For many in Berkshires, more than one path in pipeline protests
SANDISFIELD — She watches the pipeline company, and they watch her.
Day after day, Susan Baxter smokes and watches, and if she thinks the company is breaking the rules, she'll put out her cigarette and start using her camera.
Baxter does it from a patch she calls "the triangle" — the shape of her family's farm that is smack up against what is, right now, an open pipe trench where Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co. is installing the Massachusetts stretch of its tri-state Connecticut Expansion Project. Under the triangle, two pipelines are already there.
Just this one woman is a real thorn for Tennessee Gas, a Kinder Morgan subsidiary. The company has decamped here for six months to build roughly four miles of a 13-mile natural gas storage spur.
"I get treated like a criminal," Baxter said, talking about the company's security guards who roam these woods, and who, she says, have always kept a close eye on her.
"And I'm kind of used to it by now. I say, `All I have is a camera, man, just leave me alone.'"
It's not just a camera.
Baxter uses it to protest the 2016 approval of this pipeline by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. She sends a regular stream of missives, photos and videos into an online filing system for this project — FERC's docket. Usually she documents what she says are environmental infractions.
Baxter has practically memorized hundreds of rules the company said it would stick to as it works in a forest and wetlands full of critters. And she has studied a handful of six-inch binders the company gave affected landowners detailing the whole plan.
Baxter is not taking a stand on the use of fossil fuels, she said. Yet she is a steady resister of this $93 million loop for which the company went to court to get an easement of state-owned and protected land here in Otis State Forest, infuriating residents and anti-pipeline activists.
In early May, her farm became a staging ground for the climate justice group, Sugar Shack Alliance. The group is using mostly predictable — and always peaceful — civil disobedience to draw attention to what they say are the evils of hydro-fracked gas.
So far 32 Sugar Shack activists have been arrested for trespassing into the company's work easement, including 98-year-old Frances Crowe, a legendary peace activist.
Several sets of arraignments and a hearing in Southern Berkshire District Court have launched anti-pipeline and state's rights messages out beyond the Berkshires and even beyond the state. And the next hearing for the last set of arrests, including Crowe's, is set for Tuesday, July 18.
But almost all these protesters are from Hampshire and Franklin County towns in the Pioneer Valley. And people are wondering why Berkshire County activists or residents aren't also getting themselves carted out of the forest in state police vans.
"I don't have time to get arrested," Baxter said through her hearty laugh. "I don't have the money for it, either. The best I can do is try to document the violations I see."
She said she also didn't have time for Sugar Shack's required, eight-hour non-violence training, though she thinks it's great.
But Baxter's done other things, too. She helped form Sandisfield Taxpayers Opposed to the Pipeline (STOP) in 2014, when Tennessee Gas was laying out its plans. STOP hired a well-known pipeline lawyer who used to work for FERC, and has tried to appeal — so far unsuccessfully — the project's approval.
So while some groups and people, like Baxter, are pestering FERC, others are making a stink by landing themselves in court on minor trespassing charges, and fighting those — just to get the message out.
The civil disobedience route
"We said, `we would like to be of help, if you want help,'" said Vivienne Simon, a Sugar Shack spokeswoman and the group's legal adviser, of what the group said to people affected and disheartened by the project.
Simon was one of the first to get arrested, at what was the start of tree cutting. She said the organization — made up of around 16 affinity groups — pulled together in 2014 to stop Kinder Morgan's Northeast Energy Direct pipeline that would have passed through Franklin and Hampshire counties. The company scrapped the NED project, and, relieved not to have a pipeline running through their backyards, most people went home.
"But a core group of us decided to turn our efforts [to the state forest] and keep going," Simon said. "There's no such thing as a parochial pipeline. Every pipeline is connected to every other pipeline."
It's a combination of things in a culture of resistance in and around Northampton and Amherst, college towns famous for a long-standing history of rebellion, Simon added.
Simon said getting arrested isn't something everyone has the luxury of doing. Those who have been active in the state forest are mostly over 50, though the age range for all the affinity groups runs from the early 20s to 80s.
"Those of us who are semi-retired or retired — we don't have to worry about getting fired," she added.
She also said the culture of the Berkshires is more conservative than in the Pioneer Valley.
