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William Rivers Pitt | Trading Paradise for a Pipeline

William Rivers Pitt gives a personal account of how a proposed pipeline would affect his New Hampshire community.

The waxwings deserve better. So do we all. (Photo: Oil Spill via Shutterstock)

I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees.

— Dr. Seuss

For a while now, I’ve been banging awake around five o’clock in the morning, but I languish for a time in that warm you’re-comfy-and-you-know-it zone of semi-sleep, until I eventually grab myself by the face and drag myself out of bed. Before I leave the room, I make sure to crack both of my ankles; the small hallway connecting us to my daughter’s bedroom has the acoustic qualities of a finely-crafted orchestra hall, and when those joints decide to thud out there in the pre-dawn gloom, it sounds like a damn car accident. My poor, stupid, oft-broken and oft-sprained ankles have woken my daughter up more times than I can count when they decide to pop on a pivot, so I always try and remember to kick out the jams before I use the door.

Snap crackle pop, then through the door on cat’s feet down to the den. It’s nice: I used to be a very solitary animal, an only child who lived alone for years, and despite the absolute joy and astonishing privilege of all my baby/wife/etc. responsibilities, a part of me will always be the sibling-less kid building universes in his imagination alone in his room, who still worships the stillness of solitude. I get some of that in my mornings; it is the only time I have to myself before the wife and the girl emerge and the day gets itself well and truly underway.

We live in very rural New Hampshire, and do not have access to town water. My well is almost 400 feet deep and taps an aquifer that roars in the dark beneath a stout granite shelf. We had the water tested to make sure there was nothing harmful to my daughter, and the testers told us they had never, ever come across water as pure and perfect as what comes out of our ground. Before I go to bed each night, I pour a glass and place it on a kitchen windowsill next to a barely-cracked window … and then, in my mornings, with the first hues of sunrise tickling the mountain, I drink deep of the blood of the Earth cooled to perfection by the breath of the wind and spiced with the ever-growing chorus of the peepers in the woods.

I do most of my writing during those soft, quiet hours – in my head, because I can’t actually write at that hour, because I beat on keyboards like a rented mule and would wake the entire house with the hammering. I have watched the sun rise earlier and earlier each morning, I have watched the snow from this utterly brutal winter melt away to reveal dun ground that awaits the greening of the grass. I will watch, very soon now, the flowers grow, and then wither in time, and then disappear under a new season’s blanket of white. I sit in the darkling silence, and listen to the hum of nothing in my ears, drink my water, and breathe.

A few days ago, I woke, rose, padded quietly to the kitchen, reached for my glass, and paused. There were five huge wild turkeys in the back yard: four females and one male, and oh by God and sonny Jesus, was the male putting on a show. Puffed up like a dirigible, fantail fanning behind, strutting strutting strutting, big as life and twice as turkey, The Man, because it’s finally mating season, don’tcha know … and the four females could not have disdained him more thoroughly. The poor dude was flat out of luck, but persisted nonetheless, so I raised my precious water glass to him in salute, drank deeply, and thought to myself, “Yeah, I hated the dating scene, too, brother.”

That’s life here on the dirt road among the piney woods, the oaks, the maples, and the bright birches. With the snow gone and the ground loosening, the sound of woodpeckers and birdsong is a riot outside my windows. We have hawks the size of fighter planes, owls, white-tail deer, massive moose, and the very occasional nerve-wracking bear. In June, once the sunlight fades, the back yard will glitter with the light of a thousand lightning bugs dancing to the song of the moon. This place is, in its own hard, often-frozen way, the very name of paradise.

A company called Kinder Morgan – basically the dregs of Enron – seeks to despoil all that with a massive natural gas pipeline which would run the product of Pennsylvania fracking across all of southern New Hampshire to a depot near the Massachusetts coastline, from which it will be shipped to the world for a fee. Their original plan for this pipeline had it running across northern Massachusetts to the sea, but the residents of that state rose up righteous and sent Kinder Morgan on their way bag and baggage. Now, Kinder Morgan wants to do it here, their “secondary plan” which is now their primary plan, and the residents of the affected towns are girding for war.

At a recent town meeting in Richmond hosting Kinder Morgan representatives, 88-year-old resident Norm Woodward asked them to help him craft an advertisement for the sale of his home and property. His concerns centered chiefly around the fact that his home falls within the 900-foot radius of what Kinder Morgan describes as the “incineration zone,” which is the area that will be utterly obliterated if the pipeline explodes. “Do I not put in ‘incineration zone’ as full disclosure?” he asked. He was told by a Selectman to sit down; his question, Woodward was told, did not require a response.

There are a great many homes within this “incineration zone” along the pipeline’s long path, a fact made all the more troubling when it was revealed that Kinder Morgan intended to use a thinner steel for the pipeline, because it is passing through rural areas, than they would if the pipeline passed through a more heavily-populated area. Chesterfield resident William Manter, who attended the town meeting in Richmond, asked the Kinder Morgan representatives, “Do you value our lives less?” The Kinder Morgan representatives had no reply to this worth mentioning.

One of the more galling aspects of this whole situation is the fact that Kinder Morgan owns more than fifty percent of a company called Trans Mountain Pipeline (TMP). What TMP does, in short, is clean up after oil and natural gas spills. They are very busy in Canada, thanks in no small part to the heavily active drilling and pipeline work taking place in the tar sands region. In an expansion application in Canada, TMP stated, “Spill response and clean-up creates business and employment.”

I have seen a number of photographs showing what the construction of these pipelines does to the countryside – here’s one, here’s another, and here’s another – and Kinder Morgan’s claims of minimal impact fall flat. The length of the proposed pipeline is one thing, but the width of the pathway is another: 175 feet from side to side, through community after community, forest after forest, wetland after wetland, right through people’s property rights and home values in the “incineration zone.”

Beyond that is the simple truth of water. Rural New Hampshire is a place of wells, wetlands and aquifers, and is a state whose bones are made of granite. That granite means Kinder Morgan will have to do a hell of a lot of blasting in order to lay their pipeline, and blasting has a way of causing previously fertile and generous wells and aquifers to dry up and disappear. Beyond the risk to home and hearth from natural gas explosions, beyond the long rip of damage the installation of the line will do to the environment, there is the very real concern that homestead after homestead from one side of the state to the other run the very real risk of losing access to their water when the dynamite starts going off.

The woods that gird my home are lovely, dark and deep. My water is as clean as the air that cools it for my pre-dawn morning ceremony. The cedar waxwings have returned to the cherry tree outside my window. My land is my land. From the Vermont border all the way to the Atlantic Ocean, these are simple realities deeply enjoyed by a great many people like me, and Kinder Morgan – the ghost of disgraced Enron – looks to run roughshod over it.

The waxwings deserve better. So do we all.

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