COLUMBIA — South Carolina lawmakers are working to remove any possible power that Kinder Morgan might have to use eminent domain to take land from those unwilling to sell private property lying in the path of the Texas company’s proposed $1 billion Palmetto Pipeline petroleum line.
A state Senate subcommittee on Thursday green-lighted a bill with a critical change: It bars the use of eminent domain by a “private, for-profit pipeline company, including a publicly traded for-profit company, that is not a public utility.”
The bill would also create a study committee to consider a host of worries that property owners raised in community meetings last year. Among them is an issue that doesn’t relate directly to eminent domain but has concerned residents: the need for a bond for pipeline companies, to be used to clean up a pipeline leak.
Kinder Morgan’s Belton, S.C., pipeline spill was cited in Sen. Tom Young’s updated bill. It states that the leak released more than 300,000 gallons of petroleum product into the community and that it’s expensive, imperfect and time-consuming to clean up. The Senate Judiciary Committee will take up Young’s bill Tuesday.
“We believe the existing law would not allow Kinder Morgan to use eminent domain, but with this amendment, we will clarify any question,” the Aiken County Republican said Friday.
Kinder Morgan’s 360-mile petroleum pipeline would carry up to 7 million gallons a day of gasoline, diesel and ethanol from Belton through Georgia and to Jacksonville, Fla. In Georgia, hundreds protested the company’s threat of eminent domain to obtain easements through some of the 400 private properties in the way of the project.
In May, Georgia’s Department of Transportation denied Kinder Morgan’s request for the authority to force unwilling property owners to sell. The company had not demonstrated a public need for the project, Commissioner Russell McMurry said. Kinder Morgan has appealed.
The conflict prompted South Carolina lawmakers to introduce bills last summer to head off a similar threat. On Friday, Savannah Riverkeeper Tonya Bonitatibus welcomed Young’s revamped proposal, which had initially laid out a process in which state agencies would to sign off on the use of eminent domain.
“We’re very pleased with the clarifications made by the recent amendment to S. 868 and are looking forward to Tuesday’s decision,” she said.
If the bill becomes law, it will also prevent future petroleum pipeline companies from wielding eminent domain against the wishes of property owners.
On the House side, Speaker Jay Lucas has introduced his own solution, a short proposal that simply says eminent domain can only be used for “a public use.” It stipulates that any property that is being condemned provide “a necessary and direct benefit to the public at large.”
The Hartsville Republican’s bill also spells out what would not count: “A benefit to the public that is merely incidental, indirect, pretextual or speculative is not a public use.”
The last section of Lucas’ bill states that laws involving eminent domain or condemnation should be strictly construed against the company seeing to condemn land.
Rep. Bill Hixon, a North Augusta Republican, said Lucas’s bill could be added to his legislation. Hixon said his proposal is expected to mimic Young’s newly toughened bill. At that point, it will be examined in relation to Lucas’ proposal.