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Keystone pipeline project proceeds amidst COVID-19 pandemic

Editor’s Note: This story incorrectly identifies Art Tanderup as a member of the Ponca Tribe. While Mr. Tanderup is active in the Ponca indigenous community, he is not a member of the tribe. NewsHour Weekend regrets the error.

As thousands of transient, out-of-state oil workers enter states along the Keystone XL construction route in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, legal challenges are once again piling up against the Trump administration due to mounting health concerns. NewsHour Weekend’s Ivette Feliciano reports.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    When the Trump administration outlined federal guidelines back in march for work considered essential during the COVID-19 pandemic, it included specific language for new and existing oil pipeline construction projects.

    Within days Canadian-owned TC Energy Corporation announced it had secured more than a billion dollars to continue with construction of the 1,200 mile Keystone ML Pipeline.

    The project, which was halted in 2015 by the Obama administration amid growing public outcry, was reissued permits in the early days of the Trump administration, with the stipulation that American steel be used in the work.

    Now, as thousands of oil workers enter states along the construction route in the midst of the pandemic, legal challenges are mounting amid health concerns NewsHour Weekend's Ivette Feliciano has more.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    On March 31st, with stay at home orders still in place in Nebraska, South Dakota and Montana due to the COVID-19 pandemic, oil and gas company TC ENERGY Corporation announced plans to proceed with construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline.

  • ART TANDERUP:

    I found that incredible that they think that they could move ahead with this thing.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    The prospect of hundreds of out-of-state oil workers flooding his state worries 68-year-old farmer Art Tanderup. He grows corn and soy in Northeast, Nebraska, about 900 feet from the proposed pipeline route. Tanderup is concerned that local hospitals aren't equipped to handle a potential COVID-19 outbreak pipeline workers might bring into the community.

  • ART TANDERUP:

    We have the issues with the meat packing plants where our numbers are skyrocketing right now. And these plants are close to the route in some cases. As a matter of fact, a couple of them are just a few miles from the route. So as these workers mingle in these communities, you know, there's a greater chance of spreading.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    66-year-old Jeanne Crumly's family has run a farm and a cattle ranch in Holt Country, Nebraska for 5 generations.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    What was your reaction when you learned that T-C energy would be continuing with pipeline construction in the midst of this pandemic?

  • JEANNE CRUMLY:

    Oh it's, it's their way of doing business. We've been dealing with them for 12 years. If our children can't go to school. If our children can't swing on the swings in the park. And in the midst of all of that, then a foreign company can send whoever they want on the land we pay taxes on. How can they do all the things that we don't, when we're the land owners and we're the community members?

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Shortly after announcing the renewed construction plans, Keystone, XL's president posted this message on TC Energy's website regarding the threat of COVID-19.

  • RICHARD PRIOR:

    We've already made adjustments to some of our work plans in consideration of COVID-19 and will continue to collaborate with our collaborators and suppliers to enhance safety measures. Construction will only take place after giving consideration to the safety of our people and their families and for those in the surrounding communities.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    The company says those adjustments include enhanced screening measures, minimizing travel in and out of worksites to essential personnel, and sanitizing transport vehicles. But Art Tanderup claims that isn't what's happening on site.

  • ART TANDERUP:

    Some of our friends that have visited the pipe yards this last weekend. They've shown pictures. Nobody's wearing a mask. It's just business as usual, so to speak.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    TC Energy did not respond to PBS Newshour Weekend's request for an interview. The renewed construction plans sparked several legal actions by a coalition of environmentalists and indigenous rights advocates last month. They are just the latest lawsuits in on-going legal challenges against President Trump's 2019 decision to reapprove the KXL Pipeline without conducting environmental reviews that federal courts have previously ordered.

  • DALLAS GOLDTOOTH:

    We already killed this pipeline project.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Dallas Goldtooth is a Ground Campaign Organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network, which filed a joint lawsuit against the Trump administration on April 5th.

  • DALLAS GOLDTOOTH:

    President Obama declared it was not in the interests of the United States public. It went against the climate test because he understood, his administration understood that by approving this project that it's going to greatly contribute to climate change and global greenhouse gas emissions. And what President Trump did is he went and revived it. That's why we're calling the Keystone XL pipeline, the zombie pipeline. We keep stopping and shutting it down and it keeps coming back to life.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    That lawsuit awaits a decision. On April 15th, in response to a separate lawsuit, a U.S. district court judge temporarily blocked construction of the KXL pipeline through waterways until the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers conducts studies complying with the Endangered Species Act.

    Jane Kleeb is the founder of Bold Nebraska, a land and water protection organization that is part of that lawsuit.

  • JANE KLEEB:

    So far, Judge Morris has agreed with many of the arguments that we are making. And he issued an order telling the Army Corps of Engineers they can't just do a blanket kind of permit for every water crossing. That they have to do studies on every single water crossing, which they never have done.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    But construction continues in areas where the pipeline won't cross water. All in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. On April 16, two tribal communities in Montana and South Dakota requested an injunction to stop construction in light of the pandemic, arguing the influx of thousands of transient, out-of-state construction workers poses "irreparable health risks to the tribes".

    That injunction request awaits a decision. In the meantime, indigenous rights activists in Montana are protesting near the construction site.

  • ANGELINE CHEEK:

    We prayed today and had a little ceremony to pray against the KXL that's going to affect the people.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    This month Nebraska, South Dakota and Montana relaxed some quarantine restrictions on non-essential businesses and lifted stay at home orders. Farmer Art Tanderup in Nebraska, who is also part of the Ponca indigenous tribe there, says that's all the more reason out-state-oil-workers should not enter his community.

  • ART TANDERUP:

    It's in their off time that we really have some concerns. You know, where do they eat? Where did they stay? What are they bringing with them? Right now is not a good time to move into Nebraska, South Dakota or Montana. Not a good time at all.

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