Light mist rolled off the Ramapo River in early March. About 100 people from the Ramapough-Lunaape tribe of Northern New Jersey and the surrounding community had come to Split Rock Sweetwater camp in Mahwah, New Jersey, to pray for clean water. Each person was asked to mentally transfer their prayer to a pinch of tobacco clutched in their hands. In silence, the ceremony leader collected the tobacco leaves and dropped them into a fire.
The people came to pray, but also to protest a proposal to build dual 170 mile long oil pipelines through their communities from Linden, NJ, to Albany, NY. The pipelines, proposed by Connecticut-based start-up Pilgrim Pipeline Holdings, would slice through some of the most heavily populated areas of the Northeast—including the Ramapoughs' land—and across some 250 bodies of water, putting tens of millions' drinking supplies at risk.
Dakota Access (DAPL) and Keystone XL have recently brought to our attention the public health risks of oil pipelines. But they are just two of a vast 2.4 million mile web of oil and gas pipelines crisscrossing the United States.
While many pipeline fights have protestors on the back foot, battling construction already underway, a highly organized interstate coalition of community organizations, including the Ramapough-Lunaape, have the Pilgrim Pipeline Holdings company grasping at straws before a shovel has ever been put into the ground.
The Ramapoughs are no strangers to environmental persecution. In 2006, the tribe and other locals sued Ford Motor Company for dumping of toxic sludge and paint on their land, allegedly causing nosebleeds and leukemia amongst tribal members.
Today, the tribe numbers about 3,700 members locally, and 1,200 nationally. They are recognized by both New York and New Jersey, but not by the federal government. In the 1990s, when the tribe applied for federal recognition, Donald Trump campaigned to stop them, in fear of the tribe opening casinos to compete with his in Atlantic City. "I look more like an Indian than they do," he said.
Last year, many members of the Ramapough-Lunaape tribe of Northern New Jersey heeded the call sent to all indigenous people and traveled to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota to protest DAPL.
Dwaine Perry, Ramapough chief and military veteran, rode his motorcycle across the plains to get to Standing Rock and protest. When he came back home he felt moved to start a Ramapough prayer camp in defiance of Pilgrim Pipelines and in solidarity with Standing Rock.
The Split Rock Sweetwater Prayer Camp, as it's known, is nestled on sacred Ramapough land next to the Ramapo River. "I'd been out there, and come back and saw that, on a different scale, Pilgrim Pipeline and others were doing the same thing," he told me one day at the camp. It has become a cornerstone of the resistance to Pilgrim Pipeline Holdings and a source of inspiration for other activists.
Pilgrim Pipeline Holdings is led by a collection of oil industry executives—two of whom previously worked for Koch Industries, Inc., run by the infamous conservative businessmen, Charles and David Koch. Ares Management, a global asset manager, has so far pledged $195 million to the estimated $980 million the pipelines will take to complete.
In Pilgrim's proposal, the 20 inch parallel pipelines would run 170 miles through New York and New Jersey, connecting the Buckeye and Global Companies' terminals on the Hudson River to refineries on the East Coast. These terminals, located in Albany, NY are holding centers for crude Bakken oil shipped from Canada and North Dakota. One tube would pump crude Bakken oil to Linden, NJ. The other would shoot refined petroleum products like gasoline and kerosene to Albany. The pipes could pump up to 16.8 million gallons of oil a day.
But the pipelines would also traverse 257 bodies of water—including the Hudson River at two points—cross wetlands almost 300 times, and slice through a minimum of 600 acres of forest containing 27 state and federally listed endangered species.
Overall, the pipelines would also be passing over, or next to, drinking water sources for almost 20 million people including the Ramapo Valley aquifer, which serves 3 million residents, the Catskill and Delaware Aqueducts, which supply 9 million New York City residents, and the New Jersey Highlands, which provide 5.4 million residents with drinking water.
"What people don't understand is one quart of oil pollutes a quarter million gallons of water. So if you're talking about 50,000 gallons of oil [spilled], the amount of contamination is very serious," Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club told me over the phone.
Pilgrim has tried to frame the pipelines as a safer and more environmentally friendly alternative to the fossil fuel superhighway of trains and barges that currently ferry millions of barrels of crude Bakken oil drilled in North Dakota up and down the Hudson everyday. In 2013, "bomb trains" carrying this highly volatile crude derailed and exploded in the town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, killing 47 people. (Pilgrim did not respond to multiple requests by phone and email for comments.)
