Sabin Russell Science Writer


Interacting with the Marvelous Marvin Cohen, Berkeley Physicist

Posted by Sabin Russell

Cohen_Albert, Marvin and Frank

Illustration by Mark Ulriksen.

My freelance days are drawing to a close (once again) as I prepare to start a new job in Seattle as a writer for Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Before I was hired, I completed another assignment for the great Wendy Miller at California Magazine, the alumni magazine of UC Berkeley. It is a profile of Marvin Cohen, a Berkeley physicist who pioneered the use of computers and quantum mechanics to understand the mysteries of solid materials such as silicon. He is a delightful man whose life as a theoretical physicist is intertwined with his love of music. His work has been extremely important in materials sciences and in the development of the semiconductor industry.

The article is now published on the California Alumni Association website



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So Long, San Francisco…Hello, Seattle

Posted by Sabin Russell

Well, it's been a wonderful 35 years in the City by the Bay, in this land of Giants and great friends of every shape and size. But folks, we're running out of water here, and so I am heading north, like an old wildebeest with a dry throat and a vague fear of lions. There are still jobs for Boomers in Seattle, I found. The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center has hired me to write about their good work, and I am delighted to do so. These are the people who pioneered bone marrow transplantation to treat leukemia, and their expertise in immunology extends to worldwide trials of AIDS vaccines. Surprising and important things are happening in cancer research lately. These are exciting, encouraging times. Fred Hutch is in the thick of it, and little more than a month from today, I'll be there, too.

Fred Larson Fog Bridge

                                                                                                          Photo: Fred Larson

Hutch and Rainer

                                                                                                 Photo: Fred Hutch


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Meet the Tanderups

Posted by Sabin Russell

Here is the best, in-depth interview I've seen about the real people in the United States who have the most to lose if the Keystone XL pipeline is ever built. They have also been the most effective in fighting this thing. If it is ever stopped, it will be because of farmers like Art and Helen Tanderup. I've met them in Nebraska, and they are the real deal. Every member of Congress who votes to approve Keystone XL is, in effect, handing TransCanada the keys to the bulldozers that will run over good citizens like the Tanderups -- all for the benefit of a foreign corporation demanding a route through the American Heartland to sell tar sands oil overseas. Here is the interview, by reporter Kate Aronoff, published on the website Waging Nonviolence:

How Nebraskans are winning the fight against Keystone XL

Art Tanderup and his wife speaking at Harvest the Hope in September 2014. (Flickr / Hear Nebraska / Chris Dinan)Senate Democrats filibustered a measure yesterday that would speed up the vote on whether to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, which could take the decision on Keystone out of the hands of both the White House and the State Department. Known as cloture, the move — pushed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — would have effectively quashed 12 amendments to the bill brought by Democrats, including one to close the “Haliburton loophole” and mandate that gas drilling companies comply with the Safe Drinking Water Act, and another to require that oil companies contribute money to government clean-up efforts in the event of spills or leakage. In the wake of the 50,000 gallon crude oil spill into Montana’s Yellowstone River on January 17, the result of a pipeline “breach,” Republicans’ efforts seem especially bold. As congressional Republicans jockey to rush approval of the controversial infrastructure project, the millions who live along the Keystone XL’s proposed route have been left out of the conversation on Capitol Hill.Art Tanderup is a farmer and retired schoolteacher. He and his wife, Helen, live in Antelope County, Neb., just outside the town of Neligh along the eastern Sandhills and over the Ogallala Aquifer, which supplies water to over 80 percent of High Plains residents — around 2.3 million people. A few years ago, a representative from TransCanada told the Tanderups that the Keystone XL pipeline would run directly through their property, offering — as they had other landowners in the region — money to sign an “easement,” or legal right of way for the company to build on their farm. After researching the pipeline and the tar sands, Art became involved with Bold Nebraska, which has been a leading voice in the fight against the pipeline since its founding in 2010. Since that time, Art has been active in the movement against the Keystone XL pipeline in Nebraska and at the national level, working with the Cowboy Indian Alliance and advocating against the pipeline in Washington, D.C. Last fall, Tanderup Farms hosted Willie Nelson, Neil Young and thousands from around the country for the “Harvest of Hope” concert, a benefit for Bold Nebraska, the Indigenous Environmental Network and the Cowboy Indian Alliance.

I spoke with Art recently about his efforts to stop the pipeline on its frontlines.

How did you become involved with the fight against the Keystone XL?

The governor of Nebraska had told TransCanada that he would not allow it over the Ogallala Aquifer or in the Sandhills. And so they had to move the route east about 50 miles. When they released that map, we saw that it would be close to us. Then, about a week after that, we received a visit from a TransCanada land agent who wanted us to think that we’d won the lottery and that we should be so happy it was coming across our farm and through our county, and [for] all these wonderful things that it would do for us.

