NERINX — The Sisters of Loretto, their 780-acre compound in Marion County swarming with yellow butterflies amidst the Kentucky "Knobs" region, seem to be unlikely international superstars.
But that they are, since their resistance to the planned Bluegrass Pipeline — an exercise in song, prayer and civil disobedience — has put them on Internet sites from Mother Jones magazine to Slate. Mother Jones called them "a feisty cadre of nuns," while Slate headlined its take "Anti-fracking nuns" and hailed "the unlikely activism of sisters who have lived on remote land for 200 years."
Actually, the nuns have been on this land since 1824. Father Stephen Theodore Badin, called the "Apostle of Kentucky," gave this farm to the sisters, then went on to Indiana.
"Fracking" is hydraulic fracturing of rock by injecting fluid into cracks to force them open, allowing oil and gas to flow out.
The Knobs region in Kentucky is named for the isolated hills, some of them hundreds of feet high, that dominate the region's landscape. Drive down the road between Springfield and Bardstown, and you see the knobby hills lined up in clusters, the early morning light and fog glinting off their stunning rows.
The sisters helped found schools both in Kentucky and further west, but their mission revolves around social justice.
The proposed pipeline would be part of a system that would transport natural gas liquids from the shale producing areas in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio to the petrochemical market in the northeast United States, as well as the petrochemical and export complex on the Gulf Coast. Natural gas liquids can include a variety of hydrocarbons, such as ethane, propane, butane, isobutane and pentanes.
The sisters take a dim view of having those chemicals flowing beneath the land their buildings and farm complex are on — rich in history and religious imagery, and until now, largely untouched by outside forces.
The sisters have planted 73 acres of native grasses and 15,400 trees as well as 10 acres of switchgrass, which they hope to use to supplement their coal-fired boiler. More than 250 species of birds have been identified on the Loretto land.
They prayed and sang at community meetings, practicing what they say is an evolving strategy of nonviolent protest.
Black Angus cattle are raised here, and two retreat centers are offered. The buildings are immaculately preserved, high original ceilings and long cool corridors.
"People are defending what is their land and heritage," said Sister Maria Visse. "Can the corporations promise that there will be no detrimental effects of their pipeline? No."
Tom Droege, a spokesman for the pipeline's developers, said that nearly 90 percent of landowners along the proposed pipeline route in Kentucky have granted permission for initial environmental and civil surveys.
"For those few landowners in the state who have not granted survey permission, we have respected their wishes and are looking at other options, including alternative routes," Droege said in an e-mail.
Eminent domain, he said, "is an absolute last option that we have rarely used. We've built thousands of miles of pipelines and we've reached mutually beneficial easement agreements with tens of thousands of property owners ranging from churches, schools, private enterprise and homeowners."
Tom FitzGerald, head of the Kentucky Resources Council, said that the legal standing for the Bluegrass Pipeline is at issue in Kentucky regarding eminent domain.
"We require a public use, and not just a public purpose," FitzGerald said. "It is not a settled question."
Leaders in counties including Marion and Woodford have already voted against the pipeline. The monks at Gethsemani Abbey have also refused to let surveyors on their property.
The Kentucky Senate passed a resolution calling for a Public Service Commission review of the proposal and for respect for property rights, urging developers to avoid eminent domain if at all possible. On Sept. 5, a joint House and Senate committee is scheduled to hear from the pipeline developers, state regulators and FitzGerald.
Pipeline opponents contend that the pipeline does not serve Kentucky customers directly — "natural gas liquids" not being the type of natural gas used by consumers — and that the company building the pipeline is not regulated by a Kentucky oversight organization such as the Public Service Commission. Hence, they argue, the legality of the company using eminent domain to acquire land in Kentucky is shaky.
Said FitzGerald of the Loretto sisters and their well-tended land: "It is a precious place. They are a remarkably strong community of women."
"This is a gift here entrusted to us to care for," said Sister Eva Marie. "Those people are in a business to make quarterly profits. That's not my obligation."