Crossing the Line

When the Keystone XL pipeline came through Lori Collins’ farm in Paris, Texas, she welcomed it—until her house flooded with sewage.

Lori Collins in front of her house.
Michael Stravato
Lori Collins in front of her house.

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.

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.”

And so the question of how TransCanada has treated the places where it has actually gotten to build its pipeline—mostly in Texas and Oklahoma—should be very relevant to those parts of the country where the pipeline is still being debated. In East Texas, where the pipeline is finished and functioning, the company has operated with feudal disregard for property rights, driving once-sympathetic landowners into the arms of the growing network of anti-Keystone activists.

So perhaps it serves as a potent metaphor for the project as a whole that for a year and a half, TransCanada left a family inundated in its own shit.

J.B. Collins rolls out hay for his cows on his property near Paris.
Michael Stravato
J.B. Collins rolls out hay for his cows on his property near Paris.

J.B. and Lori Collins met on the dance floor of a bar in Paris, Texas, in the early 1990s. Lori was new in town, having come to Paris in the wake of a bad marriage in Fort Worth, looking for a new start. One night she saw J.B. across the dance floor. Tall and quiet, J.B. had fled the oil bust of the early 1980s for construction jobs up and down the East Coast, then had come back to join his father working the family farm. Lori sent a friend to invite him over to dance. But Lori was in high demand that night, twisting across the floor with other men, and J.B. couldn’t get close. He left with a sense of disappointment. When he saw her again,  a week later at a Chinese restaurant in town, she was having dinner. He marched up and asked for that dance. They met at the same bar a few days later, and two years after that they were married.

They moved into a farmhouse that J.B.’s grandparents had built. For Lori, who grew up in a broken home, and whose first marriage had been a failure, the house became a refuge. “It was the first home I ever had,” she said. And for a long time, things were good, even idyllic. J.B. grew hay and raised cattle and mined gravel from the North Sulphur River, which traversed their property. Lori kept house and cooked. They had two kids soon after getting married, and Lori became a self-described “super PTA-mom.”

What the Collinses didn’t know then was that their lives were about to be changed by the decisions of powerful men thousands of miles to the north.

In the mid-2000s, rising oil prices and new extraction technologies combined to bring a boom to the bitumen mines of the Athabasca, in northern Alberta. Bitumen is a petroleum product, like road tar, that can, with a great deal of effort and energy, be converted to synthetic crude oil. Suddenly northern Alberta was a flurry of work and investment, sucking in capital from as far away as Norway and China.

Northern Alberta is remote, and the bitumen was trapped in the center of the continent. For those investments to pay off, the bitumen had to get to market. In boardrooms in Calgary and Edmonton, oil executives drew up competing pipeline plans to move the bitumen to refineries.

TransCanada’s Keystone XL was just one of these plans. The route the company finally submitted to the U.S. Department of State for approval sliced through the middle of the country on its way to refinery complexes on the Texas Gulf Coast—complexes that had already spent $20 billion upgrading to handle bitumen. The planned route cut straight through the Collinses’ land.

In 2010, the first land agent came to the Collinses’ house to secure their property for the pipeline easement. The Collinses were pleased to hear a pipeline was coming through because, aside from all the usual arguments about boosting North American energy independence, it meant easy money. In the early negotiations, J.B. tried to sell TransCanada more land for temporary work space. As they sat around the kitchen table, the agent showed them the pipeline route.

And that’s when they saw it: The route crossed right through their septic system. When they brought this up, Lori says, the agent said there was nothing they could do. That was the way the engineers had laid the route, and no one could change it. “But [the agent] promised that anything they tore up in that right of way, they would come out and fix it bigger and better,” Lori said.

Thus mollified, the Collinses agreed to the route. Not that they had much choice. To outside appearances, those three people sitting around the kitchen table were having an actual “negotiation,” with the land agent there to sell the Collinses on the pipeline, to win them over to the project. To outside appearances, the Collins family could have said no.

