Protecting Western Massachusetts Farms: Down with Fracking and the Kinder Morgan Pipeline

Coauthored by Portia Williams Weiskel

Photo: Emily Greene

For residents of Western Massachusetts, the famous Shay's Rebellion of 1786-87 has yet to come to an end. The issue then was the rights of farmers who had fought for the American Revolution. Through the years other misguided and invasive projects have been proposed for our beautiful New England region and subsequently halted -- the most spectacular act of resistance being local resident Sam Lovejoy's daring gesture (on George Washington's birthday, 1974) of toppling the huge weather data collecting towers erected by Northeast Utilities intending to build twin nuclear reactors in the town of Montague.

Now the issue is the extension of the Tennessee Gas Pipeline proposal by Kinder Morgan starting in the Berkshire/Tanglewood region on the Massachusetts-New York border. As planned, the 100-foot-wide pipeline is intended to cross the northern tier of Massachusetts bringing fracked gas from Pennsylvania to an export site in the town of Dracut on the Atlantic coastline north of Boston. All things considered (read on) this is the most insane idea to come our way in a long time. For one thing, the pathway will uproot hundreds of acres of pristine forested land, productive farmland, and orchards supported by state funding and tax dollars to be preserved in perpetuity. And gas acquired by fracking? We do need energy sources, but "fracked" gas, in the judgment of many well-informed -- and others just using their common sense -- is not a sound solution.

So, once again, we stop our lives (perhaps better to think these efforts are our lives) and head to a part of Franklin County we know well from years of searching for wild grapes to make jam each fall. The event is an anti-pipeline demonstration, part of a "rolling walk" along the proposed pipeline route, which ends in Dracut with a rally planned on the Boston Common on July 30 at 11 a.m. Today we are at the Clarkdale Fruit Farms in Deerfield. (See more information on the rolling walk on the group's website.)

Across the familiar rolling orchard fields rising to the highest ridgeline is a line of red balloons marking the proposed pipeline route. Earlier in the day, farmers Tom Clark and son Ben (who will be carrying on the fourth generation of the family farm) took a group of people from the protest event up the hill to point out the 100-foot wide swath of peach trees, which the pipeline project will destroy. Everyone knows these peaches. Nectarines, cherries, grapes, plums, pears, quince, and about a hundred kinds of apples.

The Clarkdale Fruit Farms event brought together an impressive group of concerned citizens and landowners. State Senator Stephen Kulik addressed the crowd. "Is [the pipeline] necessary for Massachusetts? I've concluded that it's not. I'm convinced that we can satisfy our energy needs for the future through conservation and more renewables, a smarter energy policy. Increasing the use of carbon fuels is not going to benefit us in the long term." Kulik said:

The vast majority of the gas is going elsewhere, and yet we will bear the burden of the environmental impact, the public safety concerns and just the quality-of-life issue. Public awareness on this issue across the state is not where it is here. This march is a great way to bring attention to it.

Long-term local celebrity residents Bill and Camille Cosby issued a statement read aloud to the gathering: "

The Cosby Family has been and is committed to preserving nature's beauties and a healthy environment for humans. We honor your collaborative determination and strength to oppose the Kinder-Morgan Tennessee Gas Pipeline's plan to penetrate our region with its toxicities... and it has political allies; such as, all six New England governors. That is astounding.
Those entities are clear examples of disrespect for humans, flora and fauna. Thank you for challenging its egregious, exploitive strategies to encroach this magnificent area.

Photo: Julia Blyth

Kinder Morgan has already begun surveying land in Western Massachusetts, even as the number of landowners refusing access is growing. Last week, the New York Times reported on one farmer's attempt to keep surveyors off his land. Without help from the state, landowners could be nearly powerless to stop this behemoth energy company. Only one Massachusetts state law, Article 97, may be able to protect landowners against Kinder Morgan's taking of easements. The law requires a two-thirds vote by the state Legislature to allow the taking of any lands or easements on land that is already protected by the state. However, this only applied to certain segments of the proposed route.

Many citizens are concerned by the shady-backroom-deal feeling of the whole process. Nick Miller from Stop the Pipeline wrote:

[Kinder Morgan] would very much prefer that the public not know the details of their pipeline plans. They don't want you questioning the wisdom of their preferred pipeline route and they certainly don't want you questioning whether we in fact need this huge new pipeline at all.

Photo: Pat Worth

Kinder Morgan plans to file for a permit to continue the surveying from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in September.

U.S. Congressman James McGovern (D-MA) has also expressed concern over Kinder Morgan's lack of transparency. He told the Greenfield Recorder "The process is overly secretive and vague. ...We're being told we need this pipeline because it's important to Massachusetts, yet we have no guarantee the price of energy is going to go down, but we know that Massachusetts ratepayers are going to pay for construction of this. People ought to know what they're paying for." He continued, "I am very much against this pipeline. The current proposal ought to be brought to a halt, and I'm joining the march to support people raising their voices and to make it clear I agree with them."

Such an issue is sure to reactivate the old revolutionary energies to oppose this kind of corporate determination to control our lives. Once again it's the very specific rights of farmers and landowners being dismissed, overlooked, not even considered...

One can picture the scene: Kinder Morgan officials, sitting around a table, designing this section of the route for the pipeline. Without our knowing what initial calculations were in place, we are certain those planners had no idea what consequences their pipeline would have for this part of the planet and the ecosystems within. The woodlands, breeding grounds, everything down to the insect colonies. The continuity of local economies based on the productive farms, pastures, and, orchards. All kinds of people, especially the landowners whose daily lives, livelihoods, long term plans, proud loyalties to family legacies and traditions. All of it changed utterly.

Portia Williams Weiskel is an organic farmer, writer, and editor living in Western Massachusetts.

Lucia Green-Weiskel is Portia's daughter.