Along the Pipeline – July 12, 2012

A quarter inch of rain fell on this thirsty ground last night as I camped on the shore of Pelican Lake, hardly enough to settle the dust.  I’m in South Dakota, on my way to follow the route of the Keystone XL pipeline.  It’s not as hot or dry here as back home in Kentucky, or in the state I drove through the last few days.  The corn is shriveled in Indiana, and worse in Illinois, with brown spots in some fields.  Market reports tell of soybeans at record prices and corn selling for over seven dollars a bushel.  Crop reports list wide percentages of “poor” and “very poor” in several Midwest states.  But things looked better in Iowa and Minnesota.  Iowa is its usual summer ocean of corn, just beginning to tassel, and it looks fairly good for a bad year.  In eastern North Dakota, where the drought has not reached, the cornfields are a dark healthy green.  A man with a quarter section of healthy corn can make some real money in a year like this.

I spent the day yesterday with a farming family in North Dakota: Paul, Tammy, and Elijah Mathews.  They have a beautiful new home on a low hill overlooking 2000 acres of corn and soybeans – and, to their chagrin, overlooking the TransCanada Keystone 1 pipeline.  The pipe itself is 4 feet below ground, but the scars it has left on their lives remain on the surface.  This is a 30” tar sands pipeline, built in 2008.  Its diameter is 6 inches smaller than the proposed XL, but the patterns of land acquisition, construction, and operation are the same.  It is already pumping Canadian tar sands into the American economy.   It showed up at the Matthew’s home like a bolt of lightning.  An agent for TransCanada came to their front door in early 2007, without notice, and spread out a map on their table showing the Keystone 1 pipeline going right through their living room! 

“We didn’t know anything about pipelines, crude oil, or tar sands.”  Paul said.  “We were shaken.  They took us totally by surprise.  They wanted us to sign right away, right then.  People who didn’t sign were threatened with immanent domain.  They acted like there was no choice – it was going to happen anyway, so why go to all the trouble of resisting?”  At first, they wanted to move the right-of-way from right through the Matthew’s house to 150 feet away.  But North Dakota law requires a pipeline right-of-way to be at least 500 feet from a house, so the company offered Paul and Tammy money to sign a waiver.  But they didn’t sign.  “When I think of pipeline rupture, I think of a flame shooting fifty feet into the air,” Paul said.  “The thought of that next to my house kept me up at night.”  Sitting there listening to Paul, I wondered why the state would allow a waiver if their own law required 500 feet.  The company threatened condemnation, but Paul and Tammy held out, and the pipeline ended up a full 1500 feet from their house. 

But the issue is not over for them.  The water table is high in this part of the state, and chemicals leaking from a pipeline can travel long distances before seeping into well water.  “Every time we draw water out of the faucet we wonder, ‘is there benzene in it or isn’t there?’  That’s a fear they have thrust on me.  I belong to a communal society in North Dakota that respects other people as equals:  you’re a human, just like me, we can handshake, and you wouldn’t put me in such a position just because you have the power to do so.  Corporate greed – that’s a whole new realm for me to deal with:  But let me tell you, there is a such thing as corporate greed.  I didn’t know what that meant before.  I’m God-fearing, and when I go to heaven I don’t expect to see any of these major corporations there.”

When I asked him what it was like to suddenly become a critic of corporate America, he replied that he considered himself something of an “accidental activist.”  “But who was more of an activist than Christ?”  “When all the dust settled, “ he went on, “Tammy and I decided we needed to put a voice to what had happened to us.  When Nebraska called, we went, (Paul testified during the Nebraska legislative session) and when the Montana people called, we talked to them.”  But Paul is lukewarm on environmentalism in general.  “Unfortunately, I don’t think environmentalism is going to work in American society where we judge everything in a financial decision mode.  There’s not enough money behind it.”  The other problem he sees with environmentalism is the environmentalists themselves.  They get too wrapped up in extreme issues, like saving snails and lizards.  “This is where environmentalism can get injured.  If you’re trying to range out too far you can get attacked.  When you start talking about big things like the climate, that’s too far from my reality.  I don’t want to think about it.”

Tammy walked in at that point, and I asked her the same questions. 

“We just felt we needed to speak out.  We couldn’t just lie down and let it happen.  That’s what TransCanada wanted us to do: just sign the papers.  They wouldn’t listen to us.  How can they do this to us?  They were telling us how everything was going to happen.  We had no voice; they didn’t listen to anything we said, and we were supposed to take whatever they gave us.  We decided to stand up.  It was all planned out: they picked up the senior citizens and absentee landowners first: then they could say ‘all your neighbors have already signed.  You might as well, too.’”

But I sensed Tammy had a slightly different take on what had happened.  “Has this all changed how you understand things like climate change and environmental protection?”  I asked. 

“When we first got into this,” she answered, “We were thinking about our rights as property owners.  Then, after we got into it for a while, we started thinking, ‘What is flowing through this pipeline?’  Then I heard about what is happening to the land in Alberta.  I’ve become a lot more aware now.   There really is a huge planet issue and a fossil fuel consumption issue that we have to face in this country.  We would have paid no attention to any of this without the pipeline.”