But TransCanada, like all oil pipeline companies doing business in Texas, had the ultimate trump card: eminent domain. At any time, the company could go to court and take whatever route it wanted. The law required TransCanada to pay fair market value for the land, but that was all—landowners had no say in where the pipeline was going to go.

That meant there was nothing forcing TransCanada to cut deals with landowners. Those who wanted a different route, or a different price, or a different contract, had no option but to take to court a company that earned $1.6 billion in 2013. That’s a staggeringly expensive proposition. David Holland, a prosperous Beaumont trial lawyer, has already spent more than $150,000 challenging TransCanada’s taking of his land by eminent domain. Obviously, few ranchers could afford to do that, which is why, Holland’s lawyer told me, there’s so little litigation against the company. “Most people do the best they can with whatever offer they can get,” he said.

The land agent at the Collinses’ house worked on salary, not commission. She had no incentive to sell them on the pipeline. She didn’t need one, because she hadn’t been sent to persuade. She had been sent to say: This thing is coming. Best get on board before you get crushed.

The Collinses’ subsequent dealings with land agents reflected that unwillingness to compromise. At first, the agent offered the Collinses $72,000 for the easement and temporary workspace. The family asked to think it over but heard nothing for six months. Then suddenly there were two new land agents at their door. The new agents said the old one had been moved down the line and that the original offer had been far too high. The best TransCanada could offer was $40,000. When the Collinses pushed back, the response wasn’t subtle. “They said, ‘Look, we tried to work with you,’” J.B. Collins recalled. “‘If you won’t be reasonable, they’re going to take you to eminent domain. They’ll make an example of you. You’ll get a lot less money.’” The Collinses went back and forth with the land agents until they received a letter in the mail summoning them to an eminent domain hearing. “We were gutted,” Lori says. “We thought we were still negotiating, and they just took [the land].”

The family didn’t bother to get a lawyer. “The lawyers they had were bigger than any lawyers we could buy,” J.B. said. The one lawyer he talked to in Paris said that if they tried to fight, TransCanada would “drain us dry” on legal fees and then take the property anyway. He advised that if they’d been offered any money at all, they might as well take it.

At the hearing at the Paris courthouse, the TransCanada lawyer lowballed them. He asked the jury to grant the Collinses just $8,000 for the land the company was taking.

But J.B. and Lori were lucky. The first land agent had written the offer for $72,000 on a piece of paper. When the Collinses submitted it, J.B. said, the TransCanada lawyer went ashen. “He said, ‘Well, I didn’t know about that,’” J.B. said. “‘Can we knock it down to $70,000, so I can show my bosses I did something, and then we can all get out of here?’”

The Collinses left elated, feeling like they had won. They went home and waited for the project to start. 

Bare soil above the buried Keystone XL pipeline where it crosses the Collinses’ cattle pasture.
Michael Stravato
Bare soil above the buried Keystone XL pipeline where it crosses the Collinses’ cattle pasture.

What the Collinses would discover was that TransCanada, practically speaking, was not building the pipeline.

It helps to think of the company less as a pipeline operator and more as a management corporation presiding over a bewildering array of subcontractors. If you think of it as a feudal arrangement in medieval Europe (or on HBO’s Game of Thrones), with a remote lord sending vassals to do his bidding, you wouldn’t be far off. TransCanada employees didn’t dig trenches or lay pipe; they contracted that work out. 

So when that backhoe blade had its fatal appointment with the Collinses’ septic system—as it had been clear for two years that it would—and Lori went out looking for someone to fix it, she was dealing with TransCanada’s contractors. The land agents who had come to sign up the Collinses worked with Universal Field Services (UFS), out of Oklahoma. The construction workers came from Michels Corp., out of Wisconsin. There were safety inspectors from UniversalPegasus and Quality Integrated Systems. There were surveyor contractors, security contractors, all separate companies, all doing different jobs, all sharing (or not) information among themselves through a confusing chain of command.

While these workers wore TransCanada uniforms and helmets, they didn’t work directly for TransCanada. The Keystone XL project could be thought of as a giant anthill, each ant doing its job, none with any view of, or power over, the grand design. There was no great guiding hand making sure that things happened, no one with whom the buck clearly stopped.

