Kathy Campbell
Kathy Campbell says her yard in rural Illinois is a "paradise" that would be disrupted by pipeline construction. Credit: Kathy Campbell

Just before the holidays last December, Kathy Campbell received a two-page letter informing her and her husband that a carbon dioxide pipeline might be built through their land in central Illinois, a lush little “paradise” they created “stone by stone, brick by brick,” with trees planted in memory of her parents. 

The letter said the Omaha-based company Navigator CO2 would be seeking right-of-way “on or near” their property, and noted that if it can’t reach voluntary agreements with landowners to allow permanent easements, “we may need to request the right of eminent domain (‘condemnation’)” from state regulators. 

Campbell has since become an expert on carbon dioxide pipelines and a community leader. The citizens group she co-leads is an official intervenor in the company’s case before the Illinois Commerce Commission. But Campbell and other residents, county officials and farmers along the pipeline’s proposed route have struggled to get more information because of what they call evasiveness and a lack of transparency. 

Navigator CO2 has refused to make public the list of landowners along the half-mile-wide corridor covering 250 miles in Illinois, culminating in a planned carbon sequestration site in Christian County. 

This would be the final leg of a $3.2 billion, 1,300-mile pipeline going through South Dakota, Nebraska, Minnesota and Iowa, collecting 10 to 15 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually, mostly from ethanol plants. The company has not revealed the exact planned route, and in recent filings before the Illinois Commerce Commission it said the route is still being determined based on surveys, GIS mapping and discussions with landowners.

Landowners like Campbell say this leaves them at a distinct and unfair disadvantage, unsure what specific impact the pipeline would have on them and making it much harder for them to connect with and help inform their neighbors.

Demanding answers

Navigator Heartland Greenway LLC, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Navigator, in July filed with the Illinois Commerce Commission seeking permission to build the pipeline and request eminent domain powers. 

The Citizens Against Heartland Greenway Pipeline asked the commerce commission to force the company to make its landowner list public, noting that the company compiled the list from publicly available tax records. The company said in filings that it wants to protect citizens’ privacy. But the citizens group thinks they have other motives.

“While Navigator candidly admitted at the hearing that one of their motivations in filing the list as proprietary was to avoid criticism for having published landowner information, clearly another result, if not another motivation, is to impede the organization of opposition to the requested route,” says the September 8 filing by citizens group.

“If someone just got the original packet, they might not have even read it, it’s so busy around the holidays,” Campbell said. “If we had a landowner list, we could invite them to our seminars so they could get more information.” 

Navigator did not respond to specific questions about the meetings or resident concerns, and provided this statement: 

“Navigator’s overarching goal is to work closely and collaboratively with landowners, community leaders, interested stakeholders, and others to put forward infrastructure that is safe, reliable, and a value-added asset to the development of these areas. We maintain a very high standard and commitment to being fantastic neighbors to the communities and landowners we serve, and with that also a strong construction and operational safety record. Navigator hosted public information meetings in each of the five states in the proposed project footprint. We are committed to transparency about the proposal and have posted project background, local maps, and contact information on our website for the public to review, in addition to the continued public outreach we are doing across the project footprint.”

Outreach and organizing

A 2011 Illinois state law called the Carbon Dioxide Transportation and Sequestration Act requires the Illinois Commerce Commission to consider local landowners’ concerns about public safety, infrastructure, the economy, and property values before approving permits for carbon dioxide pipeline projects to use eminent domain. It also requires public outreach and that landowners on the route be contacted.

The company says in filings that it has complied with public outreach requirements, by holding six public meetings (plus one virtual meeting) over several days in January, contacting elected officials and sending mailings to landowners within a half-mile corridor. It says that it has received permission to survey from over half the landowners along the route and garnered significant support for the proposal.

But residents are skeptical, and they said in filings that they have no way to verify the company’s claims since landowner names are not public. The letter Campbell received offered no way for her to seek more information other than a generic email address and an invitation to attend one of the 90-minute meetings held between January 11 and 14.

Campbell, a Southern Illinois University professor emeritus and distinguished scholar in medical microbiology, jumped into research mode. She contacted Joyce Blumenshine with the Heart of Illinois Sierra Club, who’d been following the issue.

Around the same time, retired Marine Corps judicial advocate John Feltham got a call from a Navigator representative asking for permission to survey on his land. Feltham demanded more information in writing, and was not satisfied with what he received. 

“They must have thought I just fell off the turnip truck,” said Feltham, who is a member of the Texas and U.S. bar associations and farms corn and soy in central Illinois. He refused to have any more contact with the company, and “started to burn up the google searches at a pace that probably had my keyboard smoking, trying to find out what this company is about.” 

He went to Navigator’s meeting in Knoxville, Illinois, and was unimpressed. “It consisted of Navigator employees stationed around a Legion hall with no prepared presentation, landowners had to approach them to get any information,” he said. “I think their goal was number one to provide landowners with as little information as possible, and to prevent landowners from observing the reaction of other landowners.” 

