Keystone XL pipeline brings out the protest in locals

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WINNSBORO, Texas — Eleanor Fairchild, 78, a great-grandmother and retired homemaker, became an alleged “eco-terrorist” in the early hours of Oct. 4, crawling through brush on her farm about 100 miles east of Dallas in jeans and a button-down shirt to stop work on the Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline.

Her companion? The actress Daryl Hannah.

Fairchild is one of several local landowners-turned-activists joining outside protesters in the fight to stop a Canadian company from building the pipeline across their properties. Some protesters have holed up in “tree sits” 80 feet above ground or bound themselves to construction equipment to block TransCanada from finishing the Texas portion of the 1,660-mile project by next year.

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About 29 people have been arrested since protests began in August, including eight arrested Monday at a roadside protest not far from Fairchild’s farm, where they hoisted banners and chanted against pipeline workers as local sheriff’s deputies looked on.

Fairchild’s arrest has become symbolic of the effort, and of the growing solidarity between unlikely local protesters and activists arriving from outside Texas to fight the pipeline.

The day of her protest, Fairchild emerged from the woods and took up position in front of a massive mechanized shovel, her bobbed gray hair pulled back in a scrunchie, arms raised in front of her.

Fairchild had never agreed to let TransCanada build on her land. The company created an easement on her property under Texas’ eminent domain law, paying what she says was less than half of what they initially offered. Fairchild has hired an attorney to fight for her land.

The widow of a petroleum geologist, Fairchild has lived in the area since 1988, and never fought a pipeline (or the law) until now. That day in the woods, she listened as sheriff’s deputies she knew tried to avoid handcuffing her.

“If you’ll just go home, we won’t arrest you,” she heard them say.

“What about my friend?” Fairchild said of Hannah.

“She is not your friend,” she heard the deputies reply.

And so Fairchild went to Wood County Jail for the first time in her life on a misdemeanor trespass charge, where she was fingerprinted, photographed and held in isolation with Hannah, a.k.a. her “jail-mate,” an actress she had never seen before. They passed the time chatting and singing “You Are My Sunshine.”

The justice of the peace who released them, a neighbor of Fairchild’s, didn’t require her to post bond, and offered her a ride home afterward, Fairchild said.

Although President Obama has said TransCanada must reroute northern portions of the pipeline for environmental reasons, he has not disputed the southern stretch running through East Texas, which received final permits from the Army Corps of Engineers this summer.

David Dodson, a TransCanada spokesman, dismissed the recent protests as an “unlawful occupation” by opponents who have created a “climate of fear” but have not, he said, slowed work on the southern, 485-mile part of the pipeline that runs through Texas.

About a week after Fairchild’s arrest, she was served with legal papers: TransCanada attorneys had requested an injunction to block her and other “eco-terrorists.”

“I don’t even know what an eco-terrorist is,” Fairchild said as she sat in the kitchen at her farm this week holding a copy of the filing, which is several inches thick and includes photos of her and Hannah protesting. “I’ve had three traffic tickets in my life. I’m not a criminal and I’m not a terrorist.”

In the filing, which Fairchild plans to add to a scrapbook she’s making about her new life as a protester, TransCanada also accuses her of harboring members of the Tar Sands Blockade group, allowing them to use her farm as a “base for their operations.”

Fairchild dismissed those claims. Sure, she’s had out-of-town protesters stay with her (she calls them “the kids” even though she allows that some are in their 40s), but so have other neighbors. They’ve also had them over for dinner and showed them around town. Protesters have turned up at the local farmers market and knitting circle.

“There’s all kinds of people fighting this,” she said.

Peter Anderson, 70, of Fairfax, Calif., flew out to join the Monday protest, hoisting a banner that said, “All pipelines leak.”

“It’s an interesting combination of people here — environmentalists and local Texans,” he said. As he spoke about 30 people — some from as far as Sausalito, Calif., and Missoula, Mont., with nicknames like “Turtle” and “Ranger” — milled around, toting signs and bullhorns and chanting “People power!” at TransCanada workers. “The landowners are really supportive of what we’re trying to do.”

Of those arrested so far, 18 — more than half — have been Texans, organizers said.

Some locals dismiss the protesters as “tree-hugging hippies,” and plenty of drivers zoomed by the protest without slowing. But a few slowed, and some even waved.

Susan Scott, 64, another landowner whose property is being crossed by the pipeline, was at the protest too, a black-and-white-striped hat pinned to her head. She scowled at a process server delivering legal paperwork from TransCanada to protesters and vowed not to identify anyone.

Scott said she’s afraid the pipeline will leak and is disappointed more locals haven’t supported the protesters.

“Country people, a lot of them don’t use the computer,” she said, “They just believe what TransCanada’s telling them.”

Dodson, the TransCanada spokesman, said the company deals fairly with landowners and has made extra efforts to safely route and reinforce the pipeline, using thicker pipe, burying pipes deeper and spacing valves so that leaks can be isolated quickly.

“This is going to be the safest pipeline ever built,” Dodson said of the $3.2-billion project, which would stretch from Alberta, Canada, to the Gulf Coast.

TransCanada recently sent a film crew out to speak with pipeline supporters in East Texas, and the company is still collecting stories from businesspeople and landowners in the area, Dodson said.

“They’re enjoying having the increase in business right now,” he said. “That is going to be a benefit to communities all along the pipeline.”

Eleanor Fairchild disagrees. As she rode a golf cart around her 425-acre hay farm last week, she pointed out where TransCanada contractors were bulldozing a 50-foot-wide swath of land, where towering pines and hickories had been reduced to a tall, dry pile, replaced by “No Trespassing” signs.

“This is bigger than my land,” she said. “I just happen to be the one whose land they’re going across, and that’s sticking their neck out. I’ve become a different person since this started.”