Secret maps and toxic plumes dominate third day of pipeline testimony

July 28, 2023

Joshua Haiar

FORT PIERRE – The “sensitive sites” potentially impacted by a carbon capture pipeline will remain confidential, for now. Meanwhile, modeling used to assess the impacts of a leak or rupture came under scrutiny Thursday during the third day of a permit hearing before state regulators at the Casey Tibbs Rodeo Center.

Stephen Lee is the executive vice president of engineering and construction for Navigator CO2, the company proposing the Heartland Greenway pipeline. Lee introduced maps marked as confidential for their focus on vital infrastructure. One “map overlay” includes the environmentally sensitive areas – including wetlands and waterways – that could be impacted during pipeline construction or in the case of an accident, Lee said.

Lee said the maps should remain confidential because they could be dangerous “in the hands of the wrong individuals” like “terrorists.”

Brian Jorde, an attorney representing landowners, failed to convince the three elected members of the Public Utilities Commission to make the map overlay public.

“I don’t think this is the time or place to solve that specific issue,” Commissioner Chris Nelson said, adding that there’s too little time to debate the issue during the permit hearing.

Jorde was not satisfied.

“This is the appropriate time to deal with that,” Jorde said. “This witness hasn’t identified anything that would make this confidential.”

Commission staff attorney Kristen Edwards said knowing where the environmentally sensitive sites are located would be informative.

“I would like to dig into that,” Edwards said.

James Moore, an attorney for the company, said the document was submitted on time and Jorde should have raised concerns prior to the permit hearing. Adam de Hueck, the commission attorney who is conducting the hearing, agreed.

“Mr. Jorde, I agree with Mr. Moore,” de Hueck said. “This was the whole point of pretrial conference.”

Nelson agreed with de Hueck, and acknowledged Edwards’ opinion that the information would be useful. “For the purposes of today, for this hearing, whether it’s public or not doesn’t make any difference,” Nelson said.

Jorde continued to press Lee, asking, “Is it best practice to be transparent and provide the counties with the best information you have now?”

“I can’t answer that yes or no,” Lee replied. “I disagree with the premise of the question.”

“Do you think that attitude is something the commission should take into consideration?” Jorde said.

“I would say that’s up to the commission,” Lee responded.

The proposed 1,300-mile, approximately $3 billion Heartland Greenway pipeline would link 21 ethanol plants (including three in South Dakota) and several fertilizer plants across five states. The project would include 111.9 miles of pipeline in eastern South Dakota, crossing through Brookings, Moody, Minnehaha, Lincoln and Turner counties. The estimated cost of the South Dakota portion of the project is $142 million. An additional $37 million would be spent on capture facilities.

The pipeline would capture carbon dioxide emitted by the plants and transport it in liquefied form for underground storage in Illinois, or for commercial and industrial uses. The project would be eligible for up to $1.3 billion in annual federal tax credits, which are intended to help fight climate change by incentivizing the removal of heat-trapping carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

The project would create about 430 jobs in South Dakota during the construction phase, 20 jobs during operation, and $1.3 million in sales and gross receipts taxes during initial construction, according to a study commissioned by the company.

Lee testified that the company has offered landowners an average of $24,000 per acre in easement negotiations. Navigator has easements with about 30% of the owners of land the pipeline would cross. The company has not yet used eminent domain, a legal process to gain access to land when an agreement can’t be reached with a landowner.

The Heartland Greenway is one of two proposed carbon pipelines that would pass through South Dakota. A pipeline proposed by Summit Carbon Solutions is scheduled for a permit hearing in September.

Knowing where sensitive sites are is an important part of modeling the impacts of a potential rupture, according to John Abraham, a University of St. Thomas professor and expert in thermal fluid sciences. He testified that, compared to alternative modeling methods, the software Navigator CO2 used to model the impacts of potential ruptures or leaks is “less accurate and often underpredicts how far a plume would go.”

“The Commission should not rely upon Navigator’s modeling or the data and buffers that such flawed modeling provides,” Abraham said in written testimony. “Furthermore, newer, more accurate methods are available that can provide more accurate concentration calculations.”

Opponents have concerns about carbon dioxide plumes from potential pipeline leaks. In 2020, a leak in a carbon pipeline in Mississippi caused the evacuation of about 200 people and sent 45 to the hospital.

Moore said the models Abraham prefers are more time consuming and difficult. Abraham disputed that.

“In some instances, they can be,” Abraham said. “But they are far more accurate, and in many cases, they are not time consuming.”

Abraham said unreliable modeling was a reason the Mississippi incident was as severe as it was, saying the model used for that pipeline underestimated the plume.

“If you are using a tool that’s been shown not to work, and better tools exist, then it’s either bad science or it’s not science,” Abraham told Moore when asked if the modeling submitted was scientific.

The hearing went into a private session during a line of questioning about materials the commission deemed confidential. Reporters and the public were required to leave the room.

Following that, Edwards asked Abraham if a setback of about 400 feet would be adequate. Setbacks are minimum distances between pipelines and areas such as property lines, buildings and infrastructure.

“It’s my opinion, that would be inadequate,” Abraham said.

Commissioner Kristie Fiegen asked Abraham how he would have conducted the modeling.

“I would contract with a university here in South Dakota,” Abraham said. “Why would you hire a guy in Minneapolis?”

Abraham later said, “If I knew a pipeline was in a certain area, that would impact my decision to move into that area.”

The company acknowledged the pipeline comes with potential hazards, such as ruptures.

“Could such an explosion be fatal to those nearby?” Jorde asked Lee.

“Any release of energy in a nearby vicinity could be dangerous,” Lee replied. He said the plumes would be “mildly toxic,” and “we have 24/7, 365 monitoring of our system.”

Lee later said the company has already run more than 225 models, and the company will begin to incorporate the model Abraham suggested. However, the company has not yet selected who it will contract with to run the new software.

“We’re still early in the process,” Lee said, alluding to permit hearings that haven’t yet occurred in other states.

Federal regulators are reviewing the safety standards for carbon capture pipelines. The current rules for the pipelines are inadequate, said Carolyn Raffensperger, executive director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, at a separate, recent meeting about the regulations.

Jorde referenced the federal review and asked Lee, “Wouldn’t it be reasonable to wait for the federal regulators to weigh in on those standards?”

Lee said federal regulators are aware of the project and have not reached out with concerns. He said the company found the likelihood of an incident to be 0.0011 percent per mile, per year, based on federal data over the last 20 years.

In addition to Thursday’s testimony, commissioners determined when they’ll consider preempting recently adopted Minnehaha County and Moody County setback ordinances. The commission will take up that issue Aug. 24-25.

Navigator CO2 thinks the distances the counties have settled on are too far, and is requesting the commission overrule those distances.

Attorney Alex Hagen represented Minnehaha County during Thursday’s hearing. He said the company could have chosen a route that would have met Minnehaha County’s setbacks for the pipeline. And he suggested the only reason it didn’t is because it would be expensive.

“Cost is just one of several things we assess,” Navigator’s Stephen Lee replied.

At the end of Thursday’s proceedings, the hearing recessed until Monday.