Boston-area Unitarian Universalists are encouraging acts of civil disobedience in a fight to stop construction of the West Roxbury Lateral (WRL), a new pipeline slated to carry natural gas through a neighborhood of Boston, presenting what the climate justice activists say are serious public safety and environmental dangers.
“UUs have decided to take a moral stand in West Roxbury,” said Evan Seitz, a climate justice organizer for UU Mass Action. “It’s important for UUs to know that no new infrastructure for fossil fuels is acceptable.”
Seitz and others are trying to mobilize 500 UUs to join a protest planned for April 23 at the pipeline construction site in West Roxbury, a neighborhood on the southwest side of Boston. If that goal is met, he said, it would be one of the largest UU social justice actions in state history.
“We’re asking UUs, if they feel called, to engage in civil disobedience,” Seitz said, “and on April 23, the idea is to get as many into the streets as possible.”
Boston city rules halted construction on the WRL over the winter. The building moratorium ends on April 15. Seitz said he expects that the WRL work will resume shortly thereafter—and so will protests.
Theodore Parker Church, the UU congregation in West Roxbury, has scheduled a March 15 training in nonviolent civil disobedience for anyone interested in protesting the WRL. The church has been a focal point for the WRL resistance. Forty-five UUs from fifteen congregations met on February 13 to begin organizing the UU presence at the April 23 protest, Seitz said.
Protesters object to the construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure when the global climate continues to heat up, posing what they believe is an existential threat to humans and other living beings. They also have concerns about the safety of the WRL, which passes near elementary schools and an active blasting quarry.
UUs from across Massachusetts—including Dedham, Jamaica Plain, West Roxbury, and Bedford—have worked to halt the pipeline for a year and a half, including getting arrested for placing themselves on the construction site to force workers to stop digging and building. They helped shut down the site for an entire day in November, and have been a strong presence at weekday protests during morning rush hour and Thursday evening vigils. A major protest at the site last summer drew 250 participants and began with a worship service organized by Seitz that emphasized what they see as the immorality of the fossil fuel industry, he said. The protesters, including UUs from a dozen congregations, walked the pipeline route holding signs, singing, and shouting, Seitz said.
Support from First Parish in Bedford included a congregational vote on November 8 to adopt a “Resolution Declaring Our Right to a Livable Climate,” which states that the fossil fuel industry and laws that support it violate the human right to a livable climate. The Bedford congregation is also involved in legislative campaigns, and has been educating other congregations on how to step up their climate justice work.
In February, twenty-seven UU ministers from Massachusetts signed a Call to Action letter opposing the WRL.
The Rev. Anne Bancroft, minister at Theodore Parker Church, said, “For me personally not to pay attention and fight this would abdicate my responsibility to this community and future generations. Even if nothing [bad] happens in the next 10 years, the likelihood is there will be, over time, some catastrophic repercussion from this. I feel a huge responsibility through my faith for that.”
Bancroft and the Rev. Martha Niebanck, minister emerita of First Parish in Brookline, both wearing their UU ministerial stoles, were arrested in October along with Chuck Collins, a member of First Church in Jamaica Plain; charges were later dropped. Collins and another person had been arrested a month earlier for painting a red line down Washington Street, the major West Roxbury street under which the pipeline is proposed to run. He turned himself in to police; vandalism charges were later dropped. At least forty-one people, including a number of UUs, were arrested protesting the WRL last fall before construction stopped for the winter, Collins said.
The West Roxbury Lateral is part of a 1,100-mile pipeline being built by Spectra Energy of Houston, Texas, and its subsidiary, Algonquin Gas Transmission in Waltham, Massachusetts, to carry natural gas from Pennsylvania. Slightly over five miles long, the WRL will begin in the town of Westwood, run through Dedham, where it will pass near a soccer field, and continue into West Roxbury, where it will pass near an active blasting quarry. A related metering and regulating station is also being built near the quarry, according to Resist the West Roxbury Lateral Pipeline, an organization fighting the WRL.
Opponents— including the City of Boston and at least one Massachusetts congressman—object to the WRL for safety and environmental reasons. It represents new infrastructure for fossil fuels when alternative energy sources such as renewable energy sources are what’s required to combat climate change, said Seitz. Protesters are especially alarmed by the side effects of the “fracking” process that produces much of the natural gas today, since it uses huge amounts of water and contaminates groundwater with toxic chemicals, Seitz said.
Opponents also have serious worries about the safety of the WRL, since so many of Boston’s existing pipes are aging and leaking, and they say increased pressure from the new system would increase leaks. “It would be an enormous explosion if it blew,” said Bancroft, who is on the steering committee of Stop the West Roxbury Lateral, an organization fighting the pipeline.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) approved the WRL, and the City of Boston in September lost an effort in federal court to halt it. Dedham and Boston, as well as Massachusetts Congressman Stephen Lynch and other officials, are now asking the U.S. Court of Appeals to review the FERC order granting Spectra the right to build the pipeline.
The gas will be used to meet the energy needs of Boston-area residents, according to National Grid, the energy company that will be distributing the gas. But Spectra’s own documentation shows that some portion of the gas won’t heat local homes but rather will be sold overseas, Collins said, benefitting the company’s bottom line at the expense of the local community and the world’s climate.
“This is a climate issue,” said Bancroft. “The fact that this corporation from Texas is coming in and laying more infrastructure is unprecedented and dangerous and risky to this particular neighborhood and to Boston. It should raise an alarm about a direction we shouldn’t move into.”
In November, Portland, Oregon became the first city in the U.S. to ban construction of any new fossil fuel infrastructure. UUs in Portland were part of the effort to get the mayor and city council to pass that resolution, said Daphne Wysham, a friend of First Unitarian Church of Portland and director of the Climate and Energy Program at the Center for Sustainable Economy, which was involved in that effort.
UUs in Western Massachusetts, meanwhile, are organizing against a proposed pipeline there, said Seitz. “Some think these pipeline companies are in a race to build up the fossil fuel infrastructure as fast as they can” before restrictions on fracking are put in place, he said.
In West Roxbury, protesters have no intention of giving up, said Collins, adding, “It really is about democracy, fundamentally. Does a community have a say, do we as citizens have a say, over the future mix of our energy? We hope by continuing to resist the construction, by physically bearing witness, we will keep this in the news. We’re going to keep the pressure on.”
“We just have to shout louder,” said Bancroft. “So much money has been invested already [in the pipeline] and we’re up against a big fight,” Bancroft said.