Documentary Chronicles Grassroots Struggle Against Bluegrass Pipeline

Sep 22, 2015

Filmmaker Sellus Wilder directed the documentary "The End of the Line."
Credit Greg Kocher / Lexington Herald Leader

A dramatic fight about a natural-gas-liquids pipeline planned to go through Kentucky is the subject of a new documentary, “The End of the Line.”

It was made by one of the activists who opposed the project, Sellus Wilder, a former Frankfort City Commissioner. 

Two companies, Williams, an energy firm, and Boardwalk Pipeline Partners, which handles natural gas liquids, announced plans to build the Bluegrass Pipeline about two years ago. It was to help transport natural-gas liquids from Pennsylvania drilling zones to Gulf Coast refineries. 

The film started out for Wilder as a series of informational videos he made for landowners about the project at their request. But then an environmental suspense story began to unfold. Wilder partnered with the nonprofit Louisville Film Society and tried to keep up with fast-moving events. He wants the film to be a teaching tool for grassroots activism around pipeline issues. 

Says Wilder, “We’re hoping that the inherent drama of the story can bring people into the information in a way that dry data doesn’t. It’s the power of storytelling.” 

Many Kentucky landowners willingly sold easements to the pipeline partnership.  In Wilder’s documentary, opposition landowners accuse the companies of misleading them by saying the pipeline was for natural gas instead of natural-gas liquids. 

Natural-gas liquids are used to make plastics and tires, among many other things. These NGLs are byproducts of natural-gas processing. Wilder interviews landowners who were extremely worried about those liquids’ flammability and who did not believe the pipeline served a public use. 

In the documentary, Scott County’s Jody Gaines says surveyors entered her property without her permission: “We … told them we weren’t interested and didn’t want them back on our property. They were sorry to hear that, and they hoped it wouldn’t come to eminent domain. We asked them how it could come to eminent domain when they were not a public utility. They said that was for the lawyers to decide, not us.”

In the film Williams and Boardwalk deny trying to mislead or intimidate residents. 

Through footage of public meetings and interviews, “The End of the Line” tracks dramatic twists and turns as citizens make legislative and legal attempts to try and forestall Williams and Boardwalk from using eminent domain. Opposition landowners worry about sinkholes possibly causing a pipeline rupture and about water contamination. 

Landowners Deb and Bob Pekny are in the film. I visited them at their home on the Kentucky River. They were ready for a quiet retirement until they found out the pipeline was planned to go in near their house. For months they walked the hallways of the state Capitol as citizen lobbyists.

Says Deb Pekny, “It was a little overwhelming at first because you’re walking down hallways where really important people are. Then we just decided that we’re Kentucky citizens, we’re voters, we had a right to be there and a right to be heard.” 

The turning point in the opposition’s fight came when the pipeline partnership requested to survey the land of the Sisters of Loretto. The nuns refused. But they went to an informational meeting sponsored by Williams and Boardwalk. Sister Kathy Wright says, “There was no public sharing of information, no opportunity to ask any questions. So we felt it wasn’t the informational meeting they had promised, and we needed to respond.” 

The response was a singing protest of “Amazing Grace” that went viral. Activists say the national media attention gave them the leverage they needed. 

Williams and Boardwalk eventually cancelled the Bluegrass Pipeline project saying they did not have enough customer commitments. Wilder and his fellow activists believe their opposition was the reason why. 

No anti-eminent domain bill was passed. But last spring the Kentucky Court of Appeals upheld a lower court’s decision that the pipeline partnership cannot use eminent domain because it neither serves a public use nor is it regulated by the Public Service Commission. 

Meanwhile, another company, Kinder Morgan, is now trying to get permission to convert an existing pipeline in Kentucky to carry NGLs. Zachary Bray is a visiting assistant law professor at the University of Kentucky. He teaches in the area of property, land use and natural resources. Bray believes the courts aren’t the place to resolve citizen opposition in Kentucky - or around the country - to NGL pipelines. 

Says Bray, “As important as the eminent domain issues may have been here, the bigger issues are beyond eminent domain and how we’re going to treat them substances going forward. And I think the best solution to that is the Legislature.” 

Wilder wants viewers to take away the film’s broader environmental message about using renewable energy and cutting consumption. His favorite scene is with one of his opponents: State Representative Suzanne Miles of Owensboro, who did not want the bill to prohibit eminent domain.

Miles says in that scene: “Cars are made with NGLs. The plastics that we look at with our computers are made with NGLs. All of us are very spoiled to the luxuries that are provided to us with this item. If we say no to these companies, if we say we want all your products, we want everything you want to provide to us, but we don’t want you in our state, I think that’s awfully hypocritical of us.” 

Responds Wilder:  “I think she’s got a point. We reach different conclusions. Hers is that we should let them in the state. Mine is that we should use less plastic, cheap products. I recognize the value that we’ve had as a Commonwealth and as a country from our abundance of cheap energy, but it’s really time to take a good look at some of the alternatives.” 

"The End of the Line" will be shown at the University of Kentucky’s William T. Young Library Theater Wednesday,September 23. Admission is free, and a panel discussion with the film maker and some of its subjects will take place afterward. 

For more information on the film’s screening dates and locations, visit selluswilder.com