There were more questions than answers at a pipeline meeting in Neligh, Nebraska.
Landowners gathered at the Neligh-Oakdale High School gym to see where they stood along the proposed pipeline route. Detailed maps of TransCanada's latest route for its proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline were spread out on tables. The old route stirred controversy last year for fear the pipeline would threaten the fragile ecology of the Sandhills. This time it is supposed to avoid the Sandhills with a path farther east - still crossing the Ogallala aquifer but in generally less sandy, hilly terrain. But the new route involves a whole new set of landowners with questions.
"This has been such a topic for so long, but these folks haven't been involved directly. So they're just kind of waiting to see what it's going to look like," said state Senator Kate Sullivan of Cedar Rapids, who represents the area.
The Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is supposed to review the proposed route, and make a recommendation to Governor Dave Heineman about whether or not to approve it. His decision will then be passed along to the federal government which has the final say.
DEQ Director, Mike Linder, says public meetings like the one in Neligh are designed not only to give people an overview of the proposal, but also to dig into details on the map.
Robert Wood, who farms outside Orchard, looked at the map and quizzed a representative of the engineering firm, HDR, hired to help DEQ evaluate the route.
"When you go putting the pipeline in, right here is a creek that drops off three-fourths the height of the (gymnasium) wall here," Wood said. "How are they going to go through and get it back like it was," he asked.
There were also questions about who would ultimately answer questions. Albion area farmer Pat Schmitz asked HDR's Matt Pillard about whether topsoil would be put back on top after excavation. When Pillard suggested he ask TransCanada, Schmitz wondered aloud whether the company had done what it said it would do in previous situations.
Wood, the farmer with the question about the creek, expressed frustration.
"I run three-hundred cows by myself, basically," Wood said. "And you work getting things set up so they work and someone wants to come in blow part of it away. It kind of frustrates you."
Not everyone was as frustrated. Greg Walmer, a Royal-area farmer has talked to TransCanada representatives.
"I had some concerns about the easement process, basically. I'm concerned about who's responsible about damages," Walmer said. "And they answered my questions the best they could at this point."
Walmer has not yet decided whether to sell an easement through his land to the company. TransCanada spokesman Terry Cunha said dealing with landowners' questions and concerns is what it's all about.
"That's how this process is designed, to ensure that Nebrsakans have an opportunity to take part, share information with the DEQ, which will come back to us to help us refine our route and have something that will hopefully be approved by the governor and allow us to get a Presidential permit by the State Department," said Cunha.
Two more informational meetings will be held next week: Wednesday, May 16 in Albion, and Thursday, May 17 in Central City. The Department of Environmental Quality's recommendation is supposed to be ready sometime between mid-October and mid-January. But a lawsuit challenging the agency's authority to evaluate the route may be filed as soon as next week.