Yesterday I was at the bucolic village of Balcolme speaking with activists Kathryn McWhirter and Vanessa Vine about the invasion of their community by the oil and gas industry. Kathryn and her husband Charles are wine experts who have lived in the village for 10 years. Vanessa lives four miles outside of the village and until recently was a secretary at the local school. These women, both mothers of grown children, are the backbone of their community. As dedicated activists, they have put their lives on hold, are sacrificing their careers and are putting their hobbies aside to fight for the future of their children and grandchildren.
Balcolme, just over an hour’s train ride south of London, seems too beautiful, too peaceful and too quaint to be the site of fracking or police violence. The train makes it possible for commuters to live in one of the most beautiful and verdant parts of England.
I shared a pot of tea with activists in Kathryn’s sunroom overlooking her very lovely English garden, where a few fancy heirloom chickens delicately paraded for our entertainment. I heard the sad tale of how the local laird, a beneficiary of Britian’s feudal land system (