This was a problem for people all along the route. Mark Brantley, a county commissioner in Delta County, where the Collinses live, told me he had spent a year trying to get TransCanada to fix a county road near the Collins place that heavy trucks had damaged. He found it impossible. Land agents he was working with kept disappearing; the ones who took their place didn’t know the situation. One agent suggested the county pay for the repairs and have TransCanada reimburse them. Only when Brantley started threatening to take repair costs out of the bond that TransCanada had filed with the county would he get his calls returned. “No one wants to say that I am the person that you need to deal with, I’ll make this happen for you,” he said.

The amorphous structure left the Collinses in an uncomfortable bind, watching workers mill around busily while their problems were ignored and their house fell apart.

Rendered as a list, the story reads as black comedy:

A few days after the backhoe tore out their septic system, the Collinses’ toilets began taking longer and longer to drain. Lori reported this to a supervisor. He told her that the septic damage had nothing to do with her toilets.

A month after the damage, the day before Thanksgiving, the septic system backed up through the bathrooms and the laundry room drain, flooding half the house with fetid brown water. Lori was cooking for the family, and when she saw the rising water, she laid down in bed and cried in sheer frustration. She and J.B. soaked the sewage up with heavy quilts and a wet-dry vacuum and dumped it outside. They held a last-minute Thanksgiving dinner at a friend’s house. 

The next week, the house flooded again. The Collinses called TransCanada’s help line; the company sent another backhoe operator to dig out the end of their septic system. This brought the Collinses a few days of relief but also opened a reeking pool in their front yard, which Lori sardonically calls “my dogs’ swimming pool.” To keep the dogs out, construction workers covered the hole with plywood. This remained, the Collinses said, the only help they got from anyone on the project.

The larger problem, a safety inspector finally explained to the Collinses in December 2012, sometime after the second flood, was a sort of construction catch-22. The workers couldn’t repair the septic system because it was under that big pile of topsoil. They couldn’t move the topsoil because there was no space left on the easement or temporary work site they had purchased from the Collinses to put it. They couldn’t move off the work site because they hadn’t done an environmental impact statement, which would have been required before performing work  on additional land. The inspector asked the family to be patient. Once the pipeline was installed and the topsoil shoveled back on top of it, he said, their septic system would be fixed.

So they waited. As Lori told me, over and over, “We trusted them.” The Collinses had a complicated, intimate relationship with the oil and construction businesses. They knew the industry well enough to know its warts, to know that sometimes bad things happened. They could be patient.

And so they began a ritual of daily sewage management unfamiliar to most people in the developed world. At the beginning of 2013, J.B. Collins bought a water pump and the family began pumping sewage from the clogged septic system into the fields. If they pumped it daily and were careful with how they used water, they could use their drains and toilets. And a quarter-mile down the road was J.B.’s father’s house, where the old man was slowly dying of cancer. The bathrooms there worked fine, and Lori would send the kids there to use the toilets after they came home from school. 

Most days, they could manage. But one mistake—a carelessly timed toilet flush by one of the kids while Lori was running the wash—and brown water would start bubbling out of the drains. They began to plan their entire day around the septic system. They became reluctant to venture too far from home, or to leave the house unattended. Lori stopped going to her kids’ sporting events. She couldn’t risk it.

“It was like having an 800-pound gorilla in the back yard,” J.B. said. “Before you do anything, well, you got somebody back there—that messed-up septic system—and you wonder, what’re you going to do about it today?”

At the end of January 2013, the Keystone XL was installed and the pile of dirt on top of it had vanished. The workers Lori had cooked for moved on down the line. “I about danced in the yard,” Lori said. She expected that finally the septic system would be fixed quickly. 

