Ky. Voices: Will Kentucky just go along with a toxic gas pipeline?

June 6, 2013 

Roger Rawlings of Lawrenceburg, a retired teacher and editor, is married to novelist Bobbie Ann Mason.

A few decades back, my wife and I moved to an unspoiled region of northern Pennsylvania. It was a lovely area of high, rolling hills and seemingly endless forests — similar to those parts of Eastern Kentucky not yet ravaged by strip mining and mountaintop removal.

We bought a small farm and lived there contentedly for several years, growing our own food, drinking without qualms the water from our well, and picnicking occasionally on the hillsides where wild blueberries grew in profusion.

Eventually we moved away, continuing an odyssey that would eventually bring us to Kentucky, my wife's native state. We brought with us photographs and even paintings of our little farm, and in the years since we have preserved the place, unchanged, in memory — as if that small patch of ground were an inviolate bit of Eden.

But time changes everything. Friends who stayed behind report how things have gone in the northern wilds. Hydraulic fracturing — "fracking" — has come to the area.

Large energy companies have forced their way across the hills and down into the valleys. Huge trucks roar along the country lanes; strange drilling rigs rise out of the land; and large sums of money change hands.

The companies drive shafts deep into the earth, pumping in high-pressure chemicals that blast the subterranean rock layers apart. Then equipment at the surface gathers the stew of natural gas and contaminants that rises from deep underground. In the process, the earth and water and air have become dangerously polluted.

(Have you seen the documentary Gasland? Look for scenes of homeowners holding lighted matches to running water — water in streambeds and water flowing from kitchen taps. The water is so polluted — so laced with flammable chemicals released by fracking operations — that it bursts into flame.)

We were wise to leave, weren't we? You bet. Except we now learn that fracking has followed us.

Plans are afoot to run a large pipeline through several counties in upper Kentucky, roughly east to west, carrying fracked slop from Pennsylvania on its way to processing facilities on the Gulf Coast.

A preliminary map shows the charmingly named Bluegrass Pipeline potentially cutting through the region where we have lived for the last quarter century: Anderson County.

We won't know for some time whether the pipeline will actually come our way. Maybe it will bypass our property, as maybe it will bypass yours. But this only means that other Kentuckians will be targeted instead — our neighbors and yours, either nearby neighbors or neighbors a bit farther away. The consequences will be much the same for every Kentuckian.

According to published reports, the pipeline will carry up to 400,000 barrels of poisonous substances across the state each day. Imagine what could happen if the line burst or even — as has happened elsewhere — exploded. Or, if that seems too dramatic, imagine the results of many small leaks gradually secreting poison into the soil for months on end. When the earth and water and air are made toxic, we will all pay the price eventually, no matter whose homeplace suffers first.

Imagine the day when you will be able to set fire to the water coming from your kitchen tap.

Maybe that day will never come. Surely measures will be taken to forestall it. But how much are you willing to stake on assurances offered by energy companies? Are you prepared to wager your health? Your children's health? Your grandchildren's health? There are some things we shouldn't gamble with.

The Bluegrass Pipeline is only one minor manifestation of mankind's self-destructive assault on nature — the violence we have inflicted on the planet. But being minor, it may give us an opportunity to finally begin mending our ways.

Surely a pipeline bringing us poison from the devastated countryside of Pennsylvania is an intrusion we can find the wisdom to reject.

Roger Rawlings of Lawrenceburg, a retired teacher and editor, is married to novelist Bobbie Ann Mason.

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