“Tammy took us all to Washington.” Paul added.  “We went to a protest last November and stood in front of the White House.”

“350, Bill McKibben’s organization, was doing this civil disobedience thing last August,” Tammy continued.  “I had a lot of ‘get go’ in me then.  I thought that would be great to go to, but the timing was all wrong for us in August.   So we went in November, with out son, Elijah, to surround the white house, reminding Obama what his campaign promises were on the environment.  That was a big event for us: thousands of people were there.  But I felt like I missed an opportunity not going in August.  I’ve never been arrested for anything, I’m kind of a quiet, shy person, but I really wanted to do it.  I wanted our son to experience the feeling of putting yourself out there for something you believe it.”

I complemented her for going that far out of her way to show the world what she was beginning to see.  But there was a dark side to her growing awareness.  “The oil and gas companies are so powerful and influential: I kind of think they’re running the world.  I have read books that predict an apocalypse.  It’s sort of prophetic.  It’s a very dark future.  I think there will be an apocalypse.”  I told her that it can look that way to me sometimes, but that I see the future as a challenge and an opportunity for creativity. 

After lunch, Paul and I drove a few miles down the road to visit a neighbor, Bob Bondurant.  One morning last spring Bob saw for himself what Paul and Tammy, and everyone else along the pipeline most feared.  “I saw it first,” Bob’s daughter piped in.  Meagan was out early in the morning, bleary eyed, feeding her calf.  “I saw this thing spraying up over the trees.  I knew what it was.”

“There was no mistaking what it was,” Bob added.  “Those cottonwood trees are a mile and a half away, just behind the pumping station.  It was way up above them.  I would have guessed it was a stream about the size of a fence post, but it was a ¾ inch fitting that had ruptured.  They later said the pipeline was pumping 1100 pounds of pressure.  I called the emergency number and told them what I saw, and they put me on hold for about four minutes.  That was one of the longest four minutes in my life.” 

It’s a good thing Meagan and Bob caught it as soon as they did.  The line had been leaking for about a half hour, and it took ten minutes to shut the pumps down.  “We heard the pumps stop.  We can hear them from here.  But the plume of oil kept spurting for ten minutes after that.” 

About 20,000 gallons leaked into the containment area at the pumping station and onto an adjoining field.  A small amount flowed into a pond nearby.  The first cleanup crew arrived five hours later. 

“There was not enough of a pressure drop for them to detect it electronically,” Bob said.  “Somebody had to see it, and there’s nobody there most of the time.  If we hadn’t seen it when we did, it would have leaked for hours, maybe days or weeks.  This could easily have been a major disaster.  People don’t realize how fragile this pipeline is.” 

The spillage added fuel to Bob and Paul’s concern about what the pipeline could do to their property and their homes.  “I am changing my mind,” Bob said, after a pause.  “I probably wasn’t a big global warming person before.  Now I’m starting to consider the possibility a lot more.  It’s changed me.  Even in the local community, some of our neighbors look at Paul and me and start saying, ‘Oh, they’re talking pipeline again,’ but this whole thing has changed how I understand what is going on.” 

Bob added, “Our story is going to mirror what happens on the Keystone XL.”

As we finished up, I asked both Bob and Paul how they would react to the possibility of civil disobedience actions along pipeline.  “It won’t happen in north Dakota,” I assured them, “But it may happen in Texas and Nebraska.”  There was a long, North Dakota pause.  

“It wouldn’t be me,” Bob said, “I would admire their tenacity, and it would depend on what they were doing, but I can’t see them doing it for air quality or the climate.  I could see it if they were defending their homes.“

“What if they were defendng their home in the larger sense?” I asked.

Paul thought for a minute.  “For the general population, getting arrested because its getting hot out might not go over well.  Bob and I might appreciate that kind of effort, but our neighbors likely would not.”

I was not a bit surprised by this.  When you’re talking climate, you’re talking worldview.  You’re talking big picture.  The big picture comes from church, from community and upbringing.  There are always politicians, preachers, tree-huggers and talk show hosts trying to get in on your worldview, for their own reasons – some for votes and profit, some for do-gooder causes.  But you don’t want to get pulled back and forth by the latest fashions in religion, science, and political ideology.  You don’t change your worldview if the world you see around you does not change; you don’t take anybody else’s word for what is real.  You have to see it for yourself.  Without a full vision of the purpose of human life on Earth, changing a worldview can be a very scary, dark, and threatening proposition.  We do not have a full vision of the purpose of human life on Earth. 

I was flicking through channels on the road today, trying to find something worth listening as I drove through the wheat fields of northern South Dakota.  I’ve been taking the back roads, avoiding interstate and avoiding my usual listening habits (NPR).  I chanced upon a Christian station with a preacher describing a gathering of “over a thousand” young Muslim-Americans somewhere in Wisconsin.  “This is a religion that teaches that Allah is the only God and that God has no son.  It demands so much of one’s individual life and commitment that it persuades young people to strap explosives to their body and detonate them in a crowd.”  

There is a long way to go.

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