Maya Lemon, a 23-year-old from Nacogdoches, Texas, grew up just a few miles away from the path of the Keystone XL pipeline's southern arm.
Now an outdoor educator in Southern California, Lemon says she first heard about the pipeline three years ago, but it wasn't until recently that the issue really drew her attention.
"I lived in Texas for three months this fall with my family," said Lemon, "and when I came back the construction on the pipeline was just beginning." By October the pipeline's pathway had been mapped out, Lemon said, and when she left in January it was already in the ground in nearby Douglas, Texas.
"It's super weird the way they mark it out," she told HuffPost in an interview Monday. "They use those same brightly colored triangular flags that you see at state fairs, like it's a celebration of something."
Lemon has written about the pipeline extensively on her personal blog, "Untold Stories Told," which she began upon moving to California after college. One post titled "And then," offers perspective from a member of the Tar Sands Blockade, a direct action campaign aimed at stopping the construction of the southern arm of the pipeline. Another, "It is important," describes the personal impact of a phone call from Lemon's mother, who in February joined 40,000 activists at a climate protest in Washington, D.C.
The Keystone XL pipeline -- which would carry tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada, to refineries along the Gulf Coast -- has become a rallying point for environmentalists frustrated with President Barack Obama's record on climate change.
Because the Keystone XL crosses an international border, it must be approved by the State Department, which is currently in the midst of a 45-day public comment period before issuing its final environmental assessment of the project. The Obama administration is expected to make a decision on the pipeline this summer. For Lemon, the danger of the pipeline is especially personal.
Lemon first emailed The Huffington Post through our Open Reporting project, which seeks to share readers' stories and perspectives on current issues being debated in Washington and elsewhere.
The Angelina River, formed by the convergence of Barnhardt and Shawnee creeks just northwest of Laneville, Texas, is the site of some of Lemon's most cherished childhood memories, and the pipeline runs right through it.
"I have paddled, fished, and swam in the Angelina my entire life," Lemon wrote in an email to HuffPost. "I have climbed over logs and walked away from snakes, stilled my paddle to watch alligators and woke in the early morning light to see my Dad emerge from the mist with a stringer of fish. The Tar Sands pipeline is crossing the Angelina. And such was my naïveté that only in this moment did I begin to fully think about the implications this project would have on the rivers that are our life, culture, and heart in East Texas."
Read Lemon's full letter to HuffPost, sent through our Open Reporting project, below:
Growing up in East Texas the oil and gas industry has been a constant, if unwanted, part of my life. Pipelines, well sites, and transfer and compression stations are as common a part of the local 'scenery' as pine trees, cows, and red dirt roads. I have lived and experienced first hand what it means to live near a well that is being 'fracked', a process used to extract hard to reach pockets of oil, what it means to listen to the lights and noise of a well site 24 hours a day, how important it is to slow down on country roads to avoiding barreling semi-trucks.
Being from this place I am used to pipelines. In East Texas we do not necessarily like pipelines but we are familiar with them. Naturalist, hunter, child—we have all walked on them. They frequently carry toxic materials but in the spring they are also places to see the first wildflowers and to watch deer and their fawns graze. Generally we have been powerless to stop pipelines but generally we have also pretended pipelines don’t impact our daily life.
Pipelines have impacted my life, however, in the form of cancer, unwanted land development, noise, water, and land pollution, and increased traffic on quiet country roads. The South Arm of the KXL pipeline will be different, however, than any other pipeline that we have had in East Texas up to this point.
If construction is completed and this pipeline is put into operation it will move an ecologically damaging and corrosive product called diluted bitumen from Canada to the Gulf. If this product leaks or spills it will change the way we look at pipelines in East Texas.
The KXL pipeline curves and winds through the piney-woods of East Texas about 6 miles from my family's home. If this project is finished and this pipeline is put into operation it will likely leak--and if it leaks my family's home and land will never be the same again.
Bitumen, the product carried in the pipe, is extremely difficult to clean up and water (on the surface and in deep underground aquifers) would most likely be damaged, perhaps indefinitely.
Although the pipeline primarily runs through very rural areas it is nonetheless a very close neighbor to the many people whose land or community it crosses. In one place the pipeline runs a mere 300 or so yards for a local school. It runs by houses, through farms and pastures, alongside streams and rivers, and next to roads and quiet streets. The path of the pipe itself winds like a massive snake.
Pipelines are visually jarring in East Texas because the ground is red like flesh when the skin is scraped away. And when it rains the water that pours of the pipeline flows red too. Carved into by machine and the print of boot, the earth where the pipeline is being constructed stretches like a long, lean red wound.
In November I went to an action protesting the construction of the pipeline put on by Tar Sands Blockade, a direct action campaign working to stop the south arm of the pipeline. At some point during the action, before the cops had arrived with pepper spray, before members of the Blockade ran out into the road to prevent the cherry picker from removing their friends from the trees that they were sitting in, I walked across the road away from the commotion, several hundred yards from the pipeline. I expected to find trees, soft pine forest floor, dusty red dirt, American Beauty Berry, maybe deer tracks. What I found, however, was the Angelina River. Sneaking through the woods at a whisper, silky muddy water and silent pleading grace, she begged my notice. I have paddled, fished, and swam in the Angelina my entire life. I have climbed over logs and walked away from snakes, stilled my paddle to watch alligators and woke in the early morning light to see my Dad emerge from the mist with a stringer of fish. The Tar Sands pipeline is crossing the Angelina. And such was my naïveté that only in this moment did I begin to fully think about the implications this project would have on the rivers that are our life, culture, and heart in East Texas. Later that day I turned to a reporter, a woman who I’d known most of my life, and said, “Did you get a shot of the river? It’s right there. That’s what gets me—the river. If there were nothing else wrong about this project I would be against it for what it could do to our rivers. It’s the Angelina. That’s our water." The south arm of the pipeline crosses the Angelina and other rivers like it. These rivers feed lakes, towns, marshes, and countless forest animals. The impacts of this pipeline will be far reaching, water contamination affects us all, leaving no one out of the equation.
My experience with the South Arm of the KXL pipeline is one of constant sadness and fear. Oil and gas companies like Transcanada seem able to do whatever they want--to take land, to cross rivers, to go wherever and however they want to go. I'm currently living in California, working a job that I love.
Everyday, however, I wonder if I should be here--I wonder if I should instead be in Texas working to stop the construction of this pipeline, if I should be in my community raising awareness, if I should be in Washington demanding my story be heard and considered.
There are many people who do not want the South Arm of the pipeline in Texas. It does not have economic benefits for us, construction is being done by people from out of state, refinery jobs created will be minimal and, due to the toxicity of Tar Sands, are also likely to be extremely dangerous to the health of the individuals working there. Texas will not use this oil and neither will the rest of the US. Once Tar Sands reaches the Gulf and is processed there it will become part of the global market--a commodity to be sold to the highest bidder. The health of my parents, my community, and the environment of Texas is not benefiting from this pipeline.
This project is wrong. It does not make sense socially, economically, or environmentally. We will not benefit from the South Arm or the larger KXL project being considered.