Were there groups organizing against it at that time?

We had not really researched this at all. From the media we understood that it was an oil pipeline. We thought everything was good and wonderful with it; that we just needed to watch out for the environment and so forth. And then after we discovered that it was going to be on our property we started researching it and discovered all the dangers, all the issues surrounding it. It wasn’t too long before we met Jane Kleeb, Bold Nebraska and the Nebraska Easement Action Team. We went to some meetings, and joined with other landowners to battle this. Probably within a month after we found out that it was going to be on our property we started down a path that continues today.

How is the work going now?

In Antelope County, as of right now, there are about 90 landowners who are affected by this. At this point, approximately 60 of them have signed easements with TransCanada, and there are 30 of us who have not. They’ve threatened eminent domain on a lot of people, scaring them into signing. They’ve also made signing bonuses to entice people. They gave back easements on the first route to get people to sign down here with the belief that, if this doesn’t go through, they’ll get their easement back and they’ll get to keep the money. They’ve done all kinds of tactics to get people to sign. I think we have a group of us now that doesn’t care how much money they would give us. We’re not going to sign because we feel that the land and the water is much more important than a potential spill into the aquifer.

Of those 30 land owners, had any of them been involved with any sort of organizing before?

No, it’s all a bunch of farmers out here. I don’t have a lot of activism background. I was a teacher for 35 years and was involved in some education campaigns, educational issues, educational lobbying and so forth. So, probably in this county of all the people that are fighting this I have the most experience, which isn’t a lot of experience.

The Keystone XL has become a national issue since you got involved a few years ago. Have you seen the conversation on the pipeline change in the county in anyway?

Has it ever. This has pitted neighbor against neighbor. It’s pitted family member against family member. This thing is destroying a lot of relationships that have existed for years. That is one of the most unfortunate things about it. This is my wife’s family farm that we moved back to, so people know of her and her family. They didn’t know me, but a lot of them know who I am now. In small town rural America, everyone says “hi” to everybody when you pass them on the street or see them at the store. There are people that won’t talk to me, but yet there are other people that will step aside to you and say, quietly, “We’re with you. Thank you for doing what you’re doing.” Yet, they won’t go to the extent of making bold statements about it. They’re not used to getting involved in such a controversial topic. There are a lot of businesses that are trying to stay neutral because they have customers on both sides of the issue. It puts the residents of the county, and residents probably all up and down this line, into some really awkward situations. It’s kind of “us” and “them.” It shouldn’t be that way. It should be a community that gets along; neighbors who work together like they have for a long time. That side of it is really sad because there are wounds that are developing and I don’t know if those will ever be healed, regardless of how this thing comes out.

Does that have to do a lot with people being offered large sums of money? Does it have to do with jobs being offered along the pipeline route? What all goes into that?

They offer a landowner a large amount of money just as a signing bonus. They might give them $40,000-$50,000 just as a signing bonus, and farmers generally incur a lot of debt. So having some extra income will help with that. They probably haven’t researched this thing enough to know what they’re getting themselves into. Knowing the potential liability and the potential complications that they’re leaving themselves open to, as well as the rest of their land and water.

One of the arguments that we’ve had to deal with a lot in the county is the fact that they’re obviously going to have to pay some business property taxes for a period of 15 years. That tax starts out at a high level and it decreases down to nothing after 15 years. People are seeing this tax income as a wonderful thing for the county, the schools and so forth, and that’s one of the selling points that they use, as they go talk to people in the communities. Nebraska is a high property tax state, so having some money to offset property taxes is a wonderful thing. I’d like to see some money to offset property taxes, but it’s just another way to entice people to be supportive of this thing.

They talk a little bit about local jobs. There won’t be local jobs; they’re going to bring the people in. They try to convince the community that they’re going to see a lot of extra local business, but they’re also going to see some of the negative impacts. The history is there in North Dakota; it’s there up in Canada, where you get young workers who come in with the alcohol issues, drug issues and violence against local women. Besides the little bit of business they’re going to bring in, [the workers] are probably not going to be staying within 30 miles of this county. They’ll be staying in other directions and coming in and working here. So, most of that money will be spent in larger communities, and it won’t go much to the local economy. Some of the people are convinced gas prices will go down. Some people thoroughly believe this thing won’t leak. They believe it’s pure oil coming through here. They don’t know what tar sands are, and they don’t know how dangerous they are and the chemicals are that they put in with them. I told them they can never clean it up. Once it gets in that water, it’s going to be impossible to clean it up. That aquifer is a giant sponge, basically, of sand and gravel. That stuff will start moving. It’s not really a river, but that water does have some underground movement to it, so it will move to other areas beyond the spill.

