TransCanada, the giant energy firm building a pipeline from Oklahoma to the Texas coast as part of a project that would carry tar sands bitumen all the way from Canada, is finding more fight in some Texas landowners than the company probably expected.
Among them is Eleanor Fairchild, who lost part of her 350 acres in Winnsboro to the Canadian company. Fairchild, a 78-year-old great-grandmother, has become a thorn in TransCanada’s mammoth side.
The lengthy fight came to a head in January when TransCanada put its pipeline across one of several creeks on Fairchild’s property. At the top of a tall hill, the pipeline crews removed topsoil and cut down the trees. Not long after that, heavy rains dislodged tons of the underlying sand into one of the creeks, leaving a gaping crevice that the company still has not been able to remediate.
“I’ve never been involved with anything like this,” Fairchild told Fort Worth Weekly. “I’m not involved with any group, and yet TransCanada has called me an ‘environmental terrorist’ in one of their two lawsuits against me. That’s ridiculous. But I am out there fighting for everybody.”
Her newfound activism has led her to be arrested twice, once with actress Daryl Hannah, and to be threatened with arrest several other times.
Fairchild wasn’t opposed to allowing TransCanada an easement when the company first approached her in 2009. Her late husband Ray was a petroleum geologist for Hunt Oil for decades, including as a senior vice president.
“We made our living on oil, and I thought this pipeline was going to be carrying regular oil,” she said.
But by March 2010, she was chafing under the pressure from TransCanada. “They said I’d have to sign [to give them the easement] because they were coming. Period.” She didn’t sign.
A month later, at a U.S. State Department-hosted meeting in Tyler, she learned that the company would not be replanting vegetation on the easements. She also learned that the easement, which runs nearly a mile down her property, could not have a road put across it, a condition that would cut her off from her 90 acres on the other side.
“I just got mad that this was all their way, that people had no say in things,” Fairchild said. “So I started learning about tar sands.”
She learned, for instance, that tar sands spills are nearly impossible to clean up because the material sinks into the ground. And she didn’t like the fact that the easement TransCanada wanted would cross a spring-fed creek, one of several that help create about 25 acres of wetlands on her property. The springs combine to produce about 400 gallons of water per minute, which feed into a series of creeks and then into Cypress Lake.
Fairchild feared that a leak of the heavy, toxic hydrocarbons could ruin the springs. “I was also afraid of erosion because of the deep sand base, but they didn’t want to hear it,” she said.
The energy giant was adamant about the route, solidifying her opposition to the pipeline. “I saw a sign on a road one day calling for a stop to the pipeline and called the number on it,” she said, “and that’s how I got involved.”
The number was for David Daniel, a nearby landowner who wound up helping build the tree stands occupied for months by the Tar Sands Blockade (“Drawing a Line in the [Tar] Sand,” Oct. 17, 2012) that temporarily stymied pipeline construction.
Though she never joined the Blockade group, Fairchild learned about protesting. She began writing letters, talking to county commissioners and anyone who would listen about the dangers of the tar sands.
TransCanada was still pushing for the easement. The company first offered $42,000, then $60,000. When she still refused, the company used eminent domain law to force a settlement in May 2011. She was awarded $23,426, and TransCanada got permission to cut down her trees and lay pipe.
“I still refused to sign the papers, and I never touched that money,” Fairchild said. “It’s still in the courthouse.”
In August 2011 she joined a two-week sit-in at the White House to heighten public awareness about what the Keystone XL would be carrying. Along with 1,200 others, she was arrested.
But she kept speaking out, and when TransCanada began to work on the pipeline in the Winnsboro area last summer, she allowed a documentary crew to use her guesthouse. Over the next two months the crew filmed the Blockade tree-sitters as TransCanada cleared a swath of land several miles long.
One day, the film crew introduced Fairchild to Hannah. Then last Oct. 4, Fairchild said, “When the tree cutters were working on my land, ruining my property, they asked if I’d stand in front of the equipment to stop them. Daryl came too.”
Hannah was quickly arrested. Sheriff’s deputies told Fairchild to go home. “I told them it was my land, and I had a right to be on it,” she recalled. “Then I asked them what was going to happen with Daryl, and when they wouldn’t tell me, I told them they’d have to arrest me too. And they did.”
Both women were released within a few hours.
A week later, TransCanada sued Fairchild twice, once as part of a SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) action filed against everyone arrested during the Tar Sands Blockade protests and in a second action to force her to sign the contract for the land they’d already taken.
In January, storms dropped four inches of rain in Winnsboro and one of Fairchild’s fears became a reality. A crevice nearly eight feet deep, five feet wide, and 12 feet long opened up at the point where the pipe crossed her stream, sending tons of sand into the creek, threatening the spring flow.
“It was just awful,” said Kathy Da Silva, a founding member of NacStop.org, an organization dedicated to stopping the Keystone XL.
TransCanada tried to mitigate the problem with only partial success. Fairchild decided to reach out to government agencies for help.
“I called the soil conservation people at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but they said they had no jurisdiction. I called TCEQ (Texas Commission on Environmental Quality), and they said they couldn’t do anything about erosion. I called the Railroad Commission, and they said they only gave out pipeline permits but have no jurisdiction over them. I called everybody — the Department of Transportation pipeline safety people, the Army Corps of Engineers — who gave the permit to TransCanada to cross my creek and got no response. Even the EPA said they couldn’t do anything until there is a spill.”
It’s been an education, she said. “I keep telling these people they work for us, but then we can’t get any help? That’s just crazy.”
In the latest go-round, TransCanada’s lawyers offered to drop the suits if Fairchild would just sign the contract. “I told them the lawsuits are the least of my worries,” she said.
In the last few weeks, TransCanada has agreed to a couple of Fairchild’s demands, primarily that she not be prevented from protesting the pipeline if she signs.
“I’ve learned that our government is not there to help us — not when you’re fighting the big guys,” she said. “I think I’ll be an activist for the rest of my life so that others don’t have to go through the same thing.”