Pipeline running through Pipestone County to be decommissioned

Watch the video above for highlights, read the story below for the full version. 

Francis Eastman outside of his quarry at the Pipestone National Monument. Eastman quarries out of one of the pits that is closest to the Magellan Pipeline. S. Martinez

A pipeline owned and operated by Oklahoma-based Magellan Midstream Partners, L.P that runs through part of Pipestone County is scheduled to be decommissioned sometime before the end of 2022. Following years of conversation with Magellan, the National Park Service (NPS) and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) have made a joint announcement that they are working with the company to develop a plan to decommission and abandon a pipeline that includes a half-mile section that runs underneath federal property, including the northwest section of Pipestone National Monument and the center of the Pipestone Creek Unit of the Northern Tallgrass Prairie National Wildlife Refuge.

Lauren Blacik, the superintendent of Pipestone National Monument and joint representative for the NPS and USFWS, said that the decision was made jointly, in an effort to protect what is a considered a sacred area and to minimize industry impacts. According to Blacik, conversations regarding the operation of the pipeline started in 2012 with Magellan, U.S. Fish and Wildlife ,the National Park Service and 23 tribal nations that are affiliated with the monument.

“This has been an ongoing effort since 2012 and all parties have decided to abandon the line,” Blacik said.

The eight-inch in diameter line, which transports refined petroleum products from Sioux Falls to Marshall, passes through about a quarter-mile of both the National Park Service land and the USFWS refuge. Pipestone National Monument consults with 23 tribal nations on a range of management topics, Blacik said. Throughout the discussions with Magellan, the National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife have been welcoming feedback from the affiliated tribes regarding the process of planning for abandonment.  

Reasons for abandonment

Blacik listed a number of reasons why Magellan’s recent efforts to renew their right-of-way permit led to the decision that renewal was not a possibility.

“Leaving this section of pipeline is not a viable option,” Blacik said. “The National Park Service has no service-wide authority to issue right-of-way permits for petroleum product pipeline uses per 30 U.S. Code 185.”

Some of the protected resources in the area, Blacik said, include archaeological sites, the Pipestone Creek, remnant and restored tallgrass prairie, federally threatened or endangered plant and animal species, the Sundance grounds and the remains of the Pipestone Indian Boarding School.

One of many concerns of both the NPS and members of the affiliated tribes who quarry catlinite (the stone used in making the sacred pipe) is the potential impact a spill could have on the quarries sitting near the pipeline.

Bud Johnston, a tribal Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and former quarrier from 1984-1998 at Pipestone National Monument, said that the nature of the stone is what could make it susceptible to contamination.

“Pipestone is a clay that was under pressure for a couple of million years,” Johnston said “So it’s basically a porous material that absorbs. People say that stone gets harder when it dries and it does a little bit, but it is basically mud. If anything else gets poured into it,it’s going to be absorbed by the clay.”

Johnston, who still carves pipes from stone quarried by others at the monument, said that the stone is culturally significant to many tribes, and that it is also a major reason for the city of Pipestone being on the map.

“It’s our biggest draw for southwest Minnesota,” he said. “People come from all over the world to see where he pipe comes from.” The quarries of Pipestone sit on a band that stretches under a quartzite shelf from Lake Superior down to South Dakota, Johnston said. The quality varies a lot throughout the quarries, he said, with some areas like South Dakota having too much sand in it making it too hard to work, and other areas like the quarries found in Hayward, Wisconsin also being too hard to work with, making it difficult to shape. The stone found at the monument, however, was found to be the most popular. 

“Not only was it on high ground, which is a big thing because people could travel in and out of here,” he said. “It was also the softer version of the stone so it was easy to work with flint tools. So it became a well known site all over Indian Country. It was one of the biggest trade items in North America. They found pipestone pipes in Mexico, they found them all over Canada. One of the oldest ones was found in an archeology dig over that was over 2,500 years down in South Carolina, and they proved it came from Pipestone National Monument.” . 

With such a cultural treasure and source of economic support for those still quarrying and making pipes so close in proximity to the line, many in the indigenous community tied to the monument say leaving the pipe is not an option.

According to an on-line program called River Runner by Sam Learner, a web and data visualization developer out of Pittsburgh, Penn., a drop of water from Pipestone will eventually make its way through Split Rock Creek into the Big Sioux River, then through the Missouri River to the Mississippi River, finally ending up in the Gulf of Mexico. Such evidence has lead concerned parties to believe a potential spill could have a larger impact on the environment than anticipated, leading Johnston to believe the potential for the petroleum product to make the same journey is possible. Additionally, Johnston said with the monument and the sacred stone being such an important point of interest for tourism, the entire community should be concerned about the potential for damage.

Francis Eastman, a quarrier at the monument who has one of the closest pits to the pipeline, said that if there were to be a leak and the petroleum product were to seep into the chalk layers surrounding the pipe, there could be serious implications for the stone and the people that depend on it for their cultural and personal survival.

“Right above the Pipestone there is a thin layer of chalk,” Eastman said. “If oil were to seep into the quarries it could damage the only place where you can get the stone for the sacred Chanupa, the stone. If that were to happen, it would be a danger to the people who make pipes.”

Eastman said the stone is just stone until it’s blessed, but there are whole families with generations of members who have worked with the stone, and their spirituality is tied to that stone and the making of the pipe.