Campbell noted that the in-person meetings were held while Covid case counts were high, making her and others wary of attending; and the company has not offered additional meetings even as they’ve submitted their application with the commerce commission and the pandemic has waned. 

Feltham connected with the Sierra Club, Campbell and other residents and advocates, who over the spring and summer have worked hard to raise awareness about Navigator’s plans and carbon dioxide pipeline concerns, hosting informational webinars and virtual meetings and sending out mailings of their own. 

In May, Campbell emailed Navigator asking for their plume models, which would illustrate how carbon dioxide would be expected to spread in case of a rupture. Joshua Ward, a project supervisor representing the company, responded that: “The plume modeling has not been completed as of yet. Once the calculations have been finalized, Navigator will be sharing this data with all Stakeholders and Landowners. Navigator’s top priority at this time is landowner safety with the routing of the proposed pipeline through residential areas.” 

When the company filed its application with the Illinois Commerce Commission in July, Campbell was frustrated to see that the filing noted the route was based in part on plume modeling. She said she got no response to her email on this note, but a Navigator surveyor “knocked on my door” soon after and told her that the plume models were being adjusted and would be shared. 

“I have yet to see any plume models,” she said.  

Campbell and Feltham are not the only ones who feel they haven’t gotten straight answers from the company.   

Kathryn Iverson, an Arizona resident whose father owns farmland in trust on the pipeline route, testified in an affidavit that she struggled to get information about the pipeline from Navigator CO2, as they mailed information to outdated addresses, did not return phone calls and sent irrelevant documents via FedEx. Iverson also alleged that surveyors for the company accessed the family land without permission.

Safety and farmland concerns

According to company filings, the pipeline would stretch 150 miles southeast across Illinois to Christian County while a separate 99-mile spur would connect an ethanol facility in Galva, Illinois, to the main line.  The proposal says that in all, 21 sites along the pipeline route would contribute carbon dioxide, and there would be a number of pumping stations including one in Illinois.

The farmers, landowners and local officials are voicing a number of concerns around the pipeline, including reduced crop yield and damage to farmland from soil compaction and erosion during construction, restrictions on farmland use once the pipeline is built, and loss in property value. The company must compensate landowners for any damage, but some fear they would suffer losses beyond what the company would pay — including unquantifiable quality of life and psychological impacts from the construction of a pipeline through a place like the Campbells’ beloved yard. And they worry about accidents like the 2020 carbon dioxide pipeline rupture in Mississippi that severely sickened dozens of people. 

Sangamon County sought intervenor status in the case, noting that it and other counties would be the ones responsible for preparing first responders. The citizens group’s filing cited a lack of “carbon dioxide monitors, alarm systems, air supply breathing equipment, and appropriate vehicles, all of which are necessary to detect, survive and escape from a pipeline rupture.”

During the virtual meeting hosted by Navigator, Campbell said she posted multiple questions about safety into the chat, which was moderated by the company, and the company did not allow participants to see any of her questions nor directly address any of them. Near the end of the meeting she said a company official mentioned safety concerns and compared a carbon dioxide pipeline to a CO2 fire extinguisher.

Navigator CO2 did not respond to a request for comment on Campbell’s and Feltham’s recountings of the meetings, but provided slides relating to the company’s safety record, noting “state of the art” leak detection systems, 24-hour remote monitoring and other measures. 

Skepticism around sequestration

Navigator CO2’s proposal for the pipeline comes in tandem with its affiliate company’s proposal to build a carbon sequestration site in Christian County, and with another subsidiary’s proposal to sell carbon capture equipment to ethanol and other industries along the route. The company says it has more than 20 sites ready to contribute carbon dioxide, including an ethanol plant in Galva, Illinois that would be connected to the main pipeline by a 99-mile spur.

The Christian County carbon sequestration plan will go through a separate approval process, but Navigator CO2’s pipeline proposal references it, calling the Mount Simon geologic formation “one of the most thoroughly studied formations for sequestration, including by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Carbon Storage Program.”

Indeed the state’s geology has long been described as ideal for carbon sequestration, but pilot projects — including a federally funded initiative at the Prairie State Energy Campus coal plant — have thus far not been successful. The state’s 2011 law was passed to facilitate the proposed FutureGen project, a multibillion-dollar proposal to store carbon dioxide underground at the site of a Meredosia, Illinois, coal plant. The federal government pulled funding and the project died in 2015

Feltham said the project has encountered a “wave of resistance” in Christian County as well. Even without the landowner list, he and other leaders said public awareness and opposition to the project is quickly growing. On Sept. 23, the powerful Illinois Farm Board filed to intervene in the case, and several more counties and townships have this month officially stated their opposition.

“If Navigator is operating under the assumption that somehow it is keeping us from finding out who we need to join our ranks, we are way ahead of them,” Feltham said.

Kari has written for the Energy News Network since January 2011. She is an author and journalist who worked for the Washington Post's Midwest bureau from 1997 through 2009. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times, Chicago News Cooperative, Chicago Reader and other publications. Based in Chicago, Kari covers Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana as well as environmental justice topics.