GREENE COUNTY, Ill. — Foot-deep gullies scar parts of Scott Turman’s farmland where crops used to grow. The field is littered with rocks as big as hubcaps and jumbled piles of debris left from construction of the Spire STL Pipeline.
Years after the pipeline began delivering gas to the St. Louis region, Turman and other Illinois farmers say its construction has rendered portions of their land too damaged to plant and too risky to run farm machinery through. Fertile topsoil has been removed or lost in places, reducing soybean and corn yields.
“These rocks, they call ’em combine killers,” Turman said.
They were dredged up to the surface when the pipeline went in underground, he said.
Some landowners also still question why the St. Louis-based gas utility had to go through their properties the way it did — sometimes through the middle of their farmland or woods, instead of hugging existing roadways, power lines or property edges.
The pipeline, mired in legal and regulatory controversy since its inception, was completed in 2019. Now, Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul has filed a petition against Spire, saying the company hasn’t made good on its promise to limit the impact and damage from the pipeline.
Accounts vary on how widespread the problems are. Nate Laps, a consultant representing landowners, said he is aware of about 40 damaged properties. Spire, in a statement, said 15 landowners have “outstanding concerns” about the pipeline. Raoul cites at least seven affected properties. The Post-Dispatch interviewed a half-dozen landowners who say they’ve been harmed.
Spire is pushing to dismiss the latest legal petition, arguing the allegations are outside the bounds of its agreement governing impacts from the pipeline, that it hasn’t violated any laws or regulations and that some of the property owners won’t allow the company access to their land for repairs.
The Illinois attorney general’s office is preparing to file a response Tuesday, and a court hearing is scheduled for Oct. 20.
Spire said in a statement that it “is ready and willing to address any and all landowner concerns with restoration issues,” and that nearly all of the 179 landowners along the pipeline “have already seen their property restored with revegetation comparable to pre-construction conditions.”
The company added that it will “continue to work in good faith by being proactive and transparent in resolving outstanding restoration concerns.”
But some residents say they don’t trust the company or its contractors to properly do the job or avoid causing further damage.
“When I let them try to fix it, they made it worse,” said Jay Gettings, who owns farmland near Turman.
‘They’ve just destroyed it’
The Spire STL Pipeline has attracted controversy throughout its short history, in part because of a now-disallowed tactic that federal energy regulators used to postpone challenges to it, even as construction began. That left questions about the pipeline’s necessity and impact unaddressed until after it was completed.
The following year, in December 2020, the Illinois attorney general filed a legal complaint seeking relief and penalties related to the pipeline’s construction across Jersey, Greene and Scott counties. The case went dormant for about two years, after a June 2021 agreement with Spire over the restoration of land affected by the pipeline.
The newest legal petition cites evidence from two rounds of inspections in 2022, when the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency documented many of the problems that landowners still call attention to — from water drainage problems to stray debris. It asks that Spire establish adequate erosion measures, amid other actions, and that the court levy “monetary sanctions to ensure compliance.”
Some residents say the latest legal actions have been a long time coming.
Near Jerseyville, in one part of a field left barren, Turman has large hunks of rock strewn where crops would ordinarily be — material he said had been underground before pipeline excavation.
Nearby are large portions of wooden, bolted-together “mats” used during construction to provide a hard surface for machinery, essentially serving as a temporary roadway. But some of the material has lingered, with farmers finding entire mats remaining on their land or buried underneath.
“Every time we work a field, we find stuff like that,” Turman said. Like other local landowners, he has piled a heap of recovered mat debris several feet high.
In a bare area, next to where Turman had hoped to build a home, he pointed out light soil where dark topsoil belongs.
He said when the pipeline was put into his ground, the topsoil and the lower-quality lighter soil beneath it were supposed to be kept in separate piles and then dropped back into place. But he said that didn’t happen correctly in some places, and drainage and erosion problems have washed some topsoil away.
The same goes for Ray Sinclair, who farms land near Jerseyville. He says topsoil built up over centuries is “gone” from parts of his land, robbing the ground of valuable nutrients and organic matter.
“That’s going to take years and years to grow that back,” he said. “That’s something that you can’t make. It’s Mother Nature — it takes a while.”
At another nearby farm, Gettings says his land was not properly restored either. He once had some of the most productive farmland in the state, even winning awards for the best soybean yields in Southern Illinois, before the pipeline was built across his land.
“They’ve just destroyed it — destroyed the productivity,” Gettings said.
To the north, near Winchester, Ken Davis says he wasn’t opposed to the pipeline but has issues with how Spire and its contractor put the project “right down the middle” of a 40-acre tract of his land.
The line cuts through wooded areas he had prized for hunting — land that previously accounted for a good number of his trophy deer mounts, he said. But the pipeline project has upended deer and turkey hunting there.
“Now my paradise that I bought is just totally changed,” Davis said.
Landowners say there’s plenty of blame to go around and shouldn’t be solely fixed on Spire.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, was responsible for inspecting the line and approving the project. But it tabled a complaint until the pipeline was already built and running — part of an approval that the agency’s own leadership has since blasted as flawed.
Gettings and others say the pipeline construction seemed rushed and that work crews even entered fields that were saturated with water, when crop land is especially prone to damage.
“They put it in so hastily, in my opinion, knowing that it could be stopped at any time,” Gettings said.
He added that, at times during the construction on his property, he saw bulldozers pulling work buses through standing water, getting workers to the site.
“You think that didn’t do long-term damage to my soil?” he said.
Michels, the project contractor, and FERC did not comment when contacted by the Post-Dispatch.
Some landowners are still hoping to see some kind of fix — or, they say, to be treated fairly.
“I’m not against the pipeline. I just want them to treat me right, and that hasn’t happened,” said Davis. “The guys that own the land are getting screwed over big time.”
This story is a product of the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk, an independent reporting network based at the University of Missouri in partnership with Report for America, funded by the Walton Family Foundation. Sign up to republish stories like this one for free.
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