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Toxic Tar Sands: South Dakota


Kent Moeckly

Carolyn Harkness

Ed Cable

Kent Moeckly
Brinton, South Dakota

Kent Moeckly farms wheat and corn in the prairie grasslands of South Dakota. Moeckly and his neighbors rely on a rural water system that draws from the James Aquifer, sourced just north of his farm.

This aquifer lies in sandy, permeable soil. But now a massive tar sands pipeline runs right through Moeckly's farm and the aquifer, putting his community's only source of water at risk. This oil artery, known as the Keystone I, is TransCanada's main tar sands oil pipeline into the United States. It provides a taste of what would come if TransCanada is allowed to more than double its toxic capacity with the Keystone XL pipeline.

Moeckly says pipeline consultants didn't even survey his land before they reported it as "low consequence" status, which allowed TransCanada to build the Keystone I through the aquifer in 2009, using thinner pipe and higher pressure than any other pipeline before it. When farmers in the area requested thicker pipe to reduce the risk of water contamination, their concerns went unheeded.

"TransCanada absolutely ignored us. They plowed on through," Moeckly says.

"My family will be living with this for generations."
Moeckly never wanted the pipeline to come through his land. Despite aggressive pressure from the company, he resisted signing TransCanada's initial offers. But in South Dakota, "eminent domain" laws do little to protect landowners from large corporations. A foreign company like TransCanada can seize private property if negotiations fall through.

Faced with the prospect of losing his land, Moeckly felt he had no choice. He finally agreed to allow the pipeline in, and accept the threats from tar sands oil. Moeckly says companies like TransCanada turn neighbor against neighbor in their effort to get their projects built. "They will tell you that you are the "last one on the block" and "holding things up,"" he says.

Moeckly fears the long-term impacts of the pipeline on his land and crops, but knows it is too early to tell what the full extent of the damage may be. The only evidence he has of the buried pipe is the mess construction crews left behind. Debris and soil mounds still litter his land, leaving large standing pools throughout his fields. He estimates about fifteen acres of his property are now useless.

"It's dead land now," he says. "It's a lake."

But it's the future threat of pipeline spills and water contamination that worries him most. "My family will be living with this for generations," he says. "The threat will never disappear."


Carolyn Harkness
Union County, South Dakota

Carolyn Harkness lives on an historic homestead in Union County, South Dakota, once rated among the top five rural counties in America for quality of life.

That changed when rumors of a "gorilla" coming to the community began three years ago. That "gorilla" turned out to be Hyperion, a tar sands processing plant that, if built, will be the sixth largest refinery in the nation.

Hyperion's tar sands refining threatens to destroy a bucolic farming community with massive industrial development, unprecedented levels of air pollution, and contamination of pure local water supplies. Hyperion's pollution permit application calls for nearly 7,600 tons of airborne toxins to be pumped into Union County, including ammonia, sulfur dioxide and volatile organic compounds. This does not include the 19 million tons of carbon dioxide the plant plans to emit-more per barrel than any other refinery in the country.

The refinery would draw ten million gallons of fresh water a day from the Missouri River, but Hyperion has not told the community how it plans to treat the water it will contaminate or where it will be disposed. Harkness worries the results could be devastating to the fragile aquifer that supports her farm. What's more, Harkness and others suspect the slew of pollution from Hyperion will be just the beginning, as more heavy industry would move in to support the functions of the massive tar sands refinery.

"If Hyperion is built, the richest and best farms in South Dakota will be destroyed."
When Hyperion realtors were buying land rights, they told people there would be a one- to two-mile buffer zone around the project. Harkness says the realtors did not give details on the plant itself, yet they pressured landowners to sign away their land. After acquiring the land they needed, the developers changed their plans for the site.

Now, there is no buffer. The refinery would be about 300 feet from Harkness's front door.

When Harkness found out where the plant would be located, she was devastated. "I remember standing there, feeling like someone had slugged me in the stomach. I love this land so much. The quiet, the brilliant stars at night, they could be gone forever." "For most farmers," Harkness explains, "land is their home, their business, their retirement and their heart. If Hyperion is built, the richest and best farms in South Dakota will be destroyed."

The wooded pastures of the Harkness homestead sit on a huge aquifer, with the Brule Creek twisting through it. Discharges from the massive operation would enter her water less than a quarter mile upstream, contaminating the pristine water that has supplied her farm since the pioneer days.

If Harkness and her neighbors lose their fight against Hyperion, she fears she will have to abandon her home to preserve her family's health and continue her cherished, rural way of life.

"Where could we go? We are too young to retire and too old to start over," she says.

Moreover, Harkness worries for her land because she believes she has a responsibility to take care of the water and farmland that have sustained her family.

"This land belongs to God and it is our responsibility to save it for future generations. It has treated us well," she says. "We need to return the favor."


Ed Cable
Union County, South Dakota

Ed Cable lives three miles from the footprint slated for Hyperion's tar sands oil refinery. When he and his neighbors first heard about the development, all they were told was that it was for an "undisclosed purpose." That got him worried.

"If they won't tell you what it is, it's probably something you won't like," Cable says.

Once Cable learned that the development would be a refinery designed to process the dirtiest oil in the world, he sprang into action, holding community meetings and organizing a community group, "Save Union County," to fight the project.

He's lived in the area since 1969, and the last thing he wants to see is the rolling hills of his farming community transformed into an industrial sacrifice zone.

"Hyperion's tar sands will destroy some of the best farmland in South Dakota," Cable says. "It will destroy hundreds of years of quality air and water."

Cable looked into emissions from similar refineries in Texas, and he believes the toxic emissions estimated by Hyperion in their permit application are understated by nearly a factor of ten.

""[The tar sands refinery] will destroy hundreds of years of quality air and water.."
According to their permit application, Hyperion plans to spew a combined 3,000 tons of nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide "responsible for smog and ground-level ozone", nearly 300 tons of ammonia, over 800 tons of sulfur dioxide (which causes acid rain), nearly 500 tons of highly carcinogenic volatile organic compounds, over 3,000 tons of asthma-inducing particulate matter, and more than 19 million tons of carbon dioxide.

The emissions from this single source will all but guarantee South Dakota's failure to meet the EPA's National Ambient Air Quality standards. The microscopic soot particles that will be released by the ton from Hyperion are the most dangerous form of particulate matter, capable of penetrating deep into the lungs, causing respiratory disease and increasing risks of heart attacks.

Hyperion also intends to withdraw ten million gallons of water a day from the Missouri River, but the company hasn't yet released a plan for what they will do with the wastewater once it has been used to process the toxic tar sands oil.

Save Union County's fight against the tar sands giant recently made enormous progress. Based on a legal challenge that Cable and his neighbors filed against Hyperion, the South Dakota Department of Environment and Natural Resources declared Hyperion's permit application incomplete and denied Hyperion's initial application to pollute Union County's air. Cable says it will be at least a year before the project can move forward. Cable is proud that he and his neighbors were able to achieve this victory in the face of tremendous pressure from the powerful and well-funded oil company.

For the moment Cable is taking a breath of clean air, but he knows Hyperion's backers will not quit easily. He's preparing for a long fight ahead to protect Union County, and the recent victory has strengthened his resolve.

"[They] thought they had a slam dunk, but we took a stand to protect our home," Cable says. "They didn't expect so much resistance, but we're committed to keeping Hyperion and tar sands from destroying our county."

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