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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – The fight over whether it's legal to condemn private land for a hazardous liquids pipeline in Kentucky is moving into the courts -- and ramping up in the legislature.
A state lawmaker has proposed another change to Kentucky's eminent domain laws – a move he believes would help keep developers of the controversial Bluegrass Pipeline from seizing land from reluctant property owners.
At the same time, a lawsuit filed Thursday in Franklin Circuit Court is asking a judge to decide whether state law allows condemnation for the pipeline, which two companies are developing to transport natural gas liquids from the eastern United States to the Gulf of Mexico.
The suit was filed by a group called Kentuckians United to Restrain Eminent Domain, which was formed to "protect Kentuckians from the threat of and attempts to exercise eminent domain by entities not in public service to Kentuckians."
The suit alleges that agents of the pipeline developers -- the Williams company and Boardwalk Pipeline Partners L.P. -- have told county officials and a Franklin County property owner that they have the power to condemn private land.
A Williams spokesman said in an email that the company doesn't comment on pending litigation.
Kentucky law, as it stands, is silent on whether companies who have proposed or operate pipelines carrying products such as natural gas liquids qualify for eminent domain. It does allow condemnation in the case of certain public activities, such as utiltiies.
"There's nothing that pertains to them," said state Sen. Jimmy Higdon, R-Lebanon, who pre-filed his second eminent domain bill of the 2014 General Assembly earlier this week. "So we're trying to spell that out in legislation."
Companies operating refined gas-product pipelines would qualify for eminent domain only if the work serves a public purpose, according to Higdon's legislation.
Higdon also has filed a bill for the session starting next month that would make oil and gas pipeline projects eligible for condemnation only if they're regulated by the Public Service Commission.
The Kentucky Energy and Environmental Cabinet concluded that the pipeline project can't use eminent domain. The offices of Gov. Steve Beshear and Attorney General Jack Conway share that view, Higdon said.
Still, officials with the pipeline developers haven't ruled out condemnation.
"Eminent domain is the course of last resort. We are working with landowners," Williams spokesman Bill Lawson told WDRB last month. "It's our best interest to work with landowners and to find those that are interested in having us cross their property."
In Kentucky, private companies may qualify for condemnation if their projects cross private land but are considered to be a public use. However, the law states that those types of uses don't apply to indirect public benefits such as an increased tax base and jobs – some of the aspects touted by pipeline officials.
Higdon said residents of Nelson and Marion counties are "adamantly opposed to the Bluegrass Pipeline and eminent domain."
So are other residents.
Penny Greathouse, a Franklin County property owner, has been approached by pipeline agents about an easement for her land, according to the lawsuit. A Bluegrass Pipeline representative told Greathouse that "the company believes it has the power of eminent domain in support of the proposed pipeline," the lawsuit states.
While he declined to comment on the lawsuit, Williams spokesman Tom Droege said in a statement: "Our primary focus today remains on working with landowners to establish mutually beneficial easement agreements. So far in a short period of time we have purchased easements for more than 50 percent of the proposed pipeline route in Kentucky. We estimate our easement payments to landowners will reach $50 million."