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Lawsuit accuses Dakota Access of misleading landowners

A trio of excavators move earth along the Dakota Access pipeline route east of Williston in late July. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

BISMARCK — Morton County landowners who claim Dakota Access LLC deceived them into accepting an unfair price for pipeline easements are seeking more than $4 million in damages in a federal lawsuit.

A group of landowners claims in a U.S. District Court case that Dakota Access agents harassed, threatened and intimidated them and used fraud and misleading statements to secure a lower price in exchange for allowing the pipeline to cross their land.

Most of the landowners in the group accepted $216 per rod for pipeline easements, but later found out some of their neighbors received as high as $2,000 per rod, the lawsuit states. A rod is 16½ feet.

"The landowners were told that they were being offered the best deal that was ever going to come along and no one else would receive a better deal," said Fargo attorney Peter Zuger. "Many were told their land could be taken by eminent domain if they didn't agree."

The 1,172-mile Dakota Access Pipeline will transport oil from the Bakken oilfields to a transportation hub in Patoka, Ill.

The landowners in the suit collectively own 11 separate pieces of land that make up about 9 miles of the pipeline route in Morton County, Zuger said.

Land agents contracted by Dakota Access approached the landowners in 2014, telling them they had 30 days to consider the proposal or risk losing a 20 percent signing bonus, the lawsuit states.

The agents also told some landowners in late 2014 that because the price of oil was going down, they should sign the agreements right away and they'd still get the money even though the pipeline might not be constructed, the complaint says.

Landowners also were told they would receive less money or "basically nothing" if their land was taken by eminent domain.

Vicki Anderson Granado, a spokeswoman for Energy Transfer Partners, the main developer behind the Dakota Access Pipeline, said the company doesn't comment on pending litigation. Dakota Access was still in the process of being served with the complaint, which means the legal answer will be due in about three weeks.

The lawsuit is not the first time North Dakota landowners have complained about how land agents representing Dakota Access have treated them. Concerns also were raised to the North Dakota Public Service Commission when the pipeline was under review, with some landowners complaining about bullying tactics and threats of taking their land through eminent domain.

Troy Coons, chairman of the Northwest Landowners Association, said he often hears complaints from landowners who don't feel they were treated fairly in easement negotiations.

The association helps landowners form groups so they can have a stronger position when negotiating with land agents, Coons said.

"That is their job is to get the best deal for their organization," he said. "These guys are professionals."

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