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Gas line blues

Company’s right to condemn land contested.

LINE LAYER'S MISTAKE: Kirk Hicks stands in front of a once-wooded area, cleared in error by Arkansas Midstream.
  • LINE LAYER'S MISTAKE: Kirk Hicks stands in front of a once-wooded area, cleared in error by Arkansas Midstream.

Beverly Strain-Eads is 70 years old. She's a great-grandmother and a cattle rancher. About 24 years ago, she bought a ranch near Greenbrier called the Circle Z. It was her plan to raise cattle along with the help of Kirk Hicks, a long-time friend and business partner who now works as the ranch foreman, and eventually sell the land for development. This, she thought, would surely be enough to support her family, and the Hicks family, in the years after their retirement.

That was before she got a letter from Arkansas Midstream, a pipeline company owned by Chesapeake Energy. The letter, which she received in March of last year, said a pipeline would be installed on her land. She had seven days to respond to the letter and if she had not agreed by that time the company would condemn the land and file for eminent domain.

Work began in May and was complete in December. The result: “It's torn up my ranch from north to south and east to west,” she said. “They have caused over $200,000 of legitimate damages to my property: fences down, ponds ruined, big valves put up on my land.”

Strain-Eads is not alone: Other landowners across the state have received similar letters. A White County landowner has sued, arguing that pipeline companies' power of eminent domain is restricted to common carriers, lines that transmit gas from multiple sources, across state lines or provide some other public benefit, and not gathering lines, those that take gas from only one company's well to a transmission line. Plaintiffs plan to appeal a Circuit Court ruling in favor of the pipeline company to the state Supreme Court.

The Arkansas Public Service Commission takes the position that it does not have regulatory authority over gathering lines. Landowner advocates say if that's the case, then pipeline companies shouldn't have the power to condemn land to build them.

State Rep. Jonathan Dismang, R-Beebe, agrees, and he has introduced a bill that would keep companies that build gathering lines from using the power of eminent domain.

“These gathering lines are not community lines, they're just for one producer,” Dismang said. “The problem is that eminent domain is being used as a first resort instead of a last resort. Companies have been operating in the state for years and have never used eminent domain to acquire a pipeline easement. But Arkansas Midstream feels that they have that power and they're not really negotiating with our landowners.”

The line going across Strain-Eads' land is a gathering line. Unlike many landowners, Strain-Eads had an advantage: She was able to hire a lawyer to negotiate portions of the right-of-way agreement. But, attorney Bryan Christian said, unforeseeable damages “exceeded the value that we received for signing the agreement.”

“Once they got their foot in the door they just went crazy,” Strain-Eads' partner Hicks said. “They ruined an entire winter crop of hay by leaving a gate open and letting all the cows trample and eat the grass. They've ruined the bedrock under our main watering pond and they cut down about a football field's worth of trees and said it was just a mistake.”

Strain-Eads is worried about the future of her land. Aside from the damage to the cattle business, she's worried the value of her property will decline due to Arkansas Midstream's presence there. She said she's too old to worry about fighting any battles, but somebody had to do it.

“I'm not in this to make money or be greedy,” she said. “I just want them to pay me for what they've messed up. They've offered to buy the ranch a couple of times. And there are a lot of things that mean more to me than just a dollar amount and one of them is that beautiful pristine ranch. You've got to do something to get their attention and money is the only thing they understand.”

Dismang's bill is scheduled to go before the House Agriculture, Forestry and Economic Development Committee on Feb. 11. He said he's got some support, but knows it will be a tough fight.

Chesapeake didn't respond to the Times' requests for comment.

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