GRAND ISLAND — Their last chance to be heard.
That’s how many opponents of the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline — including residents of North Central Nebraska — viewed Thursday’s hearing here before the U.S. State Department.
During the 11-hour public comment hearing, several North Central Nebraskans stood before hearing official Teresa Hobgood and shared emotional testimony, drawing cheers and thunderous applause from fellow opponents of the 1,700-mile proposed pipeline.
“Water and people are the primary concern,” said Amy Schaffer, who grew up on a Holt County ranch but now lives in Louisville.
Schaffer, whose family continues to raise organic, grass-fed beef, questioned why the State Department’s economic impact study of the pipeline failed to listen to the people who work with and on the land every day, especially since they understand the environmental makeup of the Sandhills.
“Farmers and ranchers are scientists, and those skills were gained working on the land,” she said.
Schaffer said her family would not negotiate a land easement agreement with TransCanada — the company seeking to build and operate the pipeline — until a presidential permit is approved, adding that she believes the Canadian company has preyed upon landowners.
“There is no reason to threaten eminent domain when the pipeline has not been approved,” Schaffer said.
Cindy Myers of Stuart reiterated concerns she has shared with State Department officials during previous comment periods.
“I stood before you in Atkinson in 2011, and now I do so again, with the same concern: water,” she said.
Myers said the greatest concern — potential risk to the Ogallala Aquifer — has not been taken into consideration. Pinhole leaks can spill large amounts of oil and go undetected, she said.
A registered nurse, Myers asked the State Department to conduct a health impact assessment as part of the evaluation because a potential leak would affect the health and welfare of Nebraskans.
“This isn’t a question of national interest, but a question of ethics,” Myers said. “We believe in protecting our land of milk and honey.”
Bonny Kilmurry of Atkinson, whose family ranch sits along the proposed route, said she is appalled at the complacency of government and political leaders and believes there are lessons to be learned from this discussion.
“We have said soil and water quality are at risk. They are basic components, but they are essential for life,” she said.
As a landowner whose ranch is located in the fragile environment of the Nebraska Sandhills, Kilmurry said she sees herself as a steward of the land.
“I’m accountable to my children, my grandchildren and your children,” she said as she addressed the hearing officer.
Holt County rancher Bruce Boettcher asked why Nebraskans are being asked to accept a foreign pipeline for “a measly 35 permanent jobs” in the state. “Our agriculture here has produced more jobs than the pipeline ever will,” he said.
Boettcher, who introduced himself as a member of the Cowboy Union Alliance, said Nebraskans would stand strong against the proposed route.
“If this government makes a huge, huge mistake in allowing this pipeline, with the influence of the Canadian government and big oil, we, the people, will not allow this pipeline to be built,” Boettcher said.
Given that kind of warning, what might happen if President Barack Obama approves the construction permit sometime later this year?
Myers paused for a moment before answering.
“I don’t think it will be a tranquil scene across Nebraska.”