(This article has been updated to correct the number of wells in the storage fields.)
SALEM, Ohio — TransCanada – Columbia Pipeline Group’s vegetation management plan has local farmers outraged because it takes valuable acres out of production.
Landowners received letters in the spring of 2017 informing them that the natural gas company would be maintaining a 60-foot radius around well heads in the storage fields, which cross 11 Ohio counties.
“It’s a big encroachment on our land with no benefit in safety,” said Carl Ayers, who farms just over 2,000 acres in Ashland and Richland counties, and has 13 well heads on his property.
Landowners say they’ve received letters in the past, but no mowing was ever done. This time, TransCanada means business.
Ashland County farmer Fred Workman says he first received such a letter in 2012, but it wasn’t until 2017 that the wellheads were mowed
“Past precedence is that the well tender would clear 3-6 feet around the well,” said Workman, whose leases were signed in 1950s and don’t specify a clearing distance.
The letter to landowners said as part of TransCanada’s ongoing commitment to public safety, a 60-foot radius, including crops, would be cleared using mowing, hand clearing and spraying.
“It (the policy) is to make sure we are able to safely get to those well heads and maintain them,” said TransCanada’s Scott Castleman, manager, U.S. and Mexico natural gas communications. “Even monthly, we need to get trucks and tools in there to do that.”
This 60-foot radius is the same across all of TransCanada’s Ohio assets.
“If crops are planted too closely to a well head, farmers could clip or run into it and damage it or cause significant damage to it, and we want to protect their equipment, as well,” Castleman said.
Contractors mowed around some of Ayers’ 13 wells in the spring and some a day or so before he planned to harvest.
“The weeds came back higher than the well caps,” Ayers said. “It doesn’t provide a physical protection around the well.”
Now when he’s in his farm machinery, he can’t see the well, so he has placed his own post markers around the well heads.
Workman said well tenders told him the company was going to mow the broader radius, “but there was no communication about when.”
On his rented ground, two wells were mowed in alfalfa stands.
“Three weeks later, we took another cutting off it, so what was the point of that?”
To get to another well, workers didn’t use the access road, but instead drove across a hay field, he added.
The natural gas storage fields contain approximately 2,000 wells in 11 counties; Richland, Wayne, Vinton, Medina, Fairfield, Coshocton, Columbiana, Ashland, Hocking, Holmes and Guernsey.
They push the gas in during the summer and pull out in the winter to supply the region.
All storage fields are scheduled for vegetation maintenance in 2018, said Castleman.
“I’ve been in cooperation with them for years and years, but the last couple (years) there have been a lot of issues,” said Dale Arnold, director of energy, utility and local government policy, Ohio Farm Bureau Federation.
TransCanada has sent landowners a release to sign, but its intensions are unclear, according to the farmers.
“I guess I need to sign the release to get paid, but my attorneys don’t understand it,” Ayers said.
He needs clarification about if the release prohibits him from being compensated for the crops in the future.
A 60-foot radius is just a hair over a quarter of an acre, Workman said.
“With land going for $5,000-$7,000 an acre, you’re looking at $1,700 for a quarter and they are offering us $200 as a one-time payment and then expect you not to plant it again,” Workman said about how he interprets the release.
“Nothing is adequate compensation; they need to be realistic in the distance,” said Workman, who agrees safety is a priority.
“Six feet all around the well and put posts up — no one would hit it,” he said. “Believe me, I don’t want to hit it.”
Adele Flynn, Lorain County, and her family have also been seeking collaboration with TransCanada.
“Mowing an additional 40 feet into our field isn’t going to help,” said Flynn about TransCanada contractors mowing beyond the driveways used to access the wells.
Her father put up signs saying not to mow it, and they still did.
Now landowners want to know who is responsible for maintaining the area around it, so unwanted weeds don’t thrive.
TransCanada also threatened spraying, said Ayers.
“As a basic agricultural practice, we need to approve what they use, we are liable for what goes into the ground,” he said.
“TransCanada is evaluating expanded use of herbicides to control weeds and promote growth of desirable plant communities compatible with our operating requirements and adjacent agricultural land use sites,” Castleman wrote in an email.
“We are also considering increases to frequency of mechanical vegetation maintenance at storage well facilities.”
“All herbicides applied by TransCanada are approved for use by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Landowners can opt out of the herbicide program if they choose not to have herbicides applied to their property,” said his email to the Farm and Dairy.
“Landowners want to work it out. If it is for safety they are going to that distance, we need more cooperation and communication,” said Flynn, who is the president of Lorain County Farm Bureau.
Flynn’s family has been working with Columbia Gas since the 1940s and has never had issues a conversation wouldn’t solve.
With each well making about .259 acres inoperable, Flynn and her family are looking at more than four acres out of production.
“We are trying to work it out without a messy legal battle,” Flynn said.
The old Columbia Gas Transmission/Pipeline leases were typically written from 1903 to 1983. With several hundred farms involved, the annual compensation widely varies. The amount depends on when the lease was signed, and most have not increased based on the cost of living. Some are for $20 a year and others, $220 a year, Arnold said.
“There are a number of different leases and they all say different things in regard to maintenance and maintenance issues.
“It seems as though TransCanada may not understand that there are multiple leases agreements with varying details,” he added.
When a lease is signed, it is agreed that a space be kept for safety, Castleman said.
“Farmers have become accustomed to planting close to the well heads and we need to make sure it is cleared for safety.”
“Damaged well heads can cost tens of thousands of dollars or more. I know farmers are considering the loss of crops, but safety is the priority,” Castleman said.
None of the leases Arnold has reviewed specify that they can mow 60 feet around the well.
“We want to work it out with TransCanada, but we’ve not been compensated for last year’s crop damages,” Flynn said.
“Each storage lease is unique and we will abide by the terms in set forth in the agreement,” Castleman said in an email in regard to compensation.
“We understand and agree with the priority of safety and maintenance,” Arnold said, on behalf of Ohio Farm Bureau. “Farmers want to sit down with TransCanada and have a dialogue about how this can be done in the future.”
Arnold advises farmers to track input costs, contracts for sales, feed costs and other numbers that may be relative to crop damage payments.
At first, TransCanada was interested in group meetings, but now they have stepped back and said they will have individual meetings, said Arnold.
“We try to be a good neighbor and are willing to work through some things,” Castleman said, adding TransCanda has regional land agents that are working through individual situations.
Castleman said the company could consider group meetings “if there was a level of interest.”
“We don’t want anyone feeling like they aren’t getting their questions answered.”
These farmers have already planted most of their fields, not leaving the 60-foot buffer.
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