But then, J.B. said, a week after the construction was finished, a Michels Corp. land agent inspected the damage. He pointed to where the hoe had pulled piping from off the easement. He told J.B. they were only responsible for damage on the easement. In frustration, J.B. called the agent’s boss, Mike Brouillette. “I expressed my frustration on how Michels and TransCanada kept avoiding dealing with the problem of repairing our septic system,” J.B. wrote me. “Mike told me he had just left the office but he would contact [me] the following Monday.”

Every time J.B. called from then on, he got Brouillette’s voicemail. J.B. never heard from Brouillette again.

Certain messages, though, got a response. At one point, during difficult negotiations over a valve site TransCanada wanted to install, Lori, in something of a snit, lost her temper. At that moment, 100 miles south in Winnsboro and Nacogdoches, protesters from the Tar Sands Blockade were locked to construction equipment in the path of the pipeline. “I said, ‘I could make a call and have [the protesters] come up here,’” Lori said.

The next day, a security guard—an off-duty constable hired by Michels Corp., the construction firm—showed up. The guard told Lori that protesters were coming “in busloads.” They laughed and waited for protesters who never came.

Lori Collins uses an inhaler to address respiratory problems that began after mold appeared in her home.
Michael Stravato
Lori Collins uses an inhaler to address respiratory problems that began after mold appeared in her home.

The next six months passed in a repetitive cycle—the Collinses pumping out their sewage, asking for help and being promised remedies that never arrived. Their lives changed. They had been entertainers; now they stopped inviting people to their house. Their kids were too embarrassed to invite friends to a house that smelled like sewage. Through it all they waited.

As they waited, their house and property fell apart around them. The foundation slid toward the sewage pool in their front yard. The pipeline easement remained a black scar across their land where nothing grew except weeds, which then spread to the cropland next to it. Construction trucks tore up their roads. Worst of all, inside their walls black mold was blossoming. Lori, who spent the most time in the house, started to have asthma attacks and migraine headaches. But everyone in the family was affected.

It wasn’t just the septic system so much as a dozen other small indignities that made the Collinses feel, as Lori said, “like the land wasn’t even ours anymore.” 

There were the contractors trespassing on their land and the trucks rumbling down their private roads. Workers were on their land seven days a week, leaving gates open, letting cattle out. Then there were the guards. TransCanada and Michels Corp. had hired entire sheriffs’ departments to work as security, protecting the equipment from thieves and activists. Security is a common part of construction, but the off-duty cops patrolling the Collinses’ land made them feel like they were on occupied territory. Uniformed police posted up on the valve site above their house. The feeling got worse when uniformed off-duty cops twice detained their son, once on their property, once on a public county road.

Under the pressure, the Collinses, to their horror, found themselves changing. “I feel gullible now,” Lori said. “I don’t want to think, every time I meet someone, deal with someone, that I have to think the worst of them all the time. Now my son has said to me, ‘Mom, why do you always think the glass is half empty now? Why do you always say you can’t trust people?’ I hate that my son says that about me now. And I have [TransCanada] to thank for that.”

With the number of different players, it wasn’t clear who was responsible for any of this. But by June 2013—about eight months after the initial damage to the Collinses’ septic system—word of the Collinses’ situation reached Calgary, Alberta, and the office of Andrew Craig, TransCanada’s Nebraska-born senior land agent, the head honcho of all things landowner-related. 

Craig told me that, as he had understood it, the Collinses’ situation had been “non-critical. If they hadn’t been able to flush their toilets,” he explained, “then that would have been critical.” But since J.B. Collins had been willing to keep pumping out the septic system until TransCanada could fix the problem for good, Craig had kept the situation on the back burner.

It’s impossible to know, of course, what Craig had been told by the people under him. For his part, Craig told me that the reason that TransCanada had routed the Keystone XL across the Collinses’ septic system was because the family had asked it to, hoping to save a copse of pecan trees. When I ran this by J.B. Collins, he snorted. “He’s all screwed up,” he said. “We don’t have any pecan trees near the line. There were some trees we wanted to save, but they took them.” 

