Environment

The Bullitt County Circuit Court has served Bernheim Forest in a condemnation suit that would allow Louisville Gas & Electric to seize Bernheim land to build a natural gas pipeline through the Cedar Grove wildlife corridor.

Bernheim Research Forest and Arboretum has 20 days as of Monday to make a case showing why Louisville Gas & Electric does not have the right to seize the land, according to a court filing. The lawsuit moves forward at the same time as a complaint before utility regulators to stop progress on the pipeline.

“It’s a shame that LG&E continues ahead with this condemnation of Bernheim land. It essentially means they aren’t listening to the community and the outpouring of thousands of people,” said Mark Wourms, Bernheim’s executive director.

LG&E received approval from state utility regulators in 2017 to build the 12-mile-long natural gas pipeline to serve customers in Bullitt County. The pipeline would cut about three-quarters of a mile through the wildlife corridor along an existing easement for electric transmission lines.

The Cedar Grove wildlife corridor is home to rare and endangered species including the Kentucky glade cress, Indiana and northern long-eared bats and two species of snails. The ecosystem also encompasses forest, streams, wetlands and other habitats that serve as homes for deer, bobcats, coyotes and more than 200 species of birds.

But LG&E says it’s run out of capacity on the current gas pipeline and needs to build another pipeline in order to keep up with demand in the area around Mt. Washington, Shepherdsville, Clermont and Lebanon Junction.

LG&E has denied natural gas service to more than 60 new homes and businesses due to a lack of capacity on the current line, according to a press release.

The utility began filing condemnations suits in July to buy the remaining land needed to begin construction on the 12-mile long pipeline. As of last week, LG&E is still attempting to acquire 11 properties, according to a press release.

“LG&E has been a long-time financial supporter of Bernheim Arboretum. We treasure its legacy in our region,” said John P. Malloy, LG&E vice president of gas distribution in a press release. “But we also have an obligation to serve the larger community and our future together, and we take this responsibility very seriously.”

A court commission found LG&E should pay $15,000 for the permanent easement for the pipeline, plus an additional $20,250 for the temporary easement needed for its construction, according to a court filing.

Bernheim officials have said they cannot legally sell the land because of deed restrictions that won’t allow them to destroy natural features on the property. But if the land is condemned, Wourms said they will return the money to conservation grant sources.

Besides losing the land, the eminent domain suit could also create a legal precedent that makes it more difficult to protect conservation lands in the future, Wourms said.

“Every time one of these conservation lands is cut, or crossed or broken or destroyed by the loss of conservation easements on their land, it weakens every other one,” Wourms said. “It makes it that much easier for the next one to be broken.”

Even though Kentucky utility regulators approved the pipeline in a 2017 rate case, the path wasn’t made clear until earlier this year. LG&E asked utility regulators to shield the proposed route from public scrutiny because it would create a “competitive disadvantage,” according to a Public Service Commission filing.

“Disclosure of this information may increase the value of the land through which the pipeline crosses or landholder may resist construction and force LG&E to spend more to construct the pipeline,” according to the filing.

It’s unclear if the complaint Bernheim filed with the Kentucky Public Service Commission could affect the outcome of the condemnation proceedings.

Ryan Van Velzer is WFPL's Energy and Environment Reporter.