The trouble for Lori Collins and her family started the day in early October 2012 when a backhoe plunged into the earth. Lori walked outside her farmhouse, in the East Texas bottomlands south of Paris, to see that her septic system had been torn from the ground to make way for a pipeline. She saw the piping scattered in the dirt on the side of a great trench—the future home of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, which could eventually stretch from northern Alberta, Canada, to the Texas Gulf Coast, carrying diluted bitumen to refineries that will transform it into crude oil.
TransCanada Corporation’s construction of the Texas section of the Keystone pipeline has been met with angry protests from environmentalists and some landowners. But the Collins family, and Lori in particular, was happy to see the pipeline come through their property. The money was good, but there were personal reasons, too. Big-haired, blonde and brassy, Lori grew up as the only daughter in a family of oilfield workers. In the TransCanada contractors she saw a reflection of her two brothers, pipefitters who lived their lives as nomads on various lines across the country, working hard and living hard. (One of her brothers died from a gunshot in a hotel room in Oklahoma, where he was working on a pipeline project. The crime was never solved.) So when the work crews arrived she drove out to the pipeline easement in her Suburban and, during the day—while her children were at school and her husband, J.B., was out in the fields—she fed them home-cooked beans, cornbread and cobbler. When the worker-safety supervisors yelled at them for letting a civilian without protective gear onto the construction site, they scrounged her up a flame-retardant jumpsuit and TransCanada helmet.
So perhaps it’s a potent metaphor for the project that for a year and a half, TransCanada left a family inundated in its own ****.
Then came that October day in 2012 when Lori walked outside to find considerable damage to her septic system. Like many rural families, the Collinses pumped their sewage to a central tank, and from there it went into smaller pipes that drained waste into their fields. It was these lines, which drained into the fields, that TransCanada had ripped from the ground to clear the pipeline route. So Lori went to the construction site and found a supervisor. She showed him the damage; he promised that he would tell his supervisor and that they would fix it promptly.
Lori was not, at that point, too concerned. TransCanada owns more than 42,000 miles of oil and natural gas pipelines that spread across the continent from Canada to Mexico, crossing the land of thousands of private owners. In promotional videos and media statements, TransCanada’s representatives tout their devotion to landowners. The company line, repeated in press and ad copy, is that people like the Collinses are “not just landowners, they’re valued neighbors.” The company even produced a series of promotional videos showing farmers and TransCanada land agents walking through rolling fields of grain: pipeline easements, lovingly restored by the company. The series is called “Good Neighbors.”
During the next two years, that “Good Neighbors” line would become, for Lori Collins and others like her, a bitter joke. A few days after her family’s septic system was destroyed, construction crews piled all the dirt they had dug up on top of the remaining pipe, the one draining the Collinses’ septic tank, effectively plugging it. The family watched helplessly as raw sewage flooded back into the house, soaking the carpets and walls and leaving black mold in its wake. For a year and a half—as their foundation slid toward the growing fetid lake of sewage in their front yard, as they got sick, as disposing of their own waste became a daily problem—the Collins family relentlessly and unsuccessfully tried to get someone to fix the damage. “We trusted them,” Lori Collins told me. “That was the biggest mistake we ever made.”
For the last four years, the country has fought over the future of the remainder of the Keystone XL pipeline. Much of the national political debate over the Keystone XL—and whether the Obama administration should grant the pipeline final approval—has centered on the project’s impact on climate change (extracting and burning the Alberta bitumen will unleash an enormous amount of carbon into the atmosphere). But there’s been another fight, happening all along the planned route, over what damage the pipeline and its contents will do to the land and, more important, the extent to which TransCanada can be trusted to repair it. To these questions, TransCanada has said, essentially: Trust us. Another common company talking point: “It’ll be the safest pipeline ever built on U.S. soil.”