Finally, in October 2013, more than  a year after the septic system was first damaged, Derek Montgomery, a bona fide TransCanada agent, met with the Collinses. By then, the Collinses didn’t even live in their house anymore. They had found out about the mold shortly after the death of J.B.’s father. They took his house off the market and moved into it in a rush, leaving almost all of their possessions behind in the old house. 

The Collinses gave Montgomery an estimate of a little more than $40,000, which would have covered all the damage to the septic system, the drywall and carpets, the land and roads. At that point, they still thought the mold could be controlled. At first, the Collinses said, Montgomery balked at that number. But then they took him to the house to see the crooked floors, the bowed facade, the sewage pool. As Lori tells it, he walked back to one of the UFS guys to ask him, “This is supposed to be a [expletive] finished product?” Then he turned back around and told Lori that TransCanada would pay the full claim.

Lori cried on his shoulder in pure relief. “I asked him, ‘How can I trust what you’re saying, with everything that’s happened?’ He said, ‘Well, I didn’t know about all this. But I am going to take care of it.’”

He and J.B. Collins stood in front of the house and shook on the deal, and then Montgomery got in his pickup and drove off.

But of course things didn’t end there. Two days later, J.B. was out plowing when Hank Waldrop, one of the UFS agents who had spoken with Montgomery, drove up. He told J.B. that Andrew Craig, the head TransCanada land agent, had rolled back the offer to about $30,000. “But we shook,” J.B. remembers saying in disbelief. “I’m sorry,” Waldrop told him. “But if you want more, you’re going to have to take TransCanada to court.”

This was the final straw for the Collinses. “At that point,” Lori said, she realized that “they were just going to give us crumbs. ‘Just go ahead and take what we give you and be glad.’”

Covering her mouth and nose to keep from inhaling mold, Lori Collins enters her home to retrieve her son’s athletic shoes for school.
Michael Stravato
Covering her mouth and nose to keep from inhaling mold, Lori Collins enters her home to retrieve her son’s athletic shoes for school.

It wasn’t just the Collinses who felt that way. As TransCanada’s network of oil pipelines has spread throughout the country, landowners on the Keystone system from Texas to Canada spoke of land men who bullied them into signing easement agreements with threats of eminent domain or bait-and-switch contracts; of contractor work crews who trashed their land and roads; of having to fight the company to get anything fixed.

“The runaround is common,” Brian Jorde told me. Jorde is an attorney with Nebraska’s Domina Law Group, which has played a key role in the fight to keep the Keystone XL out of that state. Through its work representing Nebraska landowners, the Domina group has repeatedly come up against the same problems that the Collinses saw. “What’s happening in Texas is a warning for everyone in the north,” Jorde said.

That conduct has led to organized resistance along the route. In Texas, it took the form of open confrontations in which protesters locked themselves to construction equipment or—in one well-publicized instance—suspended themselves from treehouses in the path of the pipeline. The protesters were young urban activists, but they acted with the permission and support of landowners like the Collinses: people who felt like they had been shafted by TransCanada and wanted to strike back. 

The protests in Texas were part of a larger movement that spidered up the pipeline route. At the center was Nebraska, where a coalition of farmers and environmental activists have fought a multipronged legal and public relations battle that has, so far, kept the Keystone XL out of Nebraska.

Over and over along the route, in conversations with landowners about TransCanada, I heard variants of, “Excuse me, but I thought this was America.” There’s a certain way that Americans—specifically white, landowning Americans—are used to being treated by corporations, and while it may not have broken the law, TransCanada didn’t treat people that way. 

While the landowners’ concerns differ, there is one thing they all share: the impotent rage Lori referenced when she talked about “giving us crumbs.” Not only can they buy your land for a pipeline without negotiation or even consent, but then they can do whatever they want with it. If they trash your land or your home, and if you want to do anything about it, you have to sue them.

TransCanada’s people never really seemed to understand that rage. They still don’t. Company men like land agent Andrew Craig contend that they’re providing a service, they’ve always followed the law, and they’re doing their best to make landowners happy.

