AMES, IOWA - Oil has been flowing through the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline — which cuts across four Midwestern states — for more than a year. But some residents in the state of Iowa believe it's not too late to stop it.
On Sept. 12, the Iowa Supreme Court will hear arguments on whether the Iowa Utilities Board had the right to grant eminent domain to the project, which allowed Energy Transfer Partners to install the pipeline under the ground of unwilling landowners.
Keith Puntenney, a landowner who lives about an hour north of the state capital of Des Moines and a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said the permit was illegally granted.
"We're suing the Iowa Utilities Board because they wrongly interpreted the statute for 479B," Puntenney said, arguing that the pipeline is not a public entity.
The law of eminent domain allows the government to take private property for public use, provided it gives "just compensation" when taking the property. According to Iowa law, eminent domain is granted to government entities to take private property for public ownership, private ownership that serves a public use, or private ownership that serves a public purpose.
When asked about the case, the Iowa Utilities Board said in a statement, "The IUB does not comment on ongoing or pending litigation."
The more than 1,800-kilometer (1,172-mile) pipeline, also known as the Bakken pipeline, begins in the Bakken shale oil fields in northwest North Dakota and goes through South Dakota and Iowa to a crude oil processing hub near Patoka, Illinois. It cuts diagonally through Iowa, affecting 18 counties.
Puntenney has been fighting the pipeline since 2014, when he started receiving notifications to allow the pipeline to cross his land in exchange for financial compensation.
"They hounded everybody [other landowners]. They sometimes called five, six, seven times a day. I had seven different agents approach me throughout the period of time when they were trying to get voluntary easements," he said.
Eventually, the pipeline went ahead. Puntenney said as a punishment to him, a piece of the pipeline was laid under his ground, because he was "responsible for organizing the landowners against them."
Puntenney is not alone in the fight. Eight other plaintiffs, including the Iowa Sierra Club, are named in the lawsuit.
There are dozens more coalitions across the state protesting the pipeline and demanding it be removed. There is also an ever-present concern that any leak could create long-lasting damage to crops, soil and water sources.
Miriam Kashia, who lives near Iowa City, is a member of the group 100 Grannies for a Livable Future. She spoke to VOA at the end of a weeklong march that crossed many of the affected counties.
While large white wind turbines turned behind her, Kashia began to tear up as spoke about the need to protect the environment.
"I feel angry, I feel concerned. It will leak. It has leaked in South Dakota, and it will again," she said of the pipeline.
The plaintiffs and environmental activists have other concerns about the pipeline, including the fact that participating landowners — voluntary or not — have lost the right to their land, that Iowans will receive few tangible benefits from the pipeline because the oil is refined and sold elsewhere, and that the brunt of the burden of monitoring the pipeline resides with local emergency personnel.
There is also the recurring complaint that not all groups affected by the pipeline were consulted.
Donnielle Wanatee, a member of the Meskwaki tribe, which owns 8,000 acres of land in Iowa, has been at the forefront among that group.
Wanatee has said that although the pipeline doesn't go directly through Meskwaki territory, it has been dug through Iowa rivers. Any leak in the pipeline could result in damage to Meskwaki burial grounds along these water sources, which is a violation of existing treaties.
"We don't even benefit from it. None of us do," she said of the pipeline.
So far, there has been no reported damage in Iowa. A study released earlier this month by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers stated that the pipeline poses no significant environmental threats.
If the Iowa Supreme Court rules in the plaintiffs' favor, Puntenney said he doesn’t believe it will mean the hoped-for end to the pipeline. Instead, he said the ruling would signal the operators have been trespassing, which down the road could lead to the pipeline being shut down in Iowa, crippling the current operation.
"This is kind of a last-ditch effort, and we have a good shot at it. But even if we don't win this, we won't stop," Kashia said.