Kentucky’s Energy and Environment Cabinet has fired its opening salvo in the fight over a proposed gas pipeline through Bernheim Forest.
Louisville Gas & Electric filed an eminent domain lawsuit against the state in September to overturn a conservation easement and acquire land to build the pipeline.
On Friday, the state filed a motion to dismiss the condemnation suit, arguing LG&E didn’t make an offer to buy the state’s conservation easement prior to filing the lawsuit, as required under state law.
The motion amounts to a procedural delay tactic, but signifies the state’s willingness to defend its interests in the Bernheim property against the desires of LG&E, which plans to build a 12-mile-long natural gas pipeline through the conservation lands.
LG&E spokeswoman Chris Whelan said in an emailed statement the state’s argument is “baseless” and “contrary to existing law.”
“We will be responding in due course,” she said.
The state declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation.
The lawsuit has statewide ramifications. Kentucky environmentalists say it is the first time a utility has attempted to overturn a conservation easement held by the state, and it could result in weakening protections for natural areas throughout the Commonwealth.
The state became involved in September when LG&E sued the Kentucky Heritage Land Conservation Fund Board to break the conservation easement on the Bernheim property. The easement restricts development, like pipelines, and also requires Bernheim to manage the habitat for imperiled species.
“The idea that we’ve got for-profit corporations like LG&E that are able to use condemnation to break those conservation easements, I think should be alarming,” said Andrew Berry, Bernheim conservation director.
The Kentucky Eminent Domain Act requires LG&E to make an agreement with every owner who had interests in the property. The state paid about half the cost for the wildlife corridor — $706,500 — in exchange for the conservation easement. But according to the motion, LG&E made an offer to Bernheim, but didn’t do the same for the state.
Bernheim’s own attorneys filed a similar motion to dismiss and additionally argued LG&E never made an offer to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which also helped to pay for the property with funds from the Imperiled Bat Conservation Fund.
The fight over the proposed pipeline isn’t likely to end anytime soon. In addition to the lawsuits, there are ongoing complaints with Kentucky utility regulators and the Division of Water.
Bernheim Forest purchased nearly 500-acre Cedar Grove property in 2018 for about $1.4 million to serve as a wildlife corridor and protect natural habitat for endangered species, including Indiana and northern long-eared bats. The land is north of the publicly accessible park and is not open to the general public.
The pipeline would cut about three-quarters of a mile through the Bernheim wildlife corridor along an existing easement for electric transmission lines.
Louisville Gas and Electric says it’s run out of capacity on the current gas pipeline and needs to build another to keep up with growth in the areas around Mt. Washington, Shepherdsville, Clermont and Lebanon Junction in Northern Bullitt County.