“If people have to spend an undue amount of time dealing with our project, we try to make that right with them,” Craig told me, in reference to the Collins case. “With a thousand landowners, 99 percent are going to be real easy to get along with, we can put the property back to a condition they’re happy with, we’ll get these people back to whatever it takes. But there’s a small group like that who sometimes look at a project like this as an opportunity to get a lot of income.”

After Craig said that there was a long, awkward silence on the line. I imagined his press handler kicking him under the table. Craig hastened to tell me that he didn’t think the Collinses were in it for the money. “But there are some landowners in the area opposed to Keystone, use of fossil fuels, use of eminent domain,” he said. “And I see trends in areas where you have outspoken project opponents who try and rally the troops. And whether you have that here I don’t know, but we certainly see that.”

TransCanada is, in other words, a victim of the greedy and the ideologically opposed. I have little doubt that Craig believes this, although it strains credulity to think that what motivates people to sue or fight TransCanada is greed. Given the amount of money it costs to sue the company and the track record of those who have tried, that would be a stupid bet indeed. 

But the outside-agitators line  helps explain why, as resistance has grown, TransCanada and its subsidiaries have so often responded with force. There were the high-dollar lawyers at every county zoning hearing in Nebraska where farmers tried to apply zoning regulations to the pipeline. There were the protests outside Nacogdoches, where uniformed police working for TransCanada broke up protests with pepper spray. There are scattered stories along the route of men in trucks stopping passers by on public roads who, like the Collinses’ son, came too close to the pipeline route. The company even briefed the Nebraska State Police and FBI on the activists who led the actions in Texas and on “aggressive/abusive landowners” in Nebraska. 

Then there was the spying on activists. About 30 miles north of the Collins place is Julia Trigg Crawford’s farm. Crawford’s story sounds like the Collinses’, minus the sewage. She had just moved up from Houston to take over her dad’s farm when she was threatened with eminent domain. Crawford family members were so scared they tried to sign off on an easement, but the clock had run out. TransCanada took the land and Crawford became an implacable opponent of the project, taking a suit against TransCanada (funded largely with small donations) as far as the Texas Supreme Court.

Ever since Crawford has become active, there have been off-duty cops at the valve site across the street from her house. In and of itself, this is not suspicious—it is often cheaper for companies to pay a guard $30 an hour than to continuously replace stolen diesel and batteries. But one of the off-duty cops—whom Crawford won over after months of diligently taking him coffee and kolaches—told me that around the time of the most intense protests, Michels had given the guards a video camera and instructed them to tape Crawford’s comings and goings. 

It was hard to know what to make of that. On a bitterly cold February night the guard and I sat in his car while he smoked cigarettes and drank the coffee Crawford had brought him. The equipment is gone from the valve site now; there was not anything to protect. I asked why he was still there.

He shrugged. “That’s what we’re trying to figure out,” he said. “There’s nothing out here.” He thought for a minute. “Well, I’m prone to conspiracy theories. You know what I mean? I believe things no one should believe. But I think we’re here because of her. I think they want to pressure her.”

But Crawford didn’t feel pressured. My very presence in the car—a meeting arranged by her—seemed ample proof of that. 

It’s this human element that TransCanada and its subsidiaries have consistently missed. TransCanada didn’t take people like Crawford and Lori Collins into account, because no energy company, thus far, has had to. The power was all on one side.

“If they’d taken all the money they spent producing ads about being good neighbors and actually been good neighbors,” said David Domina, head of the Domina Law Group, “the pipeline would have been finished a year ago.”

In Texas it is finished. Despite the opposition of people like Crawford, the Keystone pipeline is now in the ground carrying bitumen beneath the soil of East Texas. But thanks to cases like the Collinses’, the opposition network in Nebraska has made inroads into Texas. TransCanada pushed the Collinses right into this network’s orbit. The company did damage that no settlement could undo.

In the Collins case, there was dissension even among the UFS land agents working for TransCanada. One, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he quit soon after TransCanada reneged on the deal with J.B.; he wouldn’t talk much about his time with the company but said that what happened to the Collinses was “the straw that broke the camel’s back.” According to Lori, another UFS agent said the company had no intention of fixing the sewage problem. He gave her Julia Trigg Crawford’s name and number.   

