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Emotions run high at Alpine pipeline meeting

July 16th, 2015 under Top Stories

By SASHA von OLDERSHAUSEN

ALPINE – The pipeline opposition waved makeshift red flags crafted out of pieces of red bandana and secured to pencils in silent protest of a public meeting hosted by Energy Transfer Partners regarding the Trans Pecos Pipeline last Wednesday. But the meeting was anything but silent.

In fact, the pipeline meeting reached deeply emotional—and at times even, ideological—heights.

Hundreds packed into a conference room at Sul Ross State University to attend the Alpine meeting, which was a far cry from the previous night’s gathering in Presidio, where only 40 to 50 heads were present, and where the overall mood was relatively cool.

There was a strong presence by the Big Bend Conservation Alliance, despite the fact that the group—which has been instrumental in spearheading the pipeline opposition campaign—previously stated it would boycott the meeting. Days before the meeting, the organization disseminated a news release that stated it would, indeed, attend.

Last week the Big Bend Conservation Alliance (BBCA) issued a statement indicating we would not be attending Energy Transfer Partner’s (ETP) town hall meetings in Presidio and Alpine on the grounds that we had enough facts to determine that the Trans-Pecos Pipeline (TPP) was unequivocally bad for the region. No additional information would be required,” the news release stated.

“However, following our announcement, the BBCA received an overwhelming number of requests from citizens and local elected officials asking that we attend these meetings in recognition of the BBCA’s leadership in opposing the TPP.”

BBCA representative David Keller stood in the lobby of SRSU’s Espino Conference Center beside a table containing various flyers pertaining to the proposed pipeline project and the organization’s concerns with it—including one entitled “ETP’s Safety Record.”

In the conference room, attendance was so heavy, people stood along the edge of the room for lack of seats.

The pipeline panel included ETP and Pumpco Inc. reps – as well as Larry Gremminger, an environmental scientist with the environmental planning consulting firm Gremminger and Associates, Inc.

ETP vice president of engineering Rick Smith, who led the talk, delivered a near-identical presentation to the one he gave in Presidio, but was met with a much different reception.

As Smith spoke, members of the audience waved their flags in response to claims they deemed dubious. Some heckled and laughed. Early in his presentation, Smith remarked that he would not be taking questions concerning the recent ETP pipeline rupture in Cuero, Texas. He was met with peels of laughter and more red flags.

Following the presentation, the panel opened the floor to a Q&A. While some asked specific questions pertaining to the pipeline project, many took the opportunity to pose more philosophical and ethical questions of the panel.

“I wanted to ask about safety, eminent domain, local jobs, community benefits, water use, restoration of the land, compression stations,” said Sylvia Nelson, a rancher from Brewster County whose land is in the path of the proposed pipeline route. “Instead, I would like for each of you to tell me, tell us, what you see in this audience. Do you see a bunch of crazed people? What I see are concerned citizens that love Brewster County and we want what’s best for us. So tell me what you see when you look out into the crowd.”

The panel took turns answering. Jeff Whippo, ETP’s director of operations, said, “I see much as you described; a bunch of concerned citizens. The fact that folks are here to ask questions and to listen to the answers that we have shows that concern. And I appreciate the questions as they come and look forward to answering some.”

John Bilhartz, who is responsible for the construction of the pipeline project responded: “I agree with Jeff in the fact that I see a lot of people who are concerned. They are passionate, and rightfully so. I also see some people who are scared with some misinformation. We’re just trying to get the facts out. We don’t want people to be scared. I build pipelines as my living. So I can appreciate the concern. I just don’t want people to be unnecessarily concerned.”

BBCA representative Mark Glover took the dialogue to more hyperbolic proportions by alluding to the Nazi occupation in comparison to certain scare tactics he alleged the pipeline company of committing. These allegations have not yet been confirmed.

“My mother grew up in Nazi Austria. In 1939, she was five years old. They marched all the school children to the train station because Adolf Hitler was touring the region. They were told to stand there and told to do the ‘Sieg Heil.’ The train was late for two hours. If you dared drop your hand or tried to support it, you were struck with a black rod,” Glover said.

“I recall that story only because of something that happened at Lajitas resort, which is owned by a Dallas billionaire, where a food service worker was fired because they opposed the Trans-Pecos Pipeline. The black rod. Four days later, a woman who had been taking care of his spread in another area was also fired because she opposed the Trans-Pecos Pipeline.”

He added, “And I wonder how you would address that in your heart because I imagine you all feel like you’re good men.”

Glover’s speech was met with resounding applause and whistles. ETP’s Jeff Whippo took the opportunity to respond: “I would just like to say something that comes from the bottom of my heart. I am a Christian and I’ve worked for this company or some form of it for 34 years and I’m still here because in those 34 years I’ve never been asked to do something that I believed was wrong and I don’t know a lot of places I could go and say that.”

The dialogue proceeded much the same way and exceeded the 7pm deadline that the pipeline company had designated for public comment.

Alyce Santoro, an outspoken opponent of the pipeline, said, “You’re so willing to talk about the benefits. What are the real losses to our community?”

Another woman broke down in tears at the podium.

There were few who expressed their support of the pipeline, most of whom were met with silence or sparse applause from the handful of audience members who shared the same views.

What unfolded was an evocative glimpse into what has become a vastly divisive issue for the region—one characterized by much the same polarized rhetoric that defines our bipartisan political system, in which voices overlay other voices, sometimes overshadowing the more salient questions and concerns, and in which there is seemingly little room for a middle ground.

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