Bill LaFever doesn't want to fight, but he isn't afraid to, either.

LaFever's father signed an agreement with a predecessor of Enbridge Energy Partners LP more than 40 years ago allowing it to bury a section of an oil pipeline underground on his land. Enbridge now says that pipeline needs to be decommissioned and a new pipeline built 8 feet from it to take its place.

The ties LaFever has to his Union Township home are strong, and he's concerned about the project's effect on his property. The 72-year-old LaFever and his two brothers are military veterans and, along with their three sisters, were raised on the 20 acres of farmland where he continues to live.

"You don't bulldog none of us," he said.

Enbridge wants to begin work to build a new oil pipeline that will cross the wetlands, backyards and farmland of hundreds of land owners in Northwest Indiana. The company is actively working — some landowners say aggressively — to secure lease agreements along the planned pipeline route.

The agreements are required in the company's $1.9 billion two-phase project resulting in installation of all but the final eight miles of a 293-mile pipeline from the company's facility in Griffith to Sarnia, Ontario.

Enbridge also needs certain permits from state regulators before it can set its construction schedule and begin pipeline building work, said company spokeswoman Jennifer Smith in a statement. Smith said the company expects the majority of pipeline construction to occur in 2013, which is later than previously announced plans of completing construction by the end of year.

"We are making excellent progress at securing right-of-way easements in the state of Indiana through a mutually satisfactory negotiation process," Smith said. "While there has been recent publicity and activity by special-interest groups, most that live and work along the pipeline are not opposed to Enbridge’s plans to replace Line 6B." 

Enbridge has to close lease deals with about 700 landowners in Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties, said DeAnna Poon, assistant general counsel for the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission.

Pursuit of a 'good' deal

LaFever said Enbridge already has an 8-foot easement around the pipeline at his property. The new plan calls for a 25-foot easement for construction of the line in addition to the current easement.

Worried about his expected loss of property, LaFever said he's also concerned about liability for things like crop loss, workers injured during the construction or maintenance of the pipeline, contamination of his well water and changes to drainage that could cause flooding.

The contract he has also would absolve Enbridge of liability associated with the pipeline construction.

"All we've been asking for is a good agreement," he said.

In a statement, Enbridge denies asking landowners to sign agreements with such language.

"We are responsible to landowners for all damages or impacts resulting from pipeline maintenance work, construction or expansion of facilities and ongoing pipeline operations," Smith said in a statement. Smith said the company works before, during and after construction to ensure landowners, workers and the public are kept safe.

The first deal LaFever was offered from Enbridge was when a representative came to his home unannounced with a contract, he said. He said he was expected to respond to the offer in two days, but needed more time.

Enbridge has offered LaFever $21,900 for property the company needs to build the pipeline. The company has assigned right-of-way agents to all the landowners affected by the project to serve as liaisons in the negotiating process.

"I want to talk to somebody beside the right-of-way agent," LaFever said. "I do have an attorney, and I had an attorney look over it. I just hired him. That's money out of my pocket."

Carl Weimer, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, said the organization has seen liability-release clauses like the one LaFever described in agreements from other pipeline companies. He said it's important for landowners to understand specific contract terms being proposed especially early in the process because "there may be all types of stuff that may not be favorable."

The Pipeline Safety Trust is a Bellingham, Wash.-based watchdog organization that evolved from a grassroots group established after a 1999 pipeline rupture and explosion killed two children and an adult.

Years later, the group has been able to work with landowners in each state and created an educational guide in 2011 to inform them about property rights and pipeline safety requirements. Even with the guide, he said it's still important for landowners to get an attorney to help them through the complex process of working with pipeline companies.

'Everything we live here for'

Chuck Gabriel's 3-year-old son, Aydan, stood beneath the towering hickory trees in his backyard, excited to share what he sees there from his bedroom window each night before he goes to sleep.

"Deer!" the boy said.

"This is our big play area," his father said, patting the family dog. "We had plans for a gazebo coming in here."

The young family lives on 1.25 acres of heavily wooded land in Hobart near the intersection of 61st Avenue and Colorado Street. Enbridge wants to take more than a quarter of the acreage for the company's pipeline project.

Gabriel often sits at his kitchen table, which overlooks the sprawling, wooded backyard and pores over a thick file of Enbridge-related paperwork. Gabriel has been late to work and has missed work to attend all of the Enbridge meetings.

He has one word for how Enbridge has responded to residents' questions about the project: "terrible."

Landowners began to receive letters in January or February, Gabriel said. Some phone calls followed, then the correspondence stopped. After a few months, crews completed land survey work and made an offer.

Enbridge is valuing the Gabriel property at $23,000 an acre, Gabriel said. The company's initial offer for the property was $5,900. The latest offer is $16,000, Gabriel said.

"That is just ridiculous," Gabriel said. "Their response is, 'We're not going to own it, we're just going to use it.'"

When people work to negotiate a deal with pipeline companies, Michigan-based right-of-way attorney Kimberly Savage said it often starts as a “David and Goliath” situation.

Savage said she's worked with more than 70 landowners needing help in dealing with Enbridge along the Line 6B route, but about half of the negotiations were unsuccessful. The result was Enbridge seeking court action to acquire rights to construct the pipeline on properties through condemnation.

Pipeline companies are able to petition for condemnation hearings in a circuit court if they are unable to form an agreement with a land owner. Enbridge said it has yet to seek condemnation on properties in Northwest Indiana.

"It's been mind-boggling in my opinion," said Savage, who previously worked for utilities for more than 15 years. "We find ourselves in condemnation court because we can't get a tree replaced. I'm not talking a forest, I'm talking a tree or two."

The Line 6B work in Hobart could mean the loss of 14 mature trees behind Gabriel's home. He hired an arborist, who valued the trees at $36,000.

Last month, Gabriel said he learned about an Enbridge program that plants a tree for every tree that is removed during pipeline or facility construction activities. However, an Indiana Department of Environmental Management representative told him Enbridge has a 4-1 tree planting program with the state. He is now pushing Enbridge to provide him with the state offer because not all trees planted survive.

His cost is $750 per tree, but Enbridge is offering to pay him wholesale value.

Gabriel doesn't think his case will end up in court. But Gabriel's wife, Courtney, a former teacher who now stays home with their son, worries about the family's future.

"Enbridge is not responsible for any damage to the property once we've signed our contract," Courtney said. "If rocks kick up and shatter all of our windows, we're responsible, not Enbridge. If it blows up while we're home, it's our responsibility, not Enbridge.

"They would prefer to wipe out everything we live here for."

Despite the concerns, Enbridge said it is committed to "fostering positive long-term relationships with landowners and nearby residents along its pipeline systems."

Strength in numbers

Savage, the Michigan attorney, said the best way for residents to have their concerns heard is to organize. She said Michigan's pipeline regulator has yet to approve the second phase of the Enbridge project and residents there are actively engaged in decision-making process.

“There's strength in numbers, certainly," Savage said. "If I didn't have 70 clients, I wouldn't have been given an audience by Enbridge."

When LaFever was a boy, his family maintained 40 beehives for honey and farmed the fields with horses to grow strawberries, corn and beans. It's hard for him to imagine what the future holds, but he hopes he'll be able to maintain the value of his homestead with a second pipeline buried under a section of his property.

"It's where I've been my whole life," he said.

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