Crawford came to the Collins home in November 2013. She took video of the bubbling sewage pit, of a floor so uneven it looked, she later said, like a “fun house.” It isn’t clear that TransCanada knew she had made contact with the Collinses, though the company was watching her and had stationed off-duty cops above the Collins house. That’s relevant because a little over a week after Crawford’s visit, a TransCanada representative offered to pay the Collinses the full settlement amount, with the disputed $10,000 thrown in as an “inconvenience fee.”

To get the money, the Collinses would have to sign a liability waiver and non-disclosure agreement, forbidding them to talk about what had happened. “That’s just standard business practice,” Craig said. “Everyone in the industry does it.”

That may be so, but it shattered whatever faith the Collinses had left in the company. Two weeks later, Waldrop, the UFS land man, offered the Collinses $25,000, no strings attached, plus a temporary living allowance of $5,000 a month. He promised that their house would be restored to better than it had been before.

The Collinses recorded that meeting. Waldrop advises them to take the money. Lori balks. She says TransCanada should have to pay for what it did. Waldrop’s response sums up why landowners often have trouble holding the company accountable.  

“TransCanada is a word,” he said. “It’s not a person, not an activity. There’s no one that this responsibility is going to fall on their shoulders and it’s going to ruin their career or anything.”

“It’s like the Mafia coming up and saying, ‘Hey, take this money, trust us,’” J.B. Collins said. “And we’re like, ‘Wait, what happens, [if] we take this money? What happens down the road?’ We didn’t even know the full amount of the damages, and they said, ‘Just take this money right now.’” Anyway, he said, the house was totaled. “It’s like you have a junk car and someone offers to fix it. Well, I don’t want the car. It’s broken.”

In February 2014, the Collinses retained David Domina’s Nebraska law firm for their suit against TransCanada. When I met them early that month, Jane Kleeb, one of the Nebraska organizers, was serving as their press liaison. Brian Jorde was their lawyer. As soon as he got involved, Jorde told me, TransCanada’s brass started responding. “Their offers suddenly went up 800 percent over what they had been before,” he said.

In May 2014, the company settled with the Collinses for $479,000. Lori told me the money doesn’t make up for her family’s suffering; they only settled because they were exhausted and badly needed the money. “If I had the backing, I would have fought them all the way,” Lori said. “But they sucked us dry. They took our home, our livelihood, our work from us.”  

Talking to the Collinses made me think of a principle in medical malpractice—that the doctors who get sued aren’t necessarily the ones who mess up the worst or have the deepest pockets. It’s the ones who never say they’re sorry. That’s what TransCanada and its affiliates had been categorically unwilling to do, leaving the Collinses with nothing but their pain and loss. The money doesn’t make that go away. And it hasn’t kept Lori Collins, the woman who once delivered cobbler to pipeline workers, from becoming  an activist.

In May, while settlement negotiations were wrapping up, Lori got on a plane with Julia Trigg Crawford and flew to Washington, D.C., for an anti-pipeline rally. When she got back she was speaking in the catchphrases of the national anti-Keystone movement, talking about defending “farmers and ranchers” and protecting “our land and water.” For the first time, she’d met others affected by the pipeline and organizing against it: Nebraska farmers, South Dakota Sioux, Canadian ranchers. She was impressed by what she saw.

But she also felt a sense of doom. On her last day in D.C., she spoke in front of a crowd about what had happened to her family. The words burned through her, and when she sat down she cried like a baby. “Some of the other people in the congregation came up and hugged me,” she said, “and I was shaken because it was ripping me inside out.”

She had looked out at the people listening to her, “all these people fighting for their land and livelihood,” festive in their movement shirts and tribal attire, and she thought, “You all are screwed. The company is going to take your land, promise you everything in the world, but they won’t come through.’ Those people will never know life as they’ve known it before,” she said. “It’ll just be them and their paradise that’s turned into hell.”  

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Published at 8:00 am CST