But pipelines are hardly failsafe. In fact, for most pipelines, leaks are an inevitability. From 2003-2013, 1,880 pipeline spills in the United States poured out nearly 44 million gallons of crude oil. That's about one spill every other day. In its first year of operation, the Keystone Pipeline alone leaked 35 times.
In the fall of 2014, reports started to emerge in northern New Jersey that homeowners along the proposed route were receiving letters from Pilgrim Pipeline Holdings threatening them with eminent domain if they didn't allow the company to survey their land. Pilgrim, however, had no authority to do so.
"New Jersey regulatory law absolutely does not allow that," Tittel told me. "In New Jersey, you have to be a utility and they don't fit the definition."
In the fall of 2014, Pilgrim held what would be their only public town hall in Kinnelon, New Jersey. At one point, a resident asked if Pilgrim would compensate landowners for damage in the event of a leak. George Bochis, VP of Pilgrim Pipeline Holdings, replied with a smile: "No. My oil is not going to spill."
"Their [public relations] is terrible," Ken Dolsky, a Parsippany, New Jersey resident, told me one morning. "I mean, how stupid is it to just say no, as opposed to dancing around it?"
Regardless of whether the company's initial approach was based on unbridled arrogance or naivete, their lack of transparency fueled public opposition. Communities heard of the plan around March of 2014 and by May of that year had launched the Coalition Against Pilgrim Pipeline (CAPP) with 32 organizations from both states. There are now 76. They've enlisted scientists and attorneys and have been fervently educating people up and down the Hudson.
"We had learned enough to know that it was a terrible idea and immediately started organizing around it," said Matt Smith, New Jersey organizer for clean water nonprofit Food and Water Watch.
Since then, Pilgrim has kept a low profile. It's possible the company retreated into its shell because they hadn't expected the public to be so organized and informed.
"People who have not been involved in activism or the environment or politics began to get involved," Sue Rosenberg, a retired social worker and volunteer with CAPP told a crowd at a jammed town hall in Kingston, NY this past January. Hundreds of people had squeezed into the city hall for that informational meeting, filling up floor space and spilling out into the halls.
In August 2015, Pilgrim applied for its first permit in New York so it could build along the New York State Thruway. The Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), however, determined that an environmental review was needed before it could allow such a permit. That review is still under way and in the midst of a public comment period. The permit is just one of 31 that the company will need to apply for.
Pilgrim Pipeline also faces opposition in the New York State Assembly, and from 20 of the 33 municipalities in the structure's path.
In New Jersey, the outlook is even bleaker. The Public Service for Electric and Gas rejected the company's request to use its right-of-way on a key 27 mile section; all 30 municipalities along the route passed resolutions in opposition to the dual pipelines; and the New Jersey Senate and Assembly have both passed bipartisan resolutions against the proposition. Pilgrim has yet to apply for any of the 9 permits it needs in New Jersey.
"The politics kind of went out the window for 95 percent of the people," Dolsky told me on the phone. "The thought of having to clean this water, of [a town] losing some of their tax base because property values go down—those are nightmare scenarios."
With nowhere to go at either end, and a route that runs through hostile territory, it's looking like Pilgrim's pipeline proposal is being lowered into the ground in a casket. While other communities in the US are forced to fight bulldozers and backhoes, local communities in New York and New Jersey have been able to knock down the pipeline company early in the game with a blitzkrieg of public action.
Tittel, from Sierra Club warned me, though, that Pilgrim Pipeline still lives, and it's possible the company could change their business plan in a whole new way. "[The pipeline] is a tool, you know. It's like a hammer: you can break someone's knuckles or build a house. We don't know what the final outcome will be." For the Ramapough, Pilgrim Pipelines is just one battle amongst a three hundred year old fight for existence. Regardless of the proposal's future, the Ramapough's Split Rock camp will remain, to hold the community together.
"A lot of different people come and pray," Perry said, leaning against a split rail fence at the camp. Behind him hung First Nations flags—Haudenosaunee, Tiano Confederation and Ramapough—brought back from Standing Rock. "Nobody is barred," he said.