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'It's a big deal'; Trial begins in Bernheim Forest, LG&E case over natural gas pipeline

Dozens packed a Bullitt County Circuit Courtroom, many wearing shirts reading "Save Bernheim now, Stop the LG&E pipeline and the climate crisis."

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The signs are scattered in Metro Louisville, southern Indiana and all across Kentucky, reading: "Save Bernheim Forest."

On Tuesday, day one of trial in the case between LG&E and Bernheim Forest kicked off. Conservationists packed a Bullitt County Circuit Courtroom to make their presence felt. 

"Bernheim is a beloved jewel in the state and certainly in this region," Director of the Justice Center at all Peoples, Rus Funk, said. He drove from Louisville to be in attendance.

"It seems like they're pretty dug in, but I think one way or the other they're going to have to pivot at some point in the very near future," he said.

LG&E wants to expand its service into Bullitt County by building a natural gas pipeline through the northern end of Bernheim Forest. 

Circuit Court Judge Rodney Burress will rule in the case that determines the legality of the $39 million proposal.

LG&E first sued Bernheim more than three years ago, when they couldn't reach an agreement to acquire part of the land for the project.

This case is an effort to condemn the lands necessary to build the pipeline. LG&E attorneys argue the company has the right through eminent domain -- meaning paying to take private property for public use.

"There is only one question for this court to decide, and it's whether there is a public use for the pipeline," an LG&E attorney said in opening arguments. "Make no mistake, the facts will show how important the construction of this pipeline is to the residents of Bullitt County."

LG&E says the proposed pipeline, to add to an existing one, is needed to improve reliable service to current customers and to support the energy needs of that fast-growing region.

Attorneys pointed to thousands of natural gas customers in places like Shepherdsville and Mount Washington they say are at risk of losing service all together with one disruption to the existing pipeline.

They told the judge that police departments, schools and churches have been denied service because the current system can't support them.

But attorneys representing Bernheim said what's called a "conservation easement" -- the agreement made with the state in 2018 -- protects the forest and its wildlife from these kinds of developments.

"Even if Bernheim was not involved, LG&E would not be able to build the pipeline today because they haven't acquired the necessary permits from the [U.S.] Army Corps of Engineers," a Bernheim attorney said.

Dozens, including Funk, lined the pews of the courtroom -- some wearing shirts reading, "Save Bernheim now, Stop the LG&E pipeline and the climate crisis."

Maggie Hettinger, who lives close to Bernheim Forest, said she worries about the precedent set if the judge rules in LG&E's favor.

"If it's broken here, it can be broken anywhere, and our whole chain of conservation and wildlife movement really is focused on this place. It's a big deal," she said.

Bernheim supporters are passionate, some said they'll be back for day two.

LG&E brought former electrical engineer and current Chief Operating Officer Lonnie Bellar to the stand Tuesday. They'll continue with a second witness back in court Wednesday morning at 8:30 a.m.

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