
Then, she says, land agent Matthew Schoetz, a contractor for Pembina, told her he could have the block valve installed on a neighbor’s property instead of hers, but only if she immediately signed an agreement that she says undervalued her property by half its actual price per acre.
Garrett says she took that as a threat.
“He said to me that if I did not sign they would definitely be putting a block valve in my field and that if I did sign, they would not,” Garrett said in an interview. “I have not spoken to them since.”
In its permit application with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Pembina asked to install 17 such block valves along the pipeline route. FERC documents show the valve slated for Garrett’s property may be moved to a neighboring timber farm, but the final route and its details are still unknown.
Vogel says the company is open to speaking with landowners about their concerns, and has offered to pay for lawyers to review the company’s offers.
“We remain committed to speaking with this particular landowner at any time,” Vogel said.
He added that the company welcomes the investigation and has spoken with Wyden’s staff “several times about this over the past several months.”
“Although it may seem unnecessary, we will welcome the result of the inquiry requested by Senator Wyden,” Vogel said. “Jordan Cove’s land team documents every single attempted or completed interaction of any kind – phone, voicemail, email, letter, everything – with every single landowner, in extreme detail. We know the department will find our peoples’ conduct appropriate and respectful in all respects, and this matter will be resolved.”
Wyden, a member of the Senate’s Special Committee on Aging, has not taken an official stance on the Jordan Cove. He said at a Coos Bay town hall meeting in May that he wants all sides of the project to get a fair hearing. But in his letter, he urged review of the landowners’ claims.
“The idea that seniors, or anyone for that matter, are being improperly pressured into signing agreements is simply unacceptable,” Wyden, a Democrat, wrote.
But Vogel said the project will benefit landowners, including seniors.
“It may be the case that many landowners are older, that’s an economic circumstance and not something we control, nor does anyone else. The benefit to them in many cases is that now they can afford to keep their land in their family, and we’re proud to help them do that,” Vogel said.