Pipeline marches on with progress
WINONA --Glen Collins and Wayne Knox are on opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to the Gulf Coast Project pipeline.
Collins, a 25-year-old activist from West Virginia, was still sitting in Smith County Jail as of last week on a $65,000 bond for stalling construction on the pipeline on Dec. 3.
Knox, a 57-year-old grandfather of two (soon-to-be three), is a 35-year pipeline construction veteran managing crews within Spread 2 (which stretches from south of Paris in Delta County to Lufkin), on the 485-mile, $2.5 billion pipeline built to move crude oil from Cushing, Okla., to refineries on the Texas coast.
Collins, 21-year-old Matt Almonte and 20-year-old Isabel Brooks were arrested after crawling into a section of the 36-inch pipe yet to be laid into the 8-feet-deep ditch dug as its 50-plus-year resting place. Collins and Almonte held on to containers holding several hundred pounds of concrete as Smith County deputies extracted them. The three halted progress on the section until mid-afternoon.
Collins, wearing an orange jumpsuit and an easy smile for a man in jail, said he has been active against similar projects, especially those related to strip mining, for a decade. He said his No. 1 concern is the health, safety and rights of people living along the pipeline's path.
TransCanada, he said, uses familiar tactics to grab land and exists within a parasitic relationship with communities in Canada and along the pipeline with no real regard to ground water and air quality or property rights.
On Dec. 19, Knox drove his Dodge dually truck along the uneven path where a 1,800-foot section of the pipeline was about to be placed in the ground. Crews sat by, waiting for inspectors to complete tests and coat each weld where the 80-foot sections are joined.
He takes his work seriously and exudes a confidence about the construction process and its finished product in a way that could calm concerns Collins would raise.
Knox said the pipe's integrity is the most important part of every crew member's job. From inspectors to welders and "geep" finders, everyone has the ability to question any structural anomalies found along the path.
"It's a waiting game sometime," he said. "But we check and re-check every section and every weld before it goes in the ground."
As the crew lowers the pipe into the ground, a crew passes a detector along the pipes circumference. The machine pulses 2,500 volts into the pipe searching for weak points in its outer coating. The machine makes a "geep" sound, indicating a spot in need of coating.
The five-man crew stops the trailing caravan of heavy machines placing the pipe in the ditch and patch the spot near the joint marking the 1.429 millionth foot of the pipe from Cushing. Following the massive machines is a survey crew, which marks every joint by global positioning system.
"If there's ever any issue, we have every piece, every section, mapped out," he said.
TransCanada spokesman Jim Prescott said the pipeline is the most heavily scrutinized, most technologically advanced pipeline ever constructed. He said the company has met or exceeded every industry standard for constructing the pipeline and that it will increase U.S. oil capacity and reduce dependence on unreliable and unfriendly suppliers.
"It comes down to perception versus reality," Prescott said. "That's regarding the relationships we have with the vast majority of landowners, the pipeline itself or the product it will carry. They want to present a perception of doom but the reality is this pipeline is a positive."
Collins said the reality is the pipeline will negatively impact every community along the route, from the mines in Canada, to the people living near refineries in Houston. It represents a health hazard buried in their backyards, he said.
Knox said his first experience with a protest was around five years ago and that similar efforts have escalated since then. He said pipelines represent his livelihood and though he doesn't understand protestors' he does understand their right to disagree.
"This is America and they're free to protest all they want," he said. "As long as they do it legally and don't get anybody hurt."
The controversial 2,000-mile Keystone XL pipeline commissioned by Calgary-based TransCanada would travel from Canada through five states -- Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma -- before reaching refineries in Houston and Port Arthur upon completion.
The Gulf Coast Pipeline Project portion of the pipeline is under construction in eastern Wood and Smith counties, northeast and southeast corners of Cherokee County and western Nacogdoches County.
The pipeline's path lies just east of Winnsboro, Hawkins, Winona, New Chapel Hill, Arp, New Summerfield, Reklaw and Wells.
Prescott said the pipeline represents an economic benefit to communities along the pipeline. Such a big capital investment means a ripple effect, including jobs, and spending in the local economy.
Tom Mullins, president and CEO of the Tyler Economic Development Corp., said the project had overwhelming community support and that short- and long-term benefits outweighed environmental and economic concerns. He said any major construction project generate similar opposition.
