When Lori Birckhead heard that a dangerous compressor station might go up 1,000 feet from her organic farm, she became the leader of the efforts to protect her rural Tennessee community 15 miles outside Nashville.
“I’ve never been political but…if you don’t get involved, you’ll get run over.”
Getting run over just isn’t in Lori’s DNA.
The 61-year-old wife, mom and grandmom was already plenty busy running the By Faith Farm, which produces fresh food for local charities working to end hunger. But when Lori realized how much pollution a compressor station would generate, she knew she had to act.
“The unwanted intruder into our otherwise peaceful country-esque setting would be one of the largest in the country,” noted Lori. But worse, “this monstrosity” would be built on land that adjoins a public park which hosts after-school activities and sports for school-age children, surrounded by over 300 homes, and across the street from a chemical-free farm and less than a mile from the state’s largest wildlife refuge and rehabilitation center.”
Working with others in her community, Lori formed Concerned Citizens for a Safe Environment (CCSE), a non-profit group dedicated to raising awareness about the dangers compressor stations pose. They found scientists and lawyers to help them make their case. They also began testifying before the state’s elected officials and officially intervening with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), the agency that gives compressor stations a green light.
But that’s an uphill battle. Lori notes that FERC is now made up of Trump appointees who are “only too happy to appease the oil/gas industry. What with the proposed deregulation (gutting) of Clean Air and Clean Water protections, Trump has pretty much given the fox the keys to the henhouse and even set the table for him, too,” declares Lori. “Add to that the appointment of Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, who sued the agency he now works for 14 times when he was the former Attorney General in Oklahoma” and the future looks bleak. Currently, EPA Administer Scott Pruitt is working to dismantle important safeguards designed to protect our children’s health from oil and gas air pollution.
Lori credits her religious beliefs for having the strength to get – and stay – involved. “Faith influences everything I do,” she told me. As terrified as she was of how little she knew about the issues or of the public speaking she’d have to do at hearings and town halls, she felt God nudging her onward.“It was hard,” she reveals. “There were many times a reporter would come up with a mic in my face and I’d melt. I’d stress all night long at the thought of having to get up and speak.”
“God pulled me through it. He doesn’t want us to be fearful of anything.”
CCSE is concerned about the health, safety, water and noise pollution associated with natural gas development. On the health front, the group was appalled to learn that emissions from gas compressor stations can make people sick in a variety of ways, from causing chronic nosebleeds, asthma attacks, respiratory diseases, and even cancer.
Safety is a major concern too. Many of the pipelines carrying natural gas into and out of the area were originally installed in the 1950s and 1960s. “The thought of adding even more pressure to pipes that are already in disrepair just doesn’t make sense to us,” says CCSE on their website. Two people have already been killed in Tennessee as a result of pipeline explosions in the state. “This compressor station simply doesn’t belong on our agricultural and residential lands.”
It shouldn’t be polluting their water, either. Many people in the community rely on well water, either for personal consumption or for meeting their farm and animals’ needs. There is a possibility of the water table being contaminated – and “that is simply not acceptable,” they declare.
Plus, there’s the noise. Given the racket a compressor station makes, people don’t envision being able to leave their windows open or sit on the front porch. Those may be little things, but they’re the kinds of things that usually make living in a rural community so rewarding.
So do the victories.
“We have accomplished many successes,” CCSE declares on its web page. “We’ve made many new friends and we’ve seen this community gain strength in our resolve against this industrial intruder.”
For example, though the compressor station got permission to begin construction, CCSE has secured assurances that air pollution will be as much as 70% lower because citizens intervened.
“We were told…from the beginning that there was nothing we could do, but …We assure you that our campaign for the health and safety of our community will continue.”