SUNDANCE, Wyo. -- Doug Watson and Judith Bush know their land.
The two ranch owners near Sundance know where each bluff and pond is on their respective properties. But they can't predict the sinkholes.
Their property sits on a patch of karst topography, meaning water can easily break down or wash away the bedrock below the surface. The land is unstable, prone to collapse at times. Some sinkholes appear overnight. The property, they said, is not suited to support a pipeline.
So when Watson and Bush first heard of plans that would allow a natural gas liquids pipeline to cut across their land on a path from Montana to Colorado, they were concerned. And now that the line is under construction, the pair plan to fight the project to the bitter end, even if that means going to court.
"You don't have to be a geologist to see the stupidity of what they're doing," Bush said. "If there's anything we can do to get this moved to more stable ground, we need to do it."
The line was proposed in 2010 by ONEOK, a company headquartered in Tulsa, Okla. The company proposed a 500-mile, $500 million pipeline to carry natural gas liquids from Sydney, Mont., to the Overland Pass Pipeline in Colorado.
The new pipeline would be far from the first in Wyoming, or even the first in Crook County, but it takes a novel route. The pipe would travel along a line near the county's eastern border, far from the other Crook County lines.
Several landowners in the area cite the karst in the area as a good reason pipe doesn't travel through their land.
"There are places on our property that are frightening to ride a horse across because the ground sounds hollow," said Warren Crawford, a ranch owner whose land is also crossed by the line. "They're planning to force this line through some very unstable soils."
Brad Borror, a spokesman for ONEOK, said last week that the company is aware of the land type near Sundance and is prepared to deal with it.
"We're comfortable, through proper construction plans and proper operating procedures, that we can mitigate the risk of building in that area," he said. "This is not the first pipeline built through a karst formation."
Geology isn't the only thing that concerns officials and landowners in the area.
The company's proposal lacked a satisfactory leak detection system, crossed too many streams and needed more shut-off valves in the county, Crook County Natural Resource District Manager Sarah Anderson said in a letter to the county's commissioners.
Anderson wrote that a leak could have "a tremendous impact on our surface water and groundwater." She recommended that the line take an alternate route.
Borror said the natural gas liquids - liquids like propane, butane and ethane that will later be processed for sale - transported through the line are not an Environmental Protection Agency-recognized water contaminant.
Some landowners and county officials also said they were concerned that the pipeline crossed mostly privately owned land, which Borror confirmed. Critics of the project have said the company steered the route to avoid public land, but Borror said otherwise.
"There are a number of factors that determine the route," he said, listing terrain type and survey and environmental work needing to be done as major determinants.
Bush and Watson also expressed displeasure with the negotiation process with ONEOK.
Landowners across eastern Wyoming joined forces to form Progressive Pathways LLC, a 120-member strong group representing about 160 of the 305 Wyoming miles crossed by the planned pipeline.
The two sides negotiated for months in late 2011 and 2012 and agreed to terms on an easement agreement template in February for use by landowners and the company.
Progressive Pathways Chairman Pat Wade said the deal gives landowners less liability in the event of a pipeline failure and the power to make recommendations on which kind of seeds ONEOK plants on the land above the newly buried pipeline.
"We did some really good things," he said, adding that 97 percent of landowners in Progressive Pathways have signed an easement agreement.
Bush and Watson have yet to sign with the company, saying their concerns weren't fully addressed.
"We have no intentions of signing," Watson said. "Our ranch is too valuable and our resources are too precious."
Bush said she tried to add clauses to her individual easement - one saying that ONEOK wouldn't use more land for another planned pipeline, another acknowledging that the company knew the topography it was building on - but neither was accepted.
The dispute over the line's safety continues. Both the landowners and the company have commissioned geologists to study the area, with mixed results. Landowners say their commissioned studies show that the area can't be sited for a pipeline, while a study from Ground Engineering - a company commissioned by ONEOK - indicated otherwise.
Accufacts Inc., a Washington-based consulting firm with pipeline experience, wrote in a report to the Crook County Commission that the risks of the project were too great.
"Given the consequences of pipeline failure in these unique areas, the proposed NGL Pipeline project should be rerouted to avoid these sensitive and unique threat areas," wrote Richard Kuprewicz, president of Accufacts.
The opposition to the project hasn't been as stout in other counties. Natural resource district managers in Niobrara, Laramie and Weston counties all said this week they've heard few complaints about the pipeline.
"Most were happy with the deals," said Jennifer Hinkhouse, Weston County natural resource district manager. "We didn't have a whole lot of complaints."
Borror also characterized reception to the pipeline project as "very positive." He said 98 percent of landowners along the route have signed easements.
Construction on the line is under way in most parts of Wyoming. The project has yet to be approved by the Crook County Commission.
ONEOK has also since announced plans for a crude oil pipeline to follow a similar path. Borror said a final proposal isn't ready yet, but the company hopes to parallel to the NGL pipeline.
Because Bush and Watson have refused to sign an easement with ONEOK, the company is pursuing a declaration of eminent domain, which would condemn the land in question and open it to use by the company.
"That's not our intent when entering negotiations for our pipelines," Borror said. "In all our pipeline projects, it's a very small minority of those that end up in those proceedings."
Wade, the Progressive Pathways chairman, said he can understand why some in the area are concerned by the project.
"The land is our biggest asset," he said. "It's our means of making a living. If we have a problem, we lose our biggest asset possibly, lose our business, lose our means of making a living. Landowners have a lot at risk here."