Residents in the western part of Parker County are not happy with the recent clearing work that has started for the ONEOK Arbuckle II natural gas pipeline that is going through their properties.
The ONEOK company out of Tulsa, Oklahoma, announced construction would begin on the 530-mile pipeline back in November 2018.
“It’s a continuation of services for the future of our county and it’s necessary to provide critical resources for all of us and employment for others,” Parker County Judge Pat Deen said. “Pipeline companies do pay property taxes to the taxing entities of where their pipeline is located, so that does need to be discussed. I feel like it’s necessary to rely on them to do due diligence with working with landowners and doing it in a way that’s not detrimental.”
The 24-inch pipeline travels through 15 counties and though agreements were made with compensation, residents said their contracts have been breached.
“It’s one thing if it’s eminent domain for something that’s going to be useful for this county, but they come through and claim eminent domain and then treat us like they own the place,” resident Debra Waters said. “The right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing and it’s like because they have the right of way, they act like they own our property. They’re very rude and uncooperative and they have just gone through and destroyed.”
Waters said she wrote up a contract, which had included saving three of her large oak trees and everything seemed good to go.
“I’m told we will have a 72-hour notice before anyone comes on our property and we were on vacation in Alabama for July 4. I get a phone call from my neighbor in a panic and they had cut all of our fences, come through with big machinery and my neighbor tells me that she stopped them just in time to keep them from cutting down my three oak trees that I was willing to take them to court over,” Waters said. “I talked to the guy that’s supposed to be in charge and he said it wasn’t in the contract. I told him I had a copy on my phone, so then he starts back pedaling.”
Waters said when she returned home from vacation there were about 10 trucks parked in her hay field.
“That’s hay that needs to be cut, and there are cars parked out there on the hay. They had torn down the fence and I had horses in the pasture — luckily the day they came through there was only one — and they just put up a temporary fence and I didn’t know anything about this,” Waters said. “They’ve been using my hayfield as a parking lot. My fence is a mess, my hayfield is a mess, I picked up trash [Thursday] out of the field — I mean there was even a hubcap in my hay field, don’t ask me where that came from — so it’s just we were told we would have notice, we were told we could get our horses off.”
Resident Steve McWilliams also expressed frustrations over the lack of communication, no notice of property entry and trees that were destroyed.
“We were first contacted well over a year ago and I guess the first thing that set me off wrong was they just sent a letter in the mail saying, ‘As you know, ONEOK pipeline is coming through your property,’ well, as a matter of fact I didn’t know that. They changed the pipeline path about five times over that period of time and we had two different land agents throughout. There was just a total lack of communication,” McWilliams said. “We had to hire an attorney because it would have gone to eminent domain and yes, we settled, and they wrote us a check and everything was fine until June 29.”
McWilliams said the 62 acres of land has been in his family for generations, but he doesn’t currently reside there.
“On June 29 I was out there working and surveyors showed up and I asked what they were doing here. They said they were here to stake the land out and I said, ‘No, not today.’ Because my contract with them is they’re suppose to give me three-day, 72 hours, notice before they step foot on our land,” McWilliams said. “I told the surveyors that I knew they were only doing their jobs and politely asked them to leave.”
McWilliams said with no notice again on July 2, workers were on his property cutting his fence and doing some preliminary grading work. McWilliams once again, asked them to leave.
But the biggest incident for McWilliams was when 56 of his 150-year-old trees were cut down and turned to mulch.
“We’re talking 150-year-old trees here, big trees. So they had cut my fence, put in a temporary fence and had some kind of equipment in there and I was out of state. So I called and we set up an appointment for the morning of [July 4] with the superintendent. He said he would hold-off on his July 4 vacation and meet me there [that] morning,” McWilliams said. “July 3, he said he had some bad news for me. He said they went ahead and cleared my easement. I said, ‘Get those guys off my land, now.’ But by then, all the damage had been done.”
McWilliams said besides the 72 hours notice, his contract included an opportunity to walk the easement with the superintendent and that’s why he wanted to set up the meeting.
McWilliams said there were also trees outside of the marked easement area that were sheared.
“These trees will probably die in the future as we all know how sensitive post oak trees are to being disturbed,” McWilliams said.
Larry Walden, who also has property where the pipeline is coming through, said he has filed a civil suit against ONEOK.
“I got started on this because they crossed the county road and I had seen other damage they had done, which I reported to them, on Old Brock Road,” Walden, who is also the Precinct 3 county commissioner, said. “I can’t keep them from crossing the road, but I can recover the damages that they do to the road when they cross it. They have also damaged trees that are outside of the area that they’re suppose to be within.”
Walden said in his case, he did not make an agreement with ONEOK and instead, the company went for eminent domain.
“There’s no recourse other than a civil suit. So they eminent domained the hearing, I was awarded some damages — about 20 percent of what I asked for, what I believed to be the actual damages. It’s a matter of private property rights compared with the eminent domain authority of a large, very powerful company with unlimited resources,” Walden said. “Where they have a problem for me, they trespassed on my property. They reached over and trimmed those limbs and they don’t get to do that. In fact, they don’t get to set one foot right [past the markers], not one inch, but why do they do what they do? That’s their general operating procedure because no one can do anything about it.”
Like Waters and McWilliams, Walden said no notice was given to him before workers stepped on his property.
“They provided me no notice, zero. They just go through and do whatever they want to do once they get here. There is no private property right. The only recourse I have is to file a civil suit against them to try to recover the damages, and I already have,” Walden said. “I thought this was a good story because people get taken advantage of — people that haven’t dealt with this before, or don’t know any better.”
Walden said the next step will be to actually put in the pipeline.
“They’ve taken all the brush and timber off, so the next thing they’ll do is come along with two big bulldozers and push all the dirt to the side. Then they’ll come along with an excavator and dig a trench four or five feet deep and all the welders will come through, weld all the pipe together, put it in the ground and then cover it back up,” Walden said. “This was just the first initial thing. The land will never be the same.”
The Weatherford Democrat sent questions to ONEOK to get responses about residents’ concerns.
“ONEOK goes to great lengths to negotiate easement agreements with landowners that allow for the safe construction of pipeline projects. Throughout the construction process, we are committed to fulfilling all obligations outlined in these agreements,” ONEOK Communications Manager Brad Borror said. “Our land agents maintain an open line of communication throughout all phases of the project, including construction, and they are available to address any landowner concern that may arise. As with any construction project, there is initial damage to the land that ultimately will be restored as part of the project’s reclamation phase. We cannot comment on specific negotiations and agreements with landowners.”
According to ONEOK Arbuckle II Pipeline documents, there are 10 phases to complete the project and the company is the process of completing phase 2, the clearing step.
“We always urge the pipeline companies, specifically this company, to be considerate and respectful to landowners and we’re going to continue to insist on that. At the end of the day, we don’t really have regulatory power over them. That’s the reality of it,” Deen said. “This is a situation where being a good neighbor is paramount and we’re going to push that with them and of course we expect our residents to do the same with them and work together with them. It isn’t always a perfect marriage, but I think at the end of the day it’s been good so far.”