Property owners are still dealing with damage from Spire’s gas pipeline construction
The saga surrounding the embattled Spire STL Pipeline appears mostly resolved after a federal regulator approved its operating permit, but some property owners along the route through Illinois’ Greene and Jersey counties are still contending with construction damage.
“We have several outstanding damages,” said Jacob Gettings, who owns a farm in Jersey County. “After repeated efforts from Spire to renovate the problems, they have ignored certain aspects of it and totally failed in others.”
The requirements placed on Spire during construction included an Agricultural Impact Mitigation Agreement with Illinois, which provides guidelines to limit agricultural damages. This agreement was in place to protect the foot and a half of topsoil across his farm, Gettings explained.
“I’m not trying to brag, but it’s some of the best soil in the state,” he said. “They were required to remove all that, keep it separate, dig their trench for the pipe, put the pipe down and the subsoil back around the pipe and cover with the rich soil on top.”
But this didn’t happen for Gettings or dozens of his neighbors, he said. Instead, he’s left with a “terrible mixture of soil” that is compacted and subsoil that doesn’t drain well, Gettings said.
“The productivity will never be what it was,” he said. “It’s all because they didn’t follow the guidelines set forth.”
In 2021, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which grants certificates for gas pipeline construction and operation, found Spire had failed to comply with some of the measures laid out in the mitigation agreement.
In a statement, Spire said it’s proud of the work it has done to restore land and is committed to fulfilling the restoration requirements set by the commission:
“The vast majority of the landowners with remaining restoration concerns refused access to critical areas of land necessary to perform restoration effectively and safely. However, late last year, these landowners reversed their decision. Unfortunately, granting access now — in the middle of winter weather conditions — will mean that Spire STL Pipeline will not be able to perform the planned restoration until spring.”
Gettings said he allowed the company to attempt to fix remaining issues in September 2022 but was left with new ones. After Spire reworked the soil on a little more than six acres, the company seeded a cover crop with straw over it, but failed to remove the plastic wrapping the straw, he said.
“I’m in worse shape now than I was before, because I have plastic net wraps spread all over the ground,” Gettings said. “This is not biodegradable. This will not go away.”
As frustrated as Gettings is with Spire, he said he ultimately holds the regulatory commission responsible for the damage to his property and others nearby.
“All my environmental issues I have were because the federal regulatory commission dropped the ball,” he said. “They didn’t do their due diligence in determining whether this pipeline was needed or not.”
It’s a sentiment shared by environmental groups and even those on the federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
“Simply put, the commission’s 2018 decision to grant the Spire STL Pipeline a certificate of public convenience and necessity was a mistake,” wrote commission Chairman Richard Glick in his opinion last month granting Spire a permanent certificate to operate.
He writes that the decision years ago gives credibility to the critique that his regulatory body essentially acts as a rubber stamp for gas companies seeking new projects.
“In this case it was far worse than that,” Glick wrote.
The pipeline still won a permanent certificate to operate because of Spire’s decision to shift its gas supply for the St. Louis region away from other connections to the STL pipeline, “establishing a need for the pipeline that simply did not exist,” he adds.
“The project did not have the proper evidence of need, it did not go through a review," said Gillian Giannetti, a senior attorney with the nonprofit environmental advocacy group NRDC. "A lot of the damage, unfortunately, is already done.”
Spire has continued to maintain the project is necessary to keep an adequate supply of gas for the St. Louis region.
Other environmental groups are concerned the commission isn’t learning some of the hallmark missteps of this pipeline approval, particularly that the commission didn’t adequately gather public comment, said Ted Kelly, a senior attorney at the Environmental Defense Fund.
“We think they really repeated the mistakes of the initial order by continuing to not do a thorough investigation or ask for comments from folks like landowners as well as rate payers in St. Louis and other impacted areas,” he said.
Kelly’s organization sued to reverse the commission’s 2018 decision to allow the pipeline to be constructed and operate. In the lead-up to last month’s decision, the commission primarily relied on documents filed by Spire in late 2021 and early 2022 and didn’t ask for comment on them from the public, he said.
“They really missed the boat here in recognizing it was a failed process in 2017 but not doing what was necessary to have a better process now,” Kelly said.
In the order, the regulatory commission does identify ways to mend some of the harms from it, Giannetti said.
“Mainly, the commissioners highlight the importance for Spire to work with landowners and community members to ensure their land is restored to what it was like beforehand,” she said. “Something that still hasn’t happened.”
But returning the land to the way it was before construction is something Gettings would rather do himself at this point, he said.
“We know our soil and our conditions better than anybody,” Gettings said. “I need to be the one to try and get it back in the best shape that it can. I feel like they need to compensate me for my damages and let me get this problem resolved.”
Eric Schmid covers economic development for St. Louis Public Radio.