In a bid to stall or stop the Bullitt County Pipeline Project, Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest has filed a complaint with utility regulators alleging Louisville Gas and Electric bypassed the typical process for a new natural gas pipeline and in doing so hid information from the public.
LG&E first mentioned the need for a new gas pipeline during a 2016 rate case. Utility regulators approved the pipeline in 2017 and have also agreed to prevent public disclosure of a study and map identifying the proposed route.
Opponents say LG&E’s strategy has prevented the community from working together. Instead, individual landowners say they were left to fend for themselves with little information to go on as LG&E tried to buy the remaining properties necessary to build the pipeline.
“From day one they have isolated us from one another. I asked repeatedly, ‘give me a general path of the pipeline,’” said Vanessa Allen, a homeowner who has so far refused to sell to LG&E. “I would have gone door to door, all along they kept saying ‘oh we don’t even know if it’s going here.’”
The pipeline would also run three-quarters of a mile through the Cedar Grove Wildlife Corridor, a 494-acre property Bernheim bought in 2018. While it would mostly run underneath existing electric transmission lines, Bernheim warns the project would do irreparable harm to habitat for rare and endangered species.
Bernheim Executive Director Mark Wourms said it wasn’t just that LG&E shielded information about the pipeline. He said state regulators — the Kentucky Public Service Commission — allowed the utility to keep news of the pipeline secret.
“And the PSC allowed LG&E to keep this pipeline quiet for several years while it was under study and engineering review,” he said.
Public Service Commission Spokesman Andrew Melnykovych declined to comment except to say the commission’s approval of the project speaks for itself.
LG&E Spokesman Daniel Lowry said in an email the utility received the certificate as part of a transparent and open process.
“While customers have the right to file a complaint with the Commission about their utility’s rates and services, the Commission will review the Complaint consistent with the applicable law before deciding whether the Complaint should go forward,” Lowry said in an email.
LG&E has said it has nearly run out of capacity on the company’s current gas pipeline. Company representatives say another pipeline is necessary to further economic growth in the area around Mt. Washington, Shepherdsville, Clermont and Lebanon Junction.
Without it, new subdivisions, commercial businesses and industry may not get access to natural gas. Until the pipeline is built, LG&E has said it will evaluate new requests for gas service on a case-by-case basis.
Louisville Gas & Electric announced plans to build the 12-mile-long natural gas pipeline through northern Bullitt County deep inside hundreds of pages of testimony during a 2016 rate case, according to the complaint from Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest filed last week.
Ordinarily, utilities apply to the Kentucky Public Service Commission for a certificate that a new project is safe, reliable and necessary. But in this case, LG&E argued it didn’t need to apply because the new project was only a pipeline extension, not a brand new pipeline.
The commission decided LG&E did need the certificate, but rather than have them file an application and open a new case, regulators simply approved one based on the information supplied in the rate case.
That contradicts state law saying utilities have to file an application for the certificate, according to the complaint.
The complaint argues if the utility had filed an application, it could have given the public additional information about the proposed pipeline. Without it, Bernheim attorney Randy Strobo argues LG&E failed to prove a “need” for the new pipeline, according to the complaint.
The complaint also alleges the Public Service Commission acted outside its legal authority by granting the certificate without an application from LG&E.
“We want the [Public Service Commission] to reconsider the certificate of public convenience and necessity and void that,” Wourms said. “We want LG&E to have to reapply for that certificate and go through proper process.”
Wourms said the complaint may not stop the pipeline, but it will give the community a chance to have their voices heard.
‘You’re the only holdout’
Even after utility regulators approved the pipeline, LG&E asked them to shield the proposed route from public scrutiny because it would create a “competitive disadvantage,” according to a filing with utility regulators.
“Disclosure of this information may increase the value of the land through which the pipeline crosses or landholder may resist construction and force LG&E to spend more to construct the pipeline,” according to the filing.
The public service commission granted the request in January. Plans for the proposed pipeline path have since been made public.
Vanessa Allen is one of the landowners still holding out from selling her farm. LG&E offered her about $16,000 for the easement to build the 12-inch wide underground pipeline across her property.
She said she received a letter from the utility in the spring of 2017 and began looking for other landowners to learn more about the pipeline’s path. The open records requests she filed came back with names, but officials had blacked out the addresses and phone numbers.
When she finally got in touch with other landowners, she heard similar stories.
“They put pressure on people by saying ‘you’re the only holdout here’ and so people would sign,” she said.
Lowry, with LG&E, said he is unaware of those statements, but it’s the utility’s goal to understand and respect the concerns of landowners.
LG&E has said it owns 85 percent of the land needed for the pipeline. The utility has now begun filing condemnation proceedings against landowners — including Allen and Bernheim — in an effort to buy the remaining land needed to begin construction.
Both Allen and Bernheim say they will fight those lawsuits.