By Ronnie Ellis / CNHI News Service
Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd on Tuesday ruled that companies building a natural gas liquids pipeline across parts of Kentucky cannot invoke eminent domain to force private property owners to provide easements.
In an 18-page order, Shepherd wrote that it would require “an undeniably clear mandate from the legislature” before the state’s power of eminent domain can be granted to a private corporation. (Eminent domain allows the government to take private property for a public use if it provides just compensation to the owner.)
Williams Company and Boardwalk Partners want to connect parts of an existing natural gas pipeline to new construction that would transport natural gas liquids (NGLs) across the state from gas fields in Ohio and Pennsylvania.
NGLs are by-products of natural gas such as ethane, propane, and butane. Critics of the proposed pipeline maintain that unlike natural gas, if the NGLs were to leak they would drain into the ground and permanently pollute underground water supplies.
The company has been negotiating with property owners for easements and has said it hopes to secure all the necessary easements to build the pipeline, but it has also maintained it has the right of eminent domain if some property owners won’t sell.
Critics and opponents of the pipeline have claimed in some instances the companies have used the threat of eminent domain to pressure property owners into granting the easement and a group of property owners calling themselves Kentuckians United to Restrain Eminent Domain sued in Franklin Circuit Court last year.
Shepherd said the companies can continue to negotiate with private property owners but they can neither invoke eminent domain or threaten to do so, “or intimidate, or even to suggest to landowners who have no desire to sell” that the Bluegrass Pipeline Company can take their property without their consent.
Last week the state House of Representatives passed a measure denying the companies the right of eminent domain, but the bill has not been taken up by the state Senate.
Rep. James Kay, D-Versailles, who represents several private property owners in the path of the propose pipeline route, was happy to hear news of Shepherd’s ruling.
“Judge Shepherd’s ruling is a loud and clear message to other landowners that they can have a level negotiating field,” Kay said.
House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said Shepherd is “right on the law,” because unlike natural gas pipelines — which supply fuel to heat homes and businesses — the NGL pipeline provides no clear public use.
Tom Droege from the Williams Company said the Bluegrass Pipeline partners disagree with Shepherd’s ruling and plans “to immediately appeal the decision.”
“We continue to purchase easements through face-to-face negotiations with individual landowners, a successful process whereby we’ve acquired nearly 70 percent of the needed route,” he said.
Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort