'I'm No Eco-Terrorist!'
On October 4, two women stood in the path of heavy machinery that was mowing down trees in northeast Texas and wouldn’t leave until police put them in handcuffs. One was the actress Darryl Hannah, of Splash and Kill Bill fame. Her arrest made all the headlines. The other was a 78-year-old great-grandmother who owns the property where they were arrested, which was seized by TransCanada for the southern leg of its controversial tar sands oil pipeline.
Hannah and Eleanor Fairchild were among at least 30 people who protest leaders say have been arrested near Winnsboro, Texas, since late last month. Contractors for the Canadian pipeline company are clearing a swath through forests and farmland for the 1,179-mile-long Keystone XL, which would carry tar sands crude from northern Alberta to refineries on the Gulf Coast. Although approval for the northern stretch of the project, from Oklahoma to the Canadian border, has been delayed until after the election, the Obama administration has allowed work on the southern section to proceed.
Much of the right-of-way was seized through the courts by eminent domain or obtained through what landowners call heavy-handed or misleading tactics by the company. Outraged landowners have filed lawsuits and petitioned the courts, trying to stop TransCanada’s operation. Now, some are standing alongside environmental activists who fear tar sands oil will contribute to climate change and pollute local waterways (see OnEarth’s coverage of the tar sands pipeline spill on Michigan’s Kalamazoo River). Protesters have turned to civil disobedience by standing in front of bulldozers, chaining themselves to trucks, and perching in trees in the pipeline’s path.
TransCanada says the protesters are trespassing, and local law enforcement has cooperated with the company by arresting and removing them, sometimes using what protestors describe as excessive force, or “torture tactics,” including pepper spray and Tasers. Last week 21 people, including Fairchild, were sued by TransCanada for interfering with work on the pipeline. The company wants to be reimbursed for delays and is seeking judicial restraining orders to keep protestors away. Fairchild and the others were served this week with stacks of court papers numbering in the hundreds, which labeled them “eco-terrorists.” (Fairchild’s response? “I’m no eco-terrorist!”)
Here are some of the local Texans trying to stand in the pipeline’s path, whether through lawsuits, public opinion, or by being willing to risk jail time.
The movie star might have gotten most of the attention when they were arrested side-by-side, but it’s Fairchild, the 78-year-old who owns a 425-acre farm outside of Winnsboro, Texas, who is fast becoming the face of the “Tar Sands Blockade” effort. Three years ago, Fairchild says, she refused to sign papers from the pipeline company seeking an easement across her land. So TransCanada condemned the property it wanted through the courts. Fairchild doesn't blame her neighbors for signing the papers and taking the money; she knows that battling TransCanada will be expensive and time consuming -- money she is willing to spend and a battle she is willing to fight, even if it means going to jail again.
David Hightower, 57, served in the U.S. Air Force for 20 years, then retired in 1999 and, with his wife, moved back to the 70-acre farm outside Winnsboro where his family has lived since 1957, when he was 3 years old. He built a vineyard and an orchard on the property, raising grapes, peaches, pears, and parsimmons. His mother didn’t want to sign over their land to TransCanada, but Hightower encouraged her to take the money because she was ill, and the stress was taking its toll. She has since passed away. While clearing his property, TransCanada destroyed his vineyard, Hightower says. The company gave him extra money after news reports of the damage (fair market value for what the vines would have produced over the next three years, according to Hightower), but money can't replace his 12-year-old grapevines, he says.
The Lamar County courts ruled in late August that TransCanada could take Julia Trigg Crawford’s land for the pipeline’s right-of-way. She has appealed that ruling and pledged to go all the way to the Texas Supreme Court if she has to. “Imagine, one day, that a massive, foreign company decided to dig through your backyard without your permission,” Crawford wrote about her battle with TransCanada on Change.org, “(and) when you went to law enforcement to try and stop the company, they brought in big city lawyers to try to throw your rights out the window. And, if tearing through your property weren’t enough, this company would expose you and your family to serious health risks and threaten the water and safety of your community -- and potentially millions of other Americans, too. Sound like a nightmare? That’s exactly what’s happening to me.” Crawford says she inherited her farm from her grandfather, who bought the land in 1948.
Susan Scott says she signed her deal with TransCanada after a two-year battle, accepting $22,000 only after the company’s representative made it clear that if she didn't agree, TransCanada would sue her. Scott, 62, says the company didn't tell her the pipeline would carry tar sands oil, not conventional crude, and she didn’t understand the risks that the dirtier form of oil could cause to her and her family. (Studies show that thick, heavy tar sands oil, which must be diluted using heavy chemicals, is more corrosive to pipelines and polluting when it spills than traditional crude.) When TransCanada started clearing trees on her property, Scott’s 3-year granddaughter, Ayden Cordova, asked her why. “They have to make room for something else,” Scott tried to explain. Ayden replied: “That’s so sad.”