"It's pretty clear from the activity along the pipeline route, from hotels to parts suppliers and workers, that this will have a big impact on the local economy over the next five to six months, not to mention the big-picture macroeconomy from establishing more oil capacity for the nation from a friendly nation," he said.
The project would double the capacity of an existing pipeline from Canada, and, supporters said, significantly reduce U.S. dependence on Middle Eastern oil while bringing jobs. Opponents question the pipeline's safety and construction standards and the Canadian-based company's tactics to acquire right-of-way from residents.
The Keystone XL project was mired in an extensive review process for three years before President Barack Obama denied a presidential permit. A presidential permit is required because the pipeline would cross the U.S.-Canadian border.
Portions of the northern end of the route were rerouted after opposition gained momentum against the pipeline's path through wetlands in Nebraska. A decision by the president about the northern leg of the project is expected early next year.
Opposition to the pipeline comes from a faction of eco-activists and landowners, Prescott said. He said condemnation proceedings, the use of eminent domain to gain access, were used only 4 percent of the 1,200 easements gained on the project.
Prescott said 85 percent of the pipeline's path follows other easements including those for gas lines and transmission lines.
The pipeline project makes sense for average Americans, supporters say. It will relieve a pipeline bottleneck for millions of barrels of crude stored in Cushing in the safest most efficient way to ship oil.
The project adds more than 700,000 barrels a day to the nation's pipeline capacity and will bring oil from a friendly nation -- Canada -- which already is supplying the nation with more oil, 28 percent of all imports, instead of relying on unfriendly and unreliable sources in the Middle East and South America.
Prescott said the opposition is based on a movement to stop fossil fuel production altogether, which is unrealistic for the nation right now.
"Where's the alternative?" he said. "Environmental groups are using tar sands as a means to an end and they freely admit that is to stop fossil fuel based energy."
STALL VS. STOP
Ron Seifert, a spokesman for Tar Sands Blockade, said stalling the pipeline and drawing attention to landowner complaints and environmental concerns are short-term goals for the group. So far, 46 activists have been arrested along the line, he said.
"We're honored and humbled by their sacrifice," he said. Collins, Almonte and Ms. Brooks "took a stand because doing nothing is not an option. They are walking the walk."
Seifert said bonds for misdemeanor offenses do not typically top $5,000 and that the three protestors are being punished, without a day in court, to scare other protestors.
"They're being punished for their politics by the system that is supposed to be impartial," he said.
Finding a legal way to stop construction, through lawsuits challenging the process by which the Canadian company claimed eminent domain to gain access to land, is the long-term goal, he said.
Seifert said cooperation and commonality between unlikely bedfellows, environmentalists and Tea Party conservatives has changed the landscape of the fight to stop the pipeline.
JoAnn Fleming, Grassroots America -- We the People executive director and chairwoman of the Tea Party Advisory Caucus Committee, said she supports the pipeline "concept," but lawmakers must address "loopholes" that allow private companies to claim eminent domain by claiming common carrier status.
Mrs. Fleming said she is not aware of any organized grassroots/Tea Party group who supports actions by pipeline opposition groups. While there are concerns about landowner rights, she said, grassroots groups see the pipeline's benefit nationally.
"I would say that it would be an exaggeration to say grassroots conservatives are opposing the pipeline," she said.
Landowner Mike Bishop stalled construction on his land for almost a week after a judge granted a temporary restraining order. The judge threw out the request for an injunction to stop construction because Bishop had agreed to financial terms with the company, accepted the money and signed the easement agreement weeks before requesting the restraining order.
Winnsboro landowner David Daniel led early local opposition to the pipeline but has since been sued by TransCanada for not recognizing a 2010 easement agreement made with the company. He said TransCanada misrepresented the easement process and the project from the beginning and that pipeline representatives and attorneys bullied him into the agreement.
Daniel told the Tyler Morning Telegraph in 2011, that he felt like he and his family were "guinea pigs" because tar sands are not a conventional oil product and pose a greater threat to landowners and the public.
Recent requests for comment from Daniel have been turned down but his land is still an epicenter for protestors in East Texas.
Tar Sands Blockade activists have been living in "treetop condos" for 85 days on Daniel's land to prevent construction crews from clearing the easement, Seifert said. They and other protestors are "in it for the long haul," he said.
"We would hope for the courts to act with an injunction, but until that happens, it's up to people to be that injunction," he said.