The Tribune Editorial Board always has believed transparency is the best way. At the same time, we realize the law allows boards and commissions to go behind closed doors to resolve certain issues. That doesn’t mean it’s the best way to do business, it just means the law allows it.
That was how the Public Service Commission handled a case involving the Dakota Access Pipeline. The pipeline company was accused of failing to notify the PSC when the company rerouted the pipeline to avoid Native American artifacts discovered along the route. Dakota Access did notify the state Historic Preservation Office when it found the artifacts in Morton County. However, the PSC argued the company needed to notify it before rerouting the line.
The PSC also was investigating whether Dakota Access removed too many trees and shrubs and mishandled soil during construction. Under the agreement with the company, that investigation was canceled.
The deal with Dakota Access requires the company to develop an industry reference manual for managing unanticipated discoveries and route changes during construction. The company will be required to distribute the manual to all North Dakota pipeline companies, conduct training at the next Williston Basin Petroleum Conference and pay for a speaker to present to the State Historic Preservation staff in Bismarck.
Dakota Access was accused of removing too many trees and shrubs. The company also promised to plant three trees for every one tree removed in some areas. The company also will be required to plant 20,000 2-year-old trees in counties along the pipeline route.
At one time the PSC proposed a $15,000 fine and later suggested a settlement involving a $15,000 contribution to the State Historic Preservation Office. The final settlement involves no fine or contribution nor does the company admit any liability.
“We weren’t looking for the death penalty here,” commissioner Julie Fedorchak said.
Commissioner Brian Kroshus noted, “This really is not as much about the monetary amount as it is about awareness and influencing future behavior.”
Is the settlement fair? It probably depends on one’s perspective. For those who had easement issues and others who opposed the pipeline, it may appear the company got off easy. For the general public it probably appears as appropriate, especially since the company self-reported the problems, even though it didn’t notify the PSC.
That’s the problem with conducting talks behind closed doors. The public doesn’t hear the arguments and doesn’t know if one side gave too much. There were certainly questions during construction of the pipeline over whether the company was paying enough attention to artifacts and sacred ground. Resolving the issues in private, while allowed, doesn’t answer all the questions.
For some, they will never know if no fines and no admission of liability was the right way to go.