Faith and the threat of eminent domain

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By David Whitlock

On a frigid afternoon this past Tuesday, December 10, some 65 people representing different expressions of faith gathered on the Boone Farm in Nelson County, affirming their belief that God is not pleased with what hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) is doing to his creation.

Why did they do this? Why now?  And, will their action shape the roles Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear and the Kentucky Legislature play in determining whether Bluegrass Pipeline’s parent companies, Williams and Boardwalk, have the right to exercise eminent domain, permitting this powerful corporation to carry what many believe to be dangerous natural gas liquids through the property of landowners, even if they refuse to grant access through their property?

The event was in answer to the call from the Dominican Sisters of Peace (St. Catharine, Ky.), the Loretto Community (Loretto, Ky.) and the Sisters of Charity (Nazareth, Ky.), who originally articulated the Energy Vision Statement and invited people of faith from all traditions to join them.

The statement, signed by 117 organizations and 965 people from Christian and non-Christian faith communities, speaks against all plans for expanded extraction of fossil fuel or infrastructures such as pipelines that require the plundering of God’s creation and the endangerment of human communities. The statement calls for immediate regional and national plans for the transition to renewable sources of energy which would better uphold the ideal of the common good, both now and for future generations.

It is no mistake they met on the Boone Farm in Nelson County, Ky., for the family has refused the company the right of way through their property.

Nor is it happenstance the meeting took place on Dec. 10, for that is the anniversary of Thomas Merton’s death, the most famous monk of the Abbey of Gethsemani, the oldest operating monastery in America, located near the Boone Farm. Ironically, according to current plans, it appears the route of the pipeline would include the Abbey’s property, land that Merton loved and often wrote about: “I love the woods…Know every tree, every animal, every bird. Sense of relatedness to my environment,” he wrote in a letter a few months before his untimely death. Several months ago, the monks refused to give permission for Bluegrass Pipeline LLC to survey their property.

And that brings us to the matter of eminent domain.

Exercising the power of eminent domain would allow the Bluegrass Pipeline LLC the right to seize land, even when landowners reject the company’s offer for easements through that property. Earlier this year, Governor Beshear refused to call for a special legislative session of the Kentucky General Assembly to address the hotly debated issue, and make no mistake, it is a contentious matter because it is unprecedented for a private corporation, such as the parent company of the Bluegrass Pipeline—a corporation not in public service to Kentuckians—to be granted the right of exercising eminent domain.

One can argue the pros and cons of whether the pipeline would be beneficial for Kentuckians, but understand the gravity of eminent domain: It is an end run around the debate, rendering helpless those property owners who disagree with the Bluegrass Pipeline’s plans. One must ask, Does a private company have the right to impose its will on those Kentucky property owners who oppose the corporation’s agenda?

Governor Beshear has taken a bye in this debate. “We will have adequate time to take any necessary action in the regular session that begins in January 2014,” he said earlier this year. But in doing so, the governor has allowed the Bluegrass Pipeline LLC to go ahead with plans seeking survey permissions, and the company has admittedly surveyed lands without the approval of landowners.

Unlike some, I refuse to blame the governor’s laissez faire approach on the fact that his son, Andrew, works for a law firm representing the company that plans to build the controversial pipeline through Kentucky.

Whatever his reason for inaction, the governor has a responsibility and a duty to protect the rights of Kentucky’s citizens. He should follow the lead of State Senator Jimmy Higdon and State Representative David Floyd, who have pre-filed legislation to prevent the use of eminent domain for the proposed Bluegrass Pipeline. “If you’re a pipeline and you don’t have an oversight by the Public Service Commission, then you don’t qualify for eminent domain. You can’t have it both ways,” said Higdon.

As for those faithful who met in the cold, as well as others who have signed on to the agenda for an environmentally cleaner and safer Kentucky and Earth, they should stay in the fray---for they are a necessary voice, though they may appear to be crying in the wilderness—for the wilderness is the place where truth sayers often have to stand, the place where their voice can usually most clearly be heard.