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Sandpiper pipeline route spares Oakville prairie: Plans approved North Dakota PSC avoids natural reserve area

GRAND FORKS — Academics at the University of North Dakota breathed a collective sigh of relief when the North Dakota Public Service Commission approved a Sandpiper oil pipeline route last week that skirts valuable research prairie.

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Oakville Prairie, a 960-acre piece of land about seven miles west of Grand Forks that has never been tilled, is ideal for research and one of the few untilled prairies in the region, experts say.

“I’m so happy I can’t stand it,” retired UND biology professor Robert Seabloom said.

He testified against the pipeline’s route through the prairie to the PSC last spring with former Vice President for Research and Economic Development Phyllis Johnson.

Their testimony worked.

“I guess we presented a strong enough argument and made them pay attention,” Seabloom said. “We presented a lot of history of the site and the research that has been carried on there for many years.”

UND professors met with officials from Enbridge, the company building the pipeline, several times after the PSC hearing to present their case for saving the Oakville Prairie.

The 616-mile Sandpiper pipeline will carry 225,000 barrels of oil each day from western North Dakota to Superior, Wis. Construction in North Dakota is slated to begin this coming fall.

“It’s very satisfying to know that our testimony mattered and that the other discussions we had with Enbridge mattered,” Johnson said. “This prairie is part of our heritage for the state. There’s not very much of it left, so the fact that they were willing and able to reroute the pipeline to avoid disturbing this important prairie is very gratifying.”

Natural area

Professors and students study all sorts of life, growth patterns and history, as Oakville Prairie is home to more than 230 species of plants. That could have been forever altered if the pipeline’s construction had disturbed the ground and made it possible for invasive species of plants to germinate.

“It’s just a unique piece of natural heritage in this area,” Oakville Prairie Field Station Director Isaac Schlosser said. “We appreciate very much what they did,”

The new route goes around Oakville Prairie to the South and follows a county road before meeting back up with the original proposed route to the east.

“One thing I kind of like is if there ever were a spill, that township road has a ditch on either side so it’ll go in the ditch and stay there instead of just going everywhere,” Seabloom said.

UND’s Biology Department also has a grant for the next three field seasons to study the Oakville Prairie soil, plants and birds, which some worried would be in jeopardy if the pipeline disturbed the prairie.

“This land, this soil is formed over the last 10,000 years,” Johnson said. “The roots of the prairie plants go down 15 or 20 feet. You can’t ever restore that. You can replant an area, you can make it look nice but it’s never going to be quite what it was before.”

But this isn’t the final hurdle for the Oakville Prairie. The State Historic Preservation Office is doing a final review of the route that will be finished this summer.

Anna Burleson

Anna Burleson is the higher education reporter for The Grand Forks Herald. She is a 2013 graduate of the University of South Dakota's Mass Communication program and is originally from Watertown, S.D. Contact her with story ideas or tips by phone, email or Twitter, all of which are listed below. Examples of her work can be accessed here.

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