FRANKFORT — A House committee on Wednesday debated a bill that would prevent the controversial Bluegrass Pipeline from crossing private property against landowners' wishes.
But the House Judiciary Committee ran out of time before lawmakers and pipeline opponents and supporters, who packed the hearing room, all could have their say. After two hours, chairman John Tilley, D-Hopkinsville, postponed a vote on House Bill 31 until the committee's next hearing.
A committee substitute for HB 31, sponsored by Tilley, would clarify state law so that natural gas liquids —which the Bluegrass Pipeline would carry through 13 Kentucky counties — would not be considered an oil or gas product, so private land could not be seized through eminent domain to build its infrastructure.
Central Kentucky landowners told the committee Wednesday that Williams Co. and Boardwalk Pipeline Partners were using the threat of eminent domain to pressure people into signing property easements. Landowners think they must cut a deal with the companies or their land will be condemned on less generous terms, opponents said.
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"They've pestered us on and off since last May," said Amy Boone, whose family owns farms in Nelson County. "Please give us the right to say 'No.'"
However, several business groups, including the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce and the Kentucky Association of Manufacturers, said natural gas liquids are an important raw material for industry. By making it more difficult to build pipelines carrying natural gas liquids, HB 31 could restrict economic development in Kentucky, they said.
"Pipelines are extremely safe," said Lloyd "Rusty" Cress Jr., a lobbyist for the American Petroleum Institute.
Apart from the business groups, the two companies behind the pipeline are paying nine lobbyists to make their case to the 2014 General Assembly, including Andrew "Skipper" Martin, who was chief of staff to Democratic Gov. Paul Patton, and John McCarthy, former chairman of the Kentucky Republican Party.
Lawmakers backing HB 31 said the measure is not meant to block the pipeline.
"There are legitimate environmental concerns about natural gas liquid pipelines. But our primary concern is to protect Kentucky landowners and their constitutional right to private property," said Rep. David Floyd, R-Bardstown.
The Bluegrass Pipeline would carry natural gas liquids, which are byproducts separated from natural gas production. Both products are flammable, are transported under pressure, and are subject to explosions.
Bluegrass Pipeline officials have said the natural gas liquids would turn into vapor if there was a leak. And they have said that a pipeline is a safer mode of transportation than truck, rail or barge.
In December, a citizens group called Kentuckians United to Restrain Eminent Domain, or KURE, filed a suit asking a judge to decide whether the company has the right to condemn properties for construction.
A Jan. 6 filing in Franklin Circuit Court said 54 percent of the line's easements had been obtained.
After the hearing, a Bluegrass Pipeline spokesman said the companies prefer to negotiate with landowners and reach voluntary settlements, and they only would invoke eminent domain "as a last resort."