Stop the TransPecos Pipeline / by Christine Olejniczak

Out here in Marfa, Texas citizens are waging a fight to preserve the environment and oppose the industrialization of the Big Bend area. The Trans-Pecos Pipeline (TPP) is a proposed natural gas transmission line intended to transport massive quantities of fracked gas to Mexico. The pipeline would cross through the heart of the Big Bend, running east of the Davis Mountains--skirting the town of Alpine--passing through the famed Marfa Lights and the historic town of Shafter on its way south to tunnel beneath the Rio Grande and pass into Mexico.

Recently citizens were asked to write letters to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) stating our concerns. I am posting my letter and urge others to follow our fight and support our efforts.

Right now one of our main concerns is simply raising awareness and building community for whatever comes next. We currently have James Parker in the area, a filmmaker from LA who will be creating a documentary about our situation. This documentary has the potential to bring our story to a MUCH wider audience than would otherwise be possible...this will be extremely important not only in fundraising for the legal effort, but also if and when direct action/civil disobedience becomes necessary.

Here's what I had to say to the FERC:

Dear Chairman Bay and Members of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission,

Below please find my concerns regarding some of the potential cultural, environmental and socio-economic impacts of the proposed TransPecos Pipeline project, FERC Docket CP 15500.

Thank you for the opportunity to express my concerns and for your thoughtful consideration.

I am an artist living and working in Marfa, Texas since 2001 and have been employed by Ballroom Marfa, the Judd Foundation, the Texas Sustainable Energy Research Institute in San Antonio and the Presidio County Health Services.  As an administrator at these establishments I have been involved in many projects that cause me to have serious concerns regarding the TransPecos Pipeline. I would like to address these issues highlighting the information I have gathered from these working relationships within my community.

1.     Cultural impact. On the Marfa Plateau the land is the culture. Donald Judd came to Marfa and established the Chinati Foundation, and subsequently the Judd Foundation, precisely because of the vast, open spaces. He purchased the decommissioned cavalry base at Fort D.A. Russell and set out to re-purpose the buildings and land to create a different kind of museum. A museum that required visitors to walk through the natural environment to experience art that was, and still is, installed in this stark, undisturbed landscape. He continued to buy land in Presidio County with an emphasis on conservation.

"I have a ranch on the north end of the range overlooking the Rio Grande called Ayala de Chinati. This has two small houses which I've thought a lot about, but done little about, since I hate to damage the land around them. Here, everywhere, the destruction of new land is a brutality... Within a real view of the world and the universe this violence would be a sin—there are no words since there are no ethics that correspond to the present nature of the world."

–Donald Judd, 1989

This type of philosophy reflects the ideology of individuals and families who have made the TransPecos their home well before Judd arrived in the 1970s and set the tone for newcomers and tourists who have come to the area since then.

In 2015 Marfa continues to lack a strong municipal infrastructure and is typical of the small rural towns scattered across West Texas. It is not convenient to live here. It is challenging. We experience power outages on an annual basis, phone reception is spotty, homes are rarely insulated and the sun can be blistering. We don’t live here because of the comforts associated with urban living. We live here because of the land. Disruption to the land is an assault on the lifestyle of everyone here. The proposed TransPecos pipeline is a threat on the land under the stewardship of the residents and arguably the most dynamic attraction to visitors.

In May of 2005 the Ballroom Marfa presented it’s first single-topic exhibition, a multi-discipline project devoted solely to bringing attention to a global environmental issue: Water. Agnes Denes, a pioneer of environmental and conceptual art, presented The Pyramids of Conscience.  To quote from Denes’s website:

‘The Pyramids of Conscience touches on the immediate issues of clean water, survival, politics, human weaknesses and needs. They refer to the global problem we must soon face with the life-giving substance of water and the politics that surrounds it.

They are presently in the exhibition Treading Water, in Marfa, Texas, dealing with the privatization of water and things to come.

One of the pyramids is filled with crystal clear water, the other with polluted water from the Rio Grande. Another is filled with crude oil, the common denominator. The final pyramid is a mirror in which you see yourself reflected, whatever you do, feel, fight against, or agree to. It reflects the drama of it all.”

Using polluted water from the Rio Grande underscores the precarious nature of the ecosystem that serves as our national border. The TransPecos pipeline is slated to cross the river into Mexico. Already an area of great environmental concern to residents on both sides of the border, the pipeline provides an additional threat to the waterway and health of the residents.

2.     Environmental Impact. While employed at the Presidio County Health Services as Assistant to the CEO I witnessed the flooding of the Rio Grande. This tragedy shut down the border for more than 2 weeks closing off the cities of Presidio on the Texas side and Ojinaga on the Mexico side. The town of Redford was isolated by floodwaters and many people were without clean water, food and medical supplies until the water receded.

To quote from the October 17, 2008 article in the Texas Observer by Marfa resident Sterry Butcher:

"The International Boundary and Water Commission is the binational agency with responsibility for some ofthe Rio Grande's levees, including those at Presidio. . .

We do regularly exchange water data with Mexico," said Sally Spener, spokesperson for the U.S. section of the commission. "We got into a situtation where that water was coming to Luãs Leãn. The Mexican section advised us of the planned releases so we could prepare. By September 5, we were basically in flood operation and over capacity at the big dams. We started to see the water rise. . .

The authorities gave us about 24 hours' notice," said Ojinaga Mayor Cásar Carrasco, who added that his city's unavoidable flood was better than the alternative: a burst dam upstream. "Ojinaga and Presidio would disappear if the dam collapsed," he said. . .

On October 5, the bridge reopened to non-commercial traffic. Lacking their Mexican customer base, some Presidio businesses say they saw an 80-percent decrease in sales while the bridge was closed. Ojinaga took an economic hit, too. . ."

I site the flooding of the Rio Grande to underscore the precarious nature of the river that borders the US and Mexico to again ask you to stop the TransPecos pipeline.

In 2010 I was employed as the Business Operations Manager for the Texas Sustainable Energy Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas. My relationship with Environmental Engineers and Sustainable Energy experts helped to enhance my ongoing education about environmental topics. I have become aware of Impact Fees. To quote James Nicholas, University of Florida and Julian Conrad Juergensmeyer, Georgia State University from their paper Market Based Approaches to Environmental Preservation: To Environmental Mitigation Fees and Beyond:

"Present environmental problems facing the world today clearly show that past techniques used for environmental protection have failed to mitigate environmental degradation. The decline of the environment, signified by rising air pollution, water pollution, and deforestation shows the inherent tension between economically profitable ventures and environmental protection. This is the tragedy: Environmental preservation tends to not be “profitable’ while environmental degradation tends to be “cheaper.” In essence, it is cheaper for a private part to pollute rather than to protect environmental resources. This construct, however, which arises as a result of concern with the “bottom line,’ exists separately from the social and natural features that society might wish to have considered. But, what if environmental conservation was profitable? Can we move towards regulatory paradigms where the profit motive works towards preservation?. . . "

I respectfully ask the FERC to consider the environment and culture of the TransPecos over the economic interests of the pipeline.