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Diamond Pipeline: An In-Depth Look

Sky7 high above where the Diamond Pipeline will cross Big Piney Creek in Johnson County, Arkansas. (Brian Emfinger)

The work is well underway.

Every day - quietly and mostly out of sight - the Diamond Pipeline extends farther across Arkansas. Through 14 counties, five rivers, and eleven watersheds. And while the debate about whether the pipeline should be built is over, fears about what it could bring are stronger than ever.

Nowhere is the concern higher than in Clarksville, where city councilor Danna Schneider says officials were largely kept in the dark - only learning that an oil pipeline was coming through their community through reports in the media.

"If there is a leak of any nature it could contaminate our water," Schneider tells KATV's Chris May. "If it's bad it could contaminate us indefinitely. If we had known about this - that they were planning it - three years ago we possibly could have negotiated a different route."

A different route might have made a huge difference in Clarksville.

Perhaps the pipeline could have avoided Spadra Creek, a natural jewel of Johnson County that winds through the heart of downtown. It not only feeds the city's water supply, it also attracts countless tourists to its trails and wildlife.

There's also concern for Clarksville's main source of drinking water Piney Bay as the pipeline crosses two creeks that feed into the Bay.

"Oil doesn't care where it goes. It just goes with the water and it goes downhill," Schneider says. "And anything along that route could be destroyed."

Officials with the Diamond Pipeline, a joint venture of the Valero Energy Corporation and Plains All American Pipeline, promise they're construting the project with safety in mind. Tom Parker of the Arkansas Petroleum Council agrees.

"In 2013, some 15 billion barrels of oil were transported through pipelines," he tells May. "99.9999% of that arrived safely."

In fact, in a report commissioned by Diamond Pipeline and presented to the Arkansas Public Service Commission the likelihood of a release at Spadra Creek was found to be microscopically low. It would happen, it claimed, no more than once in 4,010 years!

But for many Arkansans promises like that ring hollow in the aftermath of the 2013 Pegasus Pipeline spill. Then, more than 134,000 gallons of oil spilled into Mayflower from the pipeline owned by ExxonMobil.

"That pipeline carries about half as much oil as is going to be shipped through the Diamond Pipeline," says Amanda Evans of Arkansas Rising, a group that's protested the Diamond Pipeline both along its path and at the Valero Refinery in Memphis. 14 of its members have been arrested.

"We do not consent to the Diamond pipeline coming across our waterways," she says. "Coming across our private property, coming across our agricultural land, coming across the pristine lands that people come for tourism into our state."

The concept of consent gnaws at many who've crossed paths with the Diamond Pipeline. They tell stories of strong-arm tactics by land acquisition agents and of property owners allegedly compelled to sell their rights-of-way or face losing their property all together.

It happened at Alison Millsap's family home at the edge of Big Piney Creek in Dover. When the family refused to allow a survey of their land they were slapped with a temporary condemnation - a three month period in which pipeline workers had unfettered access to their property. Eventually they worked out an easement, but the process left a scar.

"You have no control over what's happening to your property and to your family. It's very difficut," Millsaps told KATV. "They have the right to take someone's property because they're a pipeline company. And that's it."

It's true. And it's all thanks to an Arkansas law that dates back to the 1920s giving private pipeline companies the right to use eminent domain. State Representative Warwick Sabin is trying to change the law to better protect property owners.

"It really bothers me that a private company could come in and in essence bully somebody, maybe not educate them as to what their rights really are under the law, and say 'You have to sell this land.'" Sabin says. "And using the power of the government to do that."

Diamond Pipeline officials, who have a policy against appearing for on-camera interviews, won't say how many easements were purchased in Arkansas. But they insist they offered "fair compensation" in all cases.

"The Diamond Pipeline route was developed to minimize the collective impact to the environment, cultural concerns, and landowners during construction and reduce potential incidents during operation," a Plains All American Pipeline spokesman wrote in a statement to Channel 7 News. " Diamond Pipeline follows the procedures laid out in state law and regulations to acquire the easements to construct the pipeline along the selected route. " It is important to us to have good relationships with landowners, as we hope to have our pipelines in service for a long time. After the pipeline is constructed we will restore their property to as close to prior condition as reasonably possible and pay for any surface damages that cannot be repaired by surface restoration."

There can be no doubt the approach worked. The Diamond Pipeline's path is now clear. And the project is expected to be complete later in the year.

As for Clarksville's water supply, a deal was cut.

Diamond Pipeline agreed to pay $6.6 million so Clarksville Light and Water Company could extend its intake pipe on Spadra Creek. A move that will place it upstream from the pipeline. That gave city officials some peace of mind - some hope that their 28,000 customers will never be without clean water.

Still, city officials worry about the future, and what it could bring.

"Hopefully when it goes in we're good," City Councilor Danna Schneiderman told Chris May. "But one day it will rupture. It's just a matter of time."

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