A Pipeline Defeated: How a Small Town Saved Itself

The town of Rindge, New Hampshire successfully fought off efforts to build a natural gas pipeline through New York and New England.The town of Rindge, New Hampshire, successfully fought off efforts to build a natural gas pipeline through New York and New England. (Photo: Marco Guada / Flickr)

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In the dungeon that was the winter of 2014 here in my New Hampshire home, a pair of representatives from the natural gas pipeline company Kinder Morgan/Tennessee Gas arrived in the town of Rindge, just down the road. They were there to meet with the town administrator about a proposed natural gas pipeline route that would cut the town in half, along with several other towns, as it made its way to the sea.

The two were almost comically young — I have shoes older than those guys — and yet they were cloaked in an arrogant air of power that is only found in people who think working for a corporate juggernaut somehow gifts them authority. They walked into the meeting room and before a word was spoken, one of them officiously looked at his wristwatch, then looked at the administrator and said, “We have 14 minutes for you.”

That’s how it was between Rindge and Kinder Morgan after that cold winter night in 2014. The company lied, delayed, danced, dodged and did everything they possibly could to put off the New Hampshire locals who had a few questions about the whole thing, and did so for almost two years. The town fought back, along with a coalition of other towns who would be deeply affected by the construction of this pipeline. It was a long slog, but on Wednesday the word came down: Kinder Morgan had officially “suspended further work and expenditures” on the pipeline plan.

In short, Rindge and the other towns won. For now, anyway.

The background in brief: Kinder Morgan (KM) wanted to build a pipeline to transport the fruits of fracking from Pennsylvania through New York and New England. It would traverse a portion of western Massachusetts and all of southern New Hampshire, terminating in the seaside town of Dracut, where the gas would be loaded onto LNG tankers for sale in Canada and overseas. Not one breath of the gas would be made available to the affected residents. In fact, the towns were expected to pay a tariff for the privilege of hosting the line.

KM initially tried to have the pipeline built along the northern border of Massachusetts, but their plan was roundly routed by residents who wanted nothing to do with it. Plan B for KM was to run the thing across southern New Hampshire to Dracut; they assumed the residents of this sleepy little state would not put up much of a fight. In that, they were badly mistaken. KM ran straight into the teeth of a very patient buzzsaw up here in the Granite State, and on Wednesday they decided it was too expensive to push the fight any longer.

Why so much resistance? This pipeline project brought together a truly remarkable confederation of anti-pipeline activists and groups that are usually at each other’s throats: libertarian Free Staters, Greens, conservatives, liberals, because the pipeline cut through all their concerns like a septic artery carrying poisoned blood. The reasons behind the fight were legion for all camps involved.

For conservatives and the libertarian Free State types, the issue came down to property rights. KM was looking to use the power of eminent domain to take the land they wanted for the construction of the pipeline if they couldn’t get direct permission from the property owners. Beyond that was the “incineration zone”: a 900-foot radius that would be utterly obliterated if the pipeline decided to blow up.

Homeowners within the blast zone were not only looking at the possibility of flaming death, but the reality that their home and property values would be profoundly diminished because they were hedged against a potential bomb. How do you put that in a “For Sale” ad? “Bucolic two-story colonial, four bedrooms, two bathrooms, screened porch, 10 acres, and you might die screaming.” Not so good for the resale value, that.

For the environmentally-minded, the issue was starkly plain. In order to lay this pipeline, a 175-foot-wide swath needed to be cut across the length of New Hampshire’s southern border. The path would, as proposed, pass through wetlands and conservation areas, and would lay flat a whole hell of a lot of trees. The pipeline itself would carry the product of fracking, one of the most poisonous processes ever devised.

Beyond that is the fact that New Hampshire is made of granite, and granite requires blasting for a project like this. Explosions are not a fun thing to hear day after day; they have a way of fraying the nerves. Also, a great many New Hampshire residents draw their water from wells, and blasting has a strong tendency to kill wells with the seismic impact. Finally, there is the simple fact that pipelines leak: all of them, sooner or later, count on it, end of file, which brings us back to the “incineration zone” again.

For the leadership of the affected municipalities, one of the central problems was traffic. The proposed pipeline route was going to blunder through a number of vital roadways, and not one on the towns affected could get a straight answer from KM about how disruptive it was going to be. There was a Donald Trumpish aspect to KM’s response to direct questions: It’s gonna be great folks, trust me, it’s gonna be great.

Nope.

KM’s intentions would not have been thwarted without the long, dedicated efforts of activists like Maryann Harper. Harper is spokesperson for the organization New Hampshire Pipeline Awareness, and did yeoman’s work educating affected residents on what they were dealing with while pushing back against the pipeline plan in town meetings and other assemblies. Truthout spoke to Harper on Thursday about the experience of fighting KM in general, and where matters now stand.

“It was hard to get concrete answers from Kinder Morgan,” said Harper. “The maps they brought to meetings were inaccurate, old. They did these ‘open-houses’ for residents and ran them like a trade show, dismissing all concerns. Opponents of the pipeline had to educate ourselves. The opposition groups were called ‘awareness groups.’ We did it evenings and weekends because we all work full time.”

“This is the new normal for resisting these pipeline projects,” continued Harper. “People wanted to find one big thing that would defeat Kinder Morgan. Instead, we gave steady resistance, and in the end it was death by a thousand cuts. It’s not over. Kinder Morgan has not yet officially withdrawn their application for the pipeline.” When Truthout asked how Harper was feeling about the whole thing, she replied, “Tired but happy.”

Truthout also spoke to Roberta Oeser, who sits on the Board of Selectmen for the town of Rindge. “The town in general is very pleased,” said Oeser, “but there are still a lot of concerns in the towns that are affected. House Bill 1660, the eminent domain law, needs to be addressed to keep residents from having their land decimated. We want that protection afforded to anyone affected by future gas line production. While I’m very pleased, the cork is still in the champagne bottle until the application is withdrawn from FERC [Federal Energy Regulatory Commission].”

Kinder Morgan still lurks. That still-live FERC application means they are capable of trying to run this mess again until the application is officially withdrawn. That being said, KM has cut loose its public relations contractors along with other subcontractors for this project. This is a positive sign; one does not throw away the nails before building a house. For the time being and the foreseeable future, the so-called “Northeast Energy Direct” pipeline through New Hampshire is a dead stick.

Hearken to me well, friends and neighbors. Kinder Morgan, the inheritor of Enron with friends in all the high places, got broken over the knee of some snow-country folks with keen eyes, sage wisdom and infinite patience. The next time you find yourself thinking corporate power is indomitable, remember Rindge, New Hampshire. The plodding durability of devotion may not be glamorous, but by God and sonny Jesus, it gets the sidewalks shoveled down to the grit when the snow flies, and every so often sends some power company suits sailing over the horizon like so many windblown leaves.

We won. For now.

Onward.