Even though the pipeline was put in place prior to expansion of NPS land and has ran without incident since, Blacik further supported the decision to decommission the pipeline by addressing the potential need for future maintenance on the line and how it would negatively impact the culturally and environmentally significant area.

“Additionally, due to the age of the line, we anticipate, were operations to continue, that more group disturbance would be necessary,” Blacik said. “Which would cause an unacceptable level of destruction to this culturally and naturally significant place. Previous tribal consultation about the spiritual significance of the area has also informed our approach to the issue.”

Potential issues of abandonment

A map that illustrates where the pipeline runs through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Land and corner section northwest side of the Pipestone National Monument. The map also illustrates where the boundary of the monument was moved to after the pipe was initially put into place. Source: Magellan Midstream Partners L.P.

According to Bruce Heine, the vice president of government and media affairs at Magellan, the company owns and operates one of the nations longest refined products pipeline systems that serves multiple southwest and Midwestern states, including Minnesota and South Dakota.

“Our pipeline system transports various grades of gasoline, diesel and jet fuel from refineries in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Minnesota to Magellan’s storage and distribution terminals and other delivery points throughout the region including Marshall, Minn. and Watertown, S.D.,” Heine said.

Magellan, Heine said, has been working for several years with federal authorities to receive approval for the renewal of the right-of-way-agreement.

“During this time, we contacted a variety of stakeholders including tribes and federal, state and local elected officials,” he said. “While working on the renewal process, we concluded that a renewal right-of-way agreement for this section of our system on federal land would not be possible. Moreover, we do not believe rerouting the pipeline in Pipestone County is feasible since this would require governmental agency approval and significant construction costs.”

Taking the pipeline from Sioux Falls to Marshall out of service is not the organization’s preferred outcome, Heine said, noting that without operating the Sioux Falls to Marshall segment of the system, the company’s ability to transport fuel from refineries in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas to the Marshall and Watertown terminals will be practically eliminated. Despite this significant challenge, Heine said that Magellan will work to avoid any potential supply impacts in the area.

“We will continue to have the ability to serve our terminals in Marshall and Watertown from refineries in eastern Minnesota,” Heine said. “However, once the Sioux Falls to Marshall pipeline segment is taken out of service, fuel supply to southwest Minnesota and northeast South Dakota may become less reliable and increased fuel supply outages at our terminals in these markets are possible.”

Magellan has said that they will continue to strive to minimize outages at their terminals in southwestern Minnesota and northeastern South Dakota.

According to Heine, pipeline transportation of refined petroleum products is the most environmentally friendly, safest and most reliable and cost-effective mode of transportation for liquid energy. According to the Association of Pipelines website, around 99.99 percent of liquid energy delivered by pipeline arrives safely to its destination. The association notes that most pipeline incidents are small, with 66 percent of spills amounting to less than five barrels and 84 percent at less than 50 barrels.

The Back Story

A copy of the original approval from the Department of the Interior Office of Indian Affairs for the pipeline on July 17, 1947. Source: National Park Service

According to a document and information shared by Blacik from Pipestone National Monument, the original right-of-way permit for the pipe to run through the area of concern was issued in 1947 to the Great Lakes Pipe Line Company (a predecessor of Magellan) by the Office of Indian Affairs (the predecessor of the Bureau of Indian Affairs). The original term of the agreement was for 20 years, but when the boundary of Pipestone National Monument was expanded in 1957, the National Park Service took over the administration of the land with the permit and infrastructure in place, Blacik said.

“In 1967, the permit expired with no action taken by the company to renew it,” she said.

In March 2021, after initial conversations regarding the pipeline were well underway, Magellan sought the renewal of the right-of-way permit for what runs under the USFWS land.

Additionally, Blacik said that after an initial damage deposit of $450, records indicate that no subsequent payment has been made by the company operating the pipeline for the use of the land. In terms of the recovery of payments, Blacik that conversation is being had between all parties.

“Cost recovery fees and annual land use fees are required for pipelines through federal lands under Title 30 U.S. Code 185,” Blacik said. “We are working to address this topic as part of an abandonment agreement.”

Moving forward

How or why the right-of-way expiration went unnoticed for so many years, and whether it was tied into the ownership of the pipeline changing hands or the take over of the NPS from the Office of Indian Affairs remains unclear. Lisa Bellanger, the Executive Director of the American Indian Movement (AIM) and a traditional Sundancer, said that what’s most important right now is that the potential threat to the environment, sacred stone and other significant attributes of the area is minimized.

“The most important thing is as it’s decommissioned,” she said. “It eliminates the threat to the stone and such a sacred site. It’s not just a sacred site for my people. There are many tribes that are impacted.”

Bellanger said that many hands worked in bringing the issue to this point and that she appreciates the fact that voices were heard and a positive response was received from all parties involved. Still, looking forward to further planning for the decommissioning of the line, any recouping of unpaid fees from Magellan to the NPS must be discussed. Bellanger believes those conversations will be had in the coming months and hopes to see the money used to address other concerns for local indigenous communities and provide an opportunity for the recognition and support of those who suffered as a result of mistreatment at the boarding school in Pipestone and their families. For now, the community is celebrating the decision to abandon the line.

“We will celebrate this as a victory and appreciate the fact that voices were heard,” she said. “I will appreciate that the response came back in a good way and this sacred site will be protected.