Tree-sitters blockading the path of the Keystone XL pipeline in Texas closed the first month of their campaign on Wednesday with fortitude and a fresh arrest.
The blockade is part of a larger protest around that state that has seen lawsuits, restraining orders and 32 arrests—and that shows no sign of abating.
The tree protesters, ensconced on 80-foot-high platforms, passed the misty Wednesday morning in calm, receiving encouraging text messages and walkie-talkie calls from activists outside their encampment in Winnsboro, a tiny town about 100 miles east of Dallas.
A half-hour’s drive away, the day began with much more activity.
Cherri Foytlin, a 40-year-old mother of six, approached the entrance to a pipe yard storing construction materials for the Keystone XL. She swung shut two metal gates, looped thick metal chains around her waist and locked herself to both doors. For about an hour and a half Foytlin sat chained on the ground before being arrested. According to Ramsey Sprague, a spokesperson for the Tar Sands Blockade, the activist group behind the tree encampment and other Texas protests, Foytlin hindered several trucks from entering and exiting the site.
TransCanada, the pipeline’s builder, told InsideClimate News construction is moving along as planned. “These efforts by protestors to keep hard working Americans from getting to their jobs is not impacting construction,” spokesperson David Dodson said.
Foytlin, whose husband is an offshore oil rig worker, is an environmental justice advocate from Louisiana known for her criticism of recovery efforts following the 2010 BP oil spill.
Sprague, the blockade spokesperson, was driving to meet Foytlin at the county jail when he spoke with InsideClimate News. He said she was charged with criminal trespassing on a “critical infrastructure facility,” a Class A misdemeanor, which carries the highest penalty for that offense. Sprague said it was the first Class A charge against the protesters, and that bail had been posted at $2,500. As with the other 31 arrests, the Tar Sands Blockade raised money to pay the bail.
The protestors—who are mainly Texas residents and landowners—launched the civil disobedience in mid-August around Houston and in Oklahoma. Work on the pipeline’s southern leg, renamed the Gulf Coast Pipeline Project, started in Texas on Aug. 9 after it received government approval in July. The tree blockade began on Sept. 24. A handful of activists have been arrested at the tree site. The other arrests took place on properties along the pipeline’s route.
The protests have drawn increasing attention around the country, particularly following the Oct. 4 arrests of actress Daryl Hannah and Eleanor Fairchild, a 78-year-old Texas landowner. The pair stood in front a bulldozer that was clearing a path for the pipe on Fairchild’s farm in Winnsboro. The women were charged with criminal trespassing. A week later, two reporters for the New York Times were handcuffed and detained by an off-duty police officer working as a security guard for TransCanada.
Foytlin, the latest person arrested, spoke with InsideClimate News shortly after she left the Titus County jail on Wednesday evening. She explained that she flew to Houston three days earlier to learn how Texas landowners were being affected by the pipeline construction.
Foytlin said she was moved to act due to conversations with some landowners who said they felt forced to sign contracts with TransCanada or had to surrender their property under eminent domain. “I felt like I didn’t have any choice,” she said. “These people don’t have a voice.” Last summer, Foytlin was one of about 1,200 people arrested at the White House in a high-profile civil disobedience action against the Keystone XL.
Dodson, the TransCanada spokesperson, vehemently denied claims of coercing landowners. “TransCanada always treats landowners with respect,” he said. He added that more than 90 percent of the properties along the pipeline’s route came from voluntary agreements with landowners, not from court action or eminent domain.
Foytlin and others say they worry about environmental damage in the event of an accident on the line and about air pollution problems in Gulf Coast communities from refining the tar sands crude the Keystone XL would carry.
TransCanada has said the Gulf Coast portion of the Keystone XL now under construction would primarily transport oil produced in Oklahoma and Texas, not Canadian crude. The section will run 485 miles between Cushing, Okla. and Texas and is expected to be up and running in late 2013.
The Keystone XL system’s northern leg, which still needs approval from the State Department because it crosses an international border, would carry crude from Canada’s oil sands to Steel City, Neb., and would connect to the southern leg via an existing pipeline that runs from Steele City to Cushing.
Inside the Protests
Activists allege the Texas protests have been marked by police abuse during arrests and intimidation techniques by security guards who work for TransCanada. Earlier this month, crews cleared trees 10 feet from where the protestors were stationed.
TransCanada recently shifted the right-of-way for the pipeline to avoid the tree blockaders. Seifert confirmed on Wednesday that construction now circumvents the blockade entirely and said he doesn’t expect any more close encounters with crews.
When asked if the Tar Sands Blockade would move the tree village in the direct path of the pipeline, Seifert said the organization’s “defining commitment” is “to stop this pipeline … We intend to follow [construction] closely with protests and blockades.”
Attorneys for TransCanada have filed at least two separate lawsuits against the protestors, one on Oct. 15 in Wood County, where Winnsboro is located, and one on Sept. 21 in the neighboring Franklin County. The defendants listed are: the Tar Sands Blockade, its spokespeople Sprague and Seifert and nearly 10 other individuals and organizations.
Both lawsuits seek to permanently stop the defendants from “interfering with, preventing or otherwise infringing in any way” with the pipeline’s construction or from physically occupying the pipeline’s right-of-way. For now, temporary restraining orders have been put in place, and court hearings for both are set to take place in November.
Dodson said that TransCanada’s main reason for requesting restraining orders was safety. The protestors “are on active construction sites, and they’re not wearing the proper protective equipment. They’re endangering our employees and they’re endangering themselves,” he said.
The tree blockade sits on the private property of David Daniel, a longtime opponent of the Keystone XL. The pipeline will run directly down the middle of his 20-acre of property.
Seifert said that on any given day, two to nine protestors occupy the tree platforms, while about four or five people remain on land. Last week, about 50 activists showed up at the site to refill food and safety supplies. No construction activity has taken place in the past few days. More than a dozen security guards and police officers continue to patrol the construction site.
A Show of Solidarity
Foytlin’s actions at the pipe yard coincided with the daylong “Defend Our Coast” protests in British Columbia, Canada, against Enbridge’s proposed Northern Gateway pipeline to Kitimat on the Pacific coast and Kinder Morgan’s plans to double the size of its Trans Mountain pipeline to Vancouver.
More than 60 Canadian communities hosted sit-ins and rallies that drew thousands of opponents.
In a gesture of solidarity, Foytlin tied a banner to the gate that read “Defend All Coasts from British Columbia to the Gulf Coast.”
Foytlin said her first priority after leaving jail was to get back to her six children in Rayne, La. Her husband will leave soon to continue his work on an offshore oil rig.
She said she plans to quickly organize a birthday party for her 10-year-old and will then continue to raise awareness about the Keystone XL pipeline through her activist work, including the Gulf Change environmental justice group she co-founded.
“I can tell you that this mama is not going to stop protecting her cubs, no matter what it takes,” she said.