Has there been much conversation abound climate change?

Out here? Out here we have a lot of climate denial. I try to explain it to people when we have conversations about the changes in weather. We’ve just been experiencing this very unordinary cold spell as we did last winter. Last summer, we had unbelievably bad weather: tornadoes, double tornadoes, a lot of destruction, many more hail storms. We had a lot of violent weather. When I talk to people about the climate change that’s causing this, they’re to a large degree saying “It’s just one of those one in 500 year things.” Consequently, there are a few people that are concerned about climate change, and for the rest of them it’s not really on their agenda.

What gives you hope that this pipeline can be defeated?

Reporters have asked me, “What’s with this Nebraska deal? You guys seem to be stopping this thing.” It’s true. We’ve got to give a lot of credit to Jane Kleeb of Bold Nebraska, the Bold Nebraska organization and the Cowboy Indian Alliance. It’s such an unusual thing for farmers, ranchers and Native Americans to come together and work so hard on an issue. To me, that’s been one of the most rewarding things in my life is to work together on something like this, even though I hate what we’re having to do, the actual process of it has been very rewarding.

I honestly believe that if it goes through the public service commission and there has to be a pipeline, the route will be changed. It will be taken off the major part of the aquifer, and out of the Sandhills completely. I also believe that it will not go through Native American treaty land in South Dakota. They have the right to determine whether or not that pipeline comes through their treaty land, which is basically everything west of the Missouri River in South Dakota, actually coming down into parts of Nebraska.

As time goes on here, we’re starting to see that there’s really not a need for this pipeline anymore. Some of the investors are even starting to drop off, so that’s a good sign. I really think, one way or another, we’re going to defeat this thing. I think the president is ultimately going to reject it. I’m not sure what the next actions will be, but I know there will be some. Depending on what they are, where they are, and when they are, we’ll probably be involved in some of them. My wife and I, we’ve made a commitment: If we have to spend every last dime we have, we’re going to fight this thing. We aren’t rich people, but it’s more important that we protect the land and the water because without those things life is going to cease to exist.

What happens if the pipeline is defeated? Say, best-case scenario, either investors drop out and the project loses funding or there’s a federal mandate that it doesn’t get built. What happens then, if that day comes?

Obviously there’s going to be one heck of a big party back here. (Laughs) I’m generally not a person that parties, but there will be one big party back here. I’ve learned so much about some things that I’d not learned much about before. I guess we need to move on and we need to do other things that are going to save this earth. We need to really look seriously into all the fracking issues because that’s getting bad. We need to somehow encourage the use of renewable fuels, solar, wind and resources that don’t take from the earth, but give back to it. We’ll do what we can to help with that movement as well.

Stopping the Keystone XL is going to be a big statement in the climate change arena because it’s going to say, “Okay, this is the turning point: we’re starting to wean ourselves off dirty fuel and we’re moving to clean energy.” I see that as the greatest legacy that President Obama could be left with, making sure the pipeline doesn’t happen so that we can start that path from dirty to clean. It’s already been started, but to really get moving with it. And I think that can happen.

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Let’s Hear It from Principled Republicans

Posted by Sabin Russell

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERARepublicans have made themselves very difficult to love in the 21st century, but I have to confess I admire the fact that they do believe in a set of principles and usually shape their policies accordingly. I really do think of principled policy-making as a virtue, even when I disagree with those principles, and wish there was more of it among Democrats in the political left and center of our country.

So it drives me to distraction that the newly empowered Republican leadership is about to trash what I thought was one of their core beliefs: the sanctity of private property.

I am talking, of course, about what is oddly the top Republican priority after the party gained control of the Senate in November: To punch Canada’s Keystone XL pipeline through the heartland of America. A yes vote by the Senate this week will be an endorsement of the use of eminent domain to seize the private property of Americans, for the purpose of fattening the balance sheets of a foreign corporation.

There is no need here to go over the compelling environmental case to stop Keystone. I just wish, when the Senate debate takes place on January 7, that even a single Republican senator of principle would actually stand by principle in the world’s greatest deliberative body. Could just one of them take a deep breath and look into why he or she would invoke the state power of eminent domain against American property owners for a Canadian pipeline company? Make no mistake: A green light for Keystone XL means the seizure of the private property of a large number of Nebraska landowners, ranchers, and farmers — for the benefit of a foreign corporation demanding the shortest and cheapest route to oil markets outside the United States.

Eminent domain is a valid form of state power that has been invoked numerous times in our nation’s history since the 1800s. It is the seizure of land — with fair compensation — to achieve a public good. So eminent domain is used to condemn property to create parks or to build a public school, or to locate an airport, an interstate highway, or a new city hall. In recent years, the use of eminent domain has been expanded, in hotly contested legal cases, to condemn private businesses and homes for redevelopment projects, under the theory that removal of blighted property and construction of fancier places boosts the tax base and benefits the community. Personally, I don’t buy that, but it’s where the law is today.

