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Keystone XL pipeline resistance forges unusual alliances

Eleanor Fairchild, 78, stands in front of workers clearing her land to make way for the TransCanada pipeline in Winnsboro, Texas.

Los Angeles Times

Eleanor Fairchild, 78, stands in front of workers clearing her land to make way for the TransCanada pipeline in Winnsboro, Texas.

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 to stop work on the Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline.

Her companion? The actor 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 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.

Some 29 people have been arrested since protests began in August, including eight arrested Oct. 15 at a roadside protest not far from Fairchild's farm

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 took up position in front of a massive mechanized shovel.

Fairchild had never agreed to let TransCanada build on her land. The company got an easement under 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, who she had never seen before.

Although President Barack 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 got final permits from the U.S. 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 sought an injunction to block her and other "eco-terrorists."

"I don't even know what an eco-terrorist is," Fairchild said. "I've had three traffic tickets in my life. I'm not a criminal and I'm not a terrorist."

TransCanada also accuses Fairchild 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 some are in their 40s), but so have other neighbors.

"There's all kinds of people fighting this," she said.

Peter Anderson, 70, of Fairfax, Calif., flew out to join the Oct. 15 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 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 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, 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."

Keystone XL pipeline resistance forges unusual alliances 10/25/12 [Last modified: Thursday, October 25, 2012 4:31am]
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