By Deb Courson Smith, Big Sky Connection

Thirty-four landowners who will see the proposed Keystone XL pipeline cross their properties are looking to Montana Department of Environmental Quality director Richard Opper as their “last hope.” They’ve sent a letter asking for safety requirements before the state approves the pipeline.

Circle rancher Chuck Nerud signed the letter. The pipeline is set to cross his property for three-and-a-half miles, and over drainages that run to the Missouri River. His biggest beef is that there is no publicly available Oil Spill Response Plan – leaving local people and property at risk when there are pipeline leaks.

“The local people are the ones that are going to be first responders. Your sheriff’s department, your fire department, your local medical people – they need to know how to deal with it.”

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., outlined that same concern to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last month, but the recently issued final environmental impact statement didn’t include a response plan. TransCanada, which plans to build the line to carry tar-sands oil from Canada, says oil-spill response plans can’t be made public because of terrorist concerns.

Nerud says landowners also would like to see thicker and better-quality steel used for the pipeline along the entire route. TransCanada plans to use lower-quality line through areas deemed “low-consequence” – but Nerud takes issue with that designation.

“My way of thinking is, it needs to protect all in Montana. The rivers are important, but the rest of it’s important, too.”

Nerud points to the 14 spills in the past year for the first Keystone pipeline, and the recent Bison Pipeline explosion and Yellowstone spill, as reasons the state should step in and require safety plans and standards.

Tester’s letter to Clinton is online at northernplains.org.