"Our lawyers said we would have a harder time with the juries than with the judges [in the Berkshires]," she said.
Katy Eiseman, director of the Massachusetts PipeLine Awareness Network lives in Cummington, where No Fracked Gas in Mass! is also located. Eiseman grew up in the Pioneer Valley, and said she agrees with Simon's observations.
"The history and tradition of protesting is alive and well there," she said. "[Sugar Shack] is showing it's not just a NIMBY (not in my backyard) attitude. They feel like it's the least they can do."
The legal route
Anti-pipeline groups like Eiseman's Network, aren't out trespassing, but gathering information and helping landowners faced with pipeline issues.
"As a networking group we connect various stakeholders to others," Eiseman said.
The Network asked FERC in April to reconsider its initial approval of the project on a number of grounds, in something known as a request for rehearing. It has also funded and joined other people and groups — including Berkshire Environmental Action Team (BEAT) — to appeal Tennessee Gas' water quality certificate issued by the state Department of Environmental Protection.
While they lost that appeal, Jane Winn, BEAT's executive director, said BEAT had been hopeful that it would stop the project, as water quality appeals had in other states.
Winn said that as plans for the pipeline project picked up steam, BEAT was running around, trying to educate people.
"We spent two years going across the state talking about fracked gas and why it wouldn't be clean, cheap or reliable," she said, noting that most of the gas for this project is headed for Connecticut.
In fact, FERC approved Tennessee Gas' project because the company said there was a need for more gas in Connecticut, and that many more customers were expected to convert from oil to gas.
And this has left people wondering where the Connecticut activists have been.
Call it methane
"The black snake unites us," said Martha Klein, chairwoman of the Sierra Club's Connecticut chapter.
Klein's catch-phrase refers to the Standing Rock protests that began last year in North Dakota, and the Sioux tribe's prophecy of a dangerous black snake — now, she says, in the form of the company building the Dakota Access Pipeline through tribal lands.
Klein won't even use the words, "natural gas." She says that's just a marketing tool. Really, she says, what we're talking about here is methane — which makes up about 97 percent of natural gas, she added.
Klein says the Sierra Club has been fighting this project "and every single inch" of pipeline in her state. The group is doing it by meeting it with state and federal politicians, and trying to force the state Public Utilities Regulatory Authority (PURA) to reopen its files on plans for more gas in the state.
"It's not at all clear that [Tennessee Gas] has enough customers," she said of the spur, adding that Connecticut is politically friendlier to the gas industry. Since 2015, she said, the cost of new pipeline buildouts within the state are incorporated into utility bills.
So when asked why it appears that Connecticut activists appear silent, she said the state's media had been enchanted by the industry.
"It doesn't just appear that we've been silenced — we've been silenced," she said.
"We're fighting every compressor station — everything," Klein said. "All of it is connected in some way, and at the end of the day, it's all about changing our energy strategy."
Big-ball vs. small-ball
Just down Cold Spring Road from Susan Baxter, Ron Bernard's house sits 270 feet from the pipeline corridor. Despite getting paid by the company to sign over the easement, he still speaks his mind, and likes to say he would have paid the company not to come here.
Like Baxter, Bernard and his wife, Jean Atwater-Williams started STOP, which early on, tried to take the matter up with FERC.
Having "lost" that fight, he says what Sugar Shack is doing "boosts morale" and is good.
"They're fighting a war against the industry and much broader principles, and the pipeline is a visible symbol," he said.
But even the good fight can make trouble in the day-to-day. Anything that stops work and delays the project might stretch out what was billed as a six-month affair, and force the company to work on Sundays, the only day residents get a break from noise and heavy truck traffic.
About two months into the work, Bernard explains why many Sandisfield residents are keeping their heads down.
"We want to get it done safely and get these guys out of here," he said.
Bernard also pointed to two conflicting dynamics in play locally.
"There is an apathy among people who aren't directly affected," he said. "A resignation to dealing with outside forces [and a] resentment. Other people are so angry with the company, if some [worker] is peeing on a tree, they're gonna nail him.
"It's small-ball and it gets us nowhere."
Reach staff writer Heather Bellow at 413-329-6871
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.