And where is the law going? With Keystone XL, the power of eminent domain in the United States is, unbelievably, being extended for the financial benefit of a foreign business: TransCanada Corporation, of Calgary, Alberta. In the already built, southern stage of the pipeline project, just one landowner, Julia Trigg Crawford, of Paris, Texas, was brave enough to challenge the use of eminent domain. A Texas judge tossed out her case — literally issuing his ruling in a 15-word text message on his cellphone. Eventually the Texas Supreme Court declined to review her appeal.

I would think her treatment would bother most Republicans, but it apparently doesn’t. And it happened, after all, in Texas.

Nebraska is a different matter. Here we have, not a corrupt petrostate, but a conservative Republican farm state without oil reserves, whose only crime seems to be that it is located on the straight-edge of Canada’s shortest pipeline route to the sea. In Nebraska, TransCanada is challenged not by just a single landowner. There are at least 115 of them, all of them just as brave and committed as Julia Trigg Crawford.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

One hundred fifteen property owners: That is not an isolated holdout. That’s more red-blooded Americans in one red state than there are senators in the Senate — each a property owner who cherishes their land, their water, and their rights under the Constitution. And were it not for the bullying of American families by TransCanada, there would doubtless be many more than 115, in Nebraska, Texas, and elsewhere.

You would think the usurpation of property rights of so many people would require an extraordinarily compelling national interest. Yet we are about to see a majority of senators — ironically, less than half the number of Nebraska landowners threatened with eminent domain — cavalierly agree to allow a foreign corporation seize the private property of Americans.

Really, Republicans: How could you?

-- Sabin Russell

January 5, 2015


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Boots on the Ground: New York City, September 21, 2014

Posted by Sabin Russell

sandyClimate change never sleeps, yet we may have caught it napping. It is hurricane season on the East Coast, but tomorrow New York City will be awash in people, instead of the Atlantic Ocean.
The weather reports for New York City predict a 40 percent chance of light rain, enough to make the People’s Climate March less of a sunny day party, and more of a somber procession, but not enough to wash it out.

My suspicion is that everyone with a conscience within 100 miles of the Big Apple knows at least someone planning to show up for the March, pre-billed as the largest demonstration in history for climate action. The hype is a little risky, in case the turnout is low; but my bet is the world will be stunned by how many boots will be marching on the streets of the world’s greatest city.
Well, actually they’ll be marching in New York City, but as a San Franciscan I am reminded of the early morning of May 24, 1987, when my wife and I and newborn son arose at 5 a.m. to walk half a mile to the Golden Gate Bridge, which was closed to allow pedestrians to walk across it, celebrating its 50th birthday. We must have had half a dozen friends mention that they were thinking of taking the early morning stroll. In fact, 300,000 of us showed up, in the dawn’s early light.

Something akin to that will happen in New York tomorrow. Like the pedestrians who headed for the Golden Gate Bridge, most of the People’s Climate marchers will never reach their goal, because the streets will be clogged with so many like-minded people with the same destination.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA heavy turnout in New York will, in a small way, be a tribute to the embattled farmers of Nebraska, who -- in standing up against the Keystone XL pipeline and the monstrous practice of tar sands mining in Canada -- are demonstrating the power of everyday Americans to do something about climate change. The aggressive fossil fuels industry has to be blocked, and the good people of Bold Nebraska and Dakota Rural Action are showing us all how it is done.

I happen to believe that we have already turned the corner on ignorance about climate change. Whether the polls show it or not, the average American citizen knows now that human activity is disrupting the climate, and it threatens our children and our children’s children. What’s needed now is behavior change. One way to make that happen is to show up, to literally vote with our feet, and witness history as it being made. On the truly important issues of our time, our leaders need to be led.
NorCal_PCM_SmallI won’t be attending the event in New York City. I'd be burning a lot of carbon, and spending a lot of money I don't have, to jet to the Big Apple. But this is a global movement, and at different locales across the country and around the world, we can lend our support to the more proximate marchers in New York by attending local rallies. I’ll be at Oakland’s Lake Merritt tomorrow at 2 p.m. After tomorrow, we all need to be on this, in some way, every day.

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Partners in Health Takes on Ebola

Posted by Sabin Russell

Ebola virusesWe are often reminded in these violent times that first responders rush toward danger while the rest of us are running from it. Partners in Health, the Boston-based organization built by Paul Farmer, is heading for Liberia and Sierra Leone with 100 volunteers. These are boots on the ground, protected by goggles, gowns, and bleach, and the many of us will owe much to these few. Help them if you can.

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What’s in a Label: Berkeley and the Science of Cell Phone Safety

Posted by Sabin Russell

Source: CTIA A Parents' Guide to Mobile Phones

On September 9, the City of Berkeley may decide whether to require health warnings on cell phones, drawing attention to the decades-old question of whether or not they can cause brain cancer and other health problems. Cell phone makers say that the science is settled and that they have the studies to prove it. The opposition argues that those same studies show an emerging public health threat. Is Berkeley about to side with crackpots, like those who deny the scientific consensus about climate change? Or are we looking at a replay of  the early stages of the discovery that tobacco use is a leading cause of lung cancer and heart disease?

As I wrote in my story, the stakes in this issue are extraordinarily high: "Cell phones are not only ubiquitous, they are close at hand: We press them against our ears. We store them in our pants pockets. Women slip them into their bras. Teens sleep with them under their pillows. With the adult market nearly saturated, the big growth opportunity for mobile devices is children."

When making policy, we like to make decisions based on proof. But often, we have to weigh different degrees of uncertainty. You can read the whole story here.

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The Battle of Nebraska

Posted by Sabin Russell

Russell Eagle Bear of the Rosebud Sioux. Source: Gil Aegerter,

The website has posted an excellent article by Brian Brown about the the heroic people of the Plains who are doing the heavy lifting in the fight against the Keystone XL pipeline. When a good one comes along, I want to share it:

“We Will Fight": Keystone XL Pipeline Foes Fear Worst for Water Supply

By Brian Brown,

IDEAL, South Dakota – Facing the sunrise on a frigid morning, Rosebud Sioux tribal leader Royal Yellow Hawk offered an ancient prayer in song, his voice periodically muffled by the whistling prairie wind. Behind Yellow Hawk was a cinematic scene from another century: 30-foot-tall tipis arranged in a half circle, quickly brightening in the morning light.

This tipi encampment was erected this spring to be a visible and ongoing embodiment of opposition to the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline, which, if constructed, would hug the reservation’s territory in transporting diluted bitumen oil 1,179-miles from Canada’s tar sands to Steele City, Nebraska.

The Keystone XL is being built by the Canadian energy company, Trans Canada. This fourth and final phase of the project—still awaiting approval by the Obama administration—will cost an estimated $5.4 billion. Other segments of the Keystone–at an estimated cost of $5 billion—have been in operation since 2010, bringing the tar sands oil from Hardisty, Alberta, to refineries in the American Midwest and the Gulf Coast.

The tribe’s principal fear is that a pipeline leak could have devastating consequences for their main source of water—the vast, underground Ogallala Aquifer. Although the proposed route of the pipeline does not cross their land, water in an aquifer is constantly moving and doesn’t observe manmade boundaries. According to the Rosebud, many of their wells are within miles of where the Keystone would be buried.

The health of the Ogallala Aquifer is not only an issue on these lands where the Lakota once hunted buffalo; it’s the fountain of life for the entire American Breadbasket. This subterranean sponge of water spreads southward from South Dakota all the way to Texas, touching eight states and covering a massive 111.8 million acres. “We are taking this prayer all the way through to the end of the fight,” says Gary Dorr, who is committed to living at the tipi encampment, on this wind-whipped mesa near the village of Ideal, until the Keystone Pipeline is stopped. Dorr served in the U.S. military for 11 years, served in Iraq and the Middle East, and was wearing a hat affixed with the insignia of his unit, the Army’s 1st Cavalry Division.

If construction of the pipeline does begin, Dorr says, the next step will be civil disobedience. “We will have men staked out on the corridor of the pipeline,” he says. “As they get arrested, more will step up. There are no weapons here, you notice. The only military attire right now is my hat from my old unit. We’re not projecting that image. ”

The Ogallala widens and deepens as you go south into Nebraska, where it flows beneath the state’s vast Sand Hills, a kind of endless beach of undulating grassy dunes. This bounty of water is inseparable from the success of Nebraska’s estimated $24-billion farm economy.

Nebraska farmers–unlike many of their counterparts in Texas and Kansas, where the Ogallala is quickly being sucked to the last drop—know that they are blessed to have wells of gushing water, especially as the grip of a drought across the Great Plains extends into a fourth year and, moreover, as scores of scientists forecast a future climate drier, hotter, windier – in all, more punishing.

This precious water, and the risk that it could be poisoned by oil piped from Canada, has galvanized not only the tribal nations of South Dakota, but also a coalition of Nebraska farmers, ranchers and concerned citizens. Together, they’ve formed something called the Cowboy-Indian Alliance, and it includes grandmothers and grandfathers suddenly radicalized.

“I’m not rich, been a school teacher all my life,” says Art Tenderup, 62, who retired to a small Nebraska farm with his wife, Helen. “We don’t live in a fancy house. We don’t have fancy cars. We’re just common people. But I know the difference between what’s right and what’s wrong … and this whole thing is wrong.”

“I’m not a violent person,” he continues, “but I think there’s a place for civil disobedience. I never thought I would be talking about something like that. But Helen and I have had some very serious discussions, and we’re going to fight this thing as long as we can.”

Byron “Stix” Steskal is one of the leading figures of another anti-pipeline group that calls itself the “Pipeline Posse.” He lives in Stuart, a town of 590 people with no police officers. Over burgers at The Cast Iron Bar and Grille, his eyes water and his voice trembles as he considers how an unapologetic blue-collar Republican – a guy who installed irrigation rigs for 25 years and now drives trucks and works at Stuart Fertilizer – has turned green and is battling pro-pipeline politicians and a multi-billion-dollar project by a multi-national corporation.
“I waited until I was 60 years old to stand up for something,” he says.

“It’s about the water,” Stix continues. “It’s about the kids. What are they going to say if this goes through? They’ll wonder: ‘What the hell were you thinking?’ This way if it still ends up going through, it shows that some of us did fight it.”

What is initially sucked out of the Alberta tar sands is a new version of crude oil – thick, peanut-butter-like bitumen. And it has a potentially devastating quality if it leaks into any body of water: it can sink. Of recent major spills involving Canadian dilbit, the most notable occurred four years ago, in Michigan, and the clean-up isn’t finished yet.

In 2010, a 30-inch pipeline operated by Canada’s Enbridge Energy, carrying oil from the Alberta tar sands, spilled nearly a million gallons into the Kalamazoo River, closing it for 35 miles. The tear in the pipe was only five inches at its widest point. Within days, the bitumen sank to the river bottom. At $1 billion, it is already the costliest on-shore cleanup in U.S. history.

In an e-mail responding to the claims that the Keystone XL presents a threat to the Ogallala Aquifer, Trans Canada spokesman Davis Sheremata noted that “phase one of the Keystone Pipeline, which has been operating since July 2010, has safely moved over 600 million barrels of oil to market, and traverses the entire states of South Dakota and Nebraska.”

Regarding Trans Canada’s safety response, Sheremata wrote: “We monitor our pipeline system through a centralized high-tech center 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. We use satellite technology that sends data every five seconds from thousands of data points to our monitoring center, and if a drop in pressure is detected, we can isolate any section of our pipeline by remotely closing any of the hundreds of valves on the system within minutes.”

But after what has been a relentless, five-year campaign to secure permission to build the Keystone XL through 12 Ogallala-fed counties in Nebraska – 10 of which do not have oil pipelines – reportedly more than 100 landowners have rejected significant offers from Trans Canada, as high as six figures.

“This lady makes us feel like we won the lottery,” says Tenderup, of the offer he received. “You know, we’re going to get a lot of money; the oil is going to reduce our fuel prices; it’s going to give Americans jobs. It’s going to do all these wonderful things. It was like I’d be un-American if I didn’t jump on this bandwagon.”

Tenderup, who says he rejected a $130,000 payment for an easement, sees Trans Canada waging a war of attrition all around him. Recently, he said, one neighbor received an added signing bonus of $45,000. “My wife is very passionate about this farm,” Tenderup says, his voice tinged with determination and emotion. “This farm has been in her family for about 100 years. Her parents, her grandparents, they took care of this land. They survived through the Dust Bowl. We’ve got to be strong like they were … We’ve got to preserve what’s here, because it’s not just the fact that it’s our land. It’s the fact that life is underneath it … in … that … water!”

In part, these holdouts have not been assured by Trans Canada’s safety promises. In an independent report by the University of Nebraska’s engineering department, Professor John Stansbury said Trans Canada had underestimated the time it would take to detect a spill and also underestimated worst-case scenarios. Stansbury noted that it took Enbridge Energy technicians in Edmonton, Alberta 17 hours to stop the Kalamazoo leak. He also said just one spill from the Keystone XL could pollute 4.9 billion gallons of Ogallala groundwater.

Sheremata, Trans Canada’s spokesman, indicated that since Keystone began operating in July 2010, there have been “10 reportable releases of oil” in the United States, totaling 427 barrels (approximately 18,000 gallons). Of that total, Sheremata claimed only five barrels “left our pump station property.”

The pipeline fighters have also been enraged but what one landowner has called “eminent domain running amok.” Many were first shocked to learn that a 1963 state law allowed even a foreign oil-pipeline corporation, like Trans Canada, to take the land of Nebraska residents if they didn’t cooperate. In 2012, that law was superseded by another which gave Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman– who first opposed but now supports construction of the pipeline — sole power to execute the authority to exercise eminent domain. Three Nebraska citizens challenged the law as unconstitutional, on the grounds that it was a piece of special legislation for the benefit of Trans Canada.

A Nebraska district judge agreed in February; the state is appealing. Citing the ongoing litigation, in April the Obama administration again postponed a decision on allowing the Keystone XL. “Both Trans Canada and our elected officials underestimated the people of Nebraska, underestimated the unique bond we have with our land and water,” Nebraska’s York News-Times publisher Greg Awtry wrote in a May editorial, “(they) underestimated the fact that we would not allow a pipeline company to influence our state legislature into passing a law that was clearly unconstitutional, and underestimated the fairness of allowing a foreign corporation to threaten landowners with eminent domain to build a project that poses unacceptable risk and very little reward.”

After the morning prayer greeting sunrise on the Rosebud reservation, visitors were invited into a nearby mess tent to speak with tribal leaders about their deep opposition to the Keystone XL. Hot soup and coffee were waiting. “This land is what we’re fighting for,” Dorr said. “We will fight to protect the land. We will fight to protect the resources that are here.”

For much of the time, Keith Fielder – a member of the Land & Nature Committee of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe – chose to listen quietly, patiently standing in a corner. But he would have the last words. “We have to return to our hearts and be smart about how we want to live,” he said. “Do we want to live in prosperity and love for one another, and respect for all things? Or do we want to be what the Sioux called the non-Indian back in history: ‘the grabbers of the fat’? If people want to be like that, we’re going to seek our demise at an earlier time.”

“We’re connecting here with our spiritual side, because that will overcome anything. I never dreamed I’d be talking like this, let alone praying. But it makes me feel good to be connected again.”

With additional reporting by Gil Aegerter.
First published July 21st 2014, 1:47 am

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The Real Keystone Story is Here (in Nebraska)

Posted by Sabin Russell

A fine piece by Saul Elbein coming out in the Sunday New York Times Magazine about the heroic, four-year struggle to stop the Keystone XL pipeline and the small band of remarkable Americans who are standing in its way.  Please read it, and pass it on.

Jane Kleeb NYT

This is Jane Kleeb, Executive Director, Bold Nebraska. Photo: Michael Friberg for the New York Times

An excerpt: Among the farmers in the York Community Center was a petite, progressive organizer with close-cropped hair named Jane Kleeb (pronounced Klehb). She was the reason they were there. The fight over the Keystone XL has largely been portrayed as one about climate change, in which environmental groups like the National Wildlife Federation and are pitted against the fossil-fuel industry. But what has kept the pipeline out of the ground so far, more than anything, has been Kleeb’s ability to convince mostly­ conservative farmers and ranchers that they are the ones being asked to bear all the risk of Canada’s energy expansion. If something goes wrong, she says, they’re the ones who are going to suffer. Kleeb didn’t need to persuade all of the people in the room to be angry — many of the state’s landowners are plenty wary of what they see as the pipeline’s risks — but she has organized them to take on Trans­Canada and more or less their state’s entire political power structure. Days earlier, thanks to her efforts, a state district court had thrown the construction into limbo. Read the whole story here.

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Keystone Chronicles

Posted by Sabin Russell

When a Pipeline Crosses a Trail of Tears



Native American elders, including Faith Spotted Eagle (center) of the Yankton Sioux, discuss opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline with members of Bold Nebraska.

In November 2013, I flew from San Francisco to Nebraska to witness firsthand the grassroots opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline. I visited the Neligh, Nebraska, farm of Art and Helen Tanderup, whose land lies in the path of  that pipeline. On that farm, in a tipi raised by Native Americans of the Ponca Tribe whose ancestors once farmed this region, I began to understand the depth of feeling that has brought together an unlikely coalition of cowboys, American Indians, farmers, students, and environmentalists that has thus far effectively halted this project. It is an amazing and important story that I plan to follow as I return to freelance writing, after a four-year hiatus at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. While visiting Nebraska, I wrote the following op-ed, which was posted on November 13, 2013 in the York News-Times, whose conservative-leaning publisher, Greg Awtry, has frequently and eloquently argued against the the pipeline. Here's the piece:

Right here in the heartland of America, the divisive Keystone XL pipeline is uniting people in ways few could ever have imagined.

Consider the events that brought Betty Albrecht of Atkinson, and Mekasi Horinek, of the Ponca Reservation in Oklahoma, to a meeting on hallowed ground. Every Memorial Day, when Albrecht was a little girl growing up in Tilden - a small farm town in northeastern Nebraska - her family would drive 15 miles north to Neligh to place flowers at the grave of White Buffalo Girl, an 18-month-old who died there on May 23, 1877.

The townspeople of Neligh had laid White Buffalo Girl to rest at the request of her grief-stricken father, just four days into the forced march that sent the Ponca Nation from its Nebraska homelands south to Oklahoma. For 136 years, the people of Neligh have honored his plea to care for the grave of his daughter as if she had been one of their own. He could not even stay for the burial.

So it was particularly moving for Albrecht, who now lives on a cattle ranch 75 miles farther up the road, to revisit that hilltop cemetery of her girlhood memories last Saturday, surrounded by Oklahoma descendants of the tribe who survived what they call the Ponca Trail of Tears.

That grave was brimming with mums, roses, daffodils, poppies and sun-bleached stuffed toy bears. Standing beside her at the gravesite was Horinek, an eloquent activist and grandfather of nine, who works for the Tribal Agriculture Department on the Ponca reservation. He brought his two youngest sons north that weekend to visit the land from where his great grandfather fled as a boy; to show them this sacred ground.

It was the Keystone XL pipeline, and a deeply felt loathing of it, that brought these two from vastly different backgrounds together.

Albrecht is a member of NEAT, the Nebraska Easement Action Team, a landowners’ rights group that is battling the TransCanada pipeline and threats of eminent domain to run the pipeline through regardless of property owner opposition.

The proposed Keystone XL corridor is vital for TransCanada’s plan to expand its tar sands mining operations in Alberta. The high-pressure line would ship hot, diluted bitumen from the Alberta sites to Louisiana, where it would be refined for shipment overseas. Keystone XL would punch into Nebraska just 50 miles north of Albrecht’s farm, and slice right through her neighbor’s property.

“For some, this is a tribal issue, for others, it’s about property rights,” said Albrecht. “My personal feeling is that my government is doing to us what they did to the Indians.”

Albrecht and Horinek met earlier on Art and Helen Tanderup’s 160 acre farm, eight miles north of Neligh, at an event billed the Trail of Tears Ponca Spiritual Camp. The Tanderups had welcomed members of the Ponca, Lakota, Omaha and Oceti Sakowin tribes, as well as members of the anti-pipeline activist group Bold Nebraska, to camp on their farm for four days.

They were joined by members of a remarkable coalition of ranchers and Native Americans who call themselves the Cowboy and Indian Alliance. People with different lives, different incomes, of different faiths, and even different politics discovered they shared a deeply spiritual bond: the conviction that the land beneath their feet, and the water that flowed through it, was sacred.

Helen Tanderup’s family built the farmhouse from components in a catalog in the 1920s. An old steel Aermotor windmill rises 55 feet above a well, broken but still spinning, long-since replaced by drilled well and electric pumps to bring water to the house. The Keystone XL pipeline would break through a line of cottonwood trees her grandfather planted; and cut right through their cornfield just west of the house.

To avoid the house itself, the line would bend and run south through another line of cottonwoods, crossing a dirt road and cutting through miles more of fields before skirting Neligh itself. Just across that dirt road from the Tanderup farm, records indicate, is the Trail of Tears, the path Horinek’s great grandfather, and White Buffalo Girl and her parents, walked in 1877.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAArt Tanderup (right) is a retired schoolteacher, but he knows his ground. He grows his corn, beans and rye with a no-till method. “This ground here will not blow away when we have heavy winds,” he said. Unlike the North Dakota farmland that was flooded by 843,000 gallons of oil from a pipeline leak in late September, soils like Tanderup’s in the Elkhorn watershed have no clay base to trap a spill.

The old sandhills formation soils are mostly fine Thurman sands and gravel. Leaking oil and chemicals would head directly into the aquifer. “In North Dakota, with all their fancy equipment, they could not detect a quarter-inch leak. If that happened here, they would detect only after it turned up in the wells and irrigation systems,” he said.

The Keystone XL would go through four bends in one and one-half miles to skirt the Tanderup house. “Any time you bend a pipe, you thin out the walls and weaken it,” Tanderup said. “These pipes will have 1,500 pounds per square inch of pressure. They are far more apt to break and spill.”

At White Buffalo Girl’s gravesite, the link between distant history and current controversies was palpable “We all know when we lose a loved one that it hurts; to lose a child is probably the most painful thing you can go through,” said Horinek. He thanked the citizens of Neligh for caring for this grave, and he thanked the activists who were fighting the pipeline. “We are all connected to the land, and we are all connected to each other,” he said.

In a very strange way, all these folks on Tanderup’s land last weekend are connected: by roads, by the World Wide Web, by a pipeline, by a Trail of Tears, by a common bond to the water and land. The policy makers in Washington D.C., and the TransCanada Corporation in Alberta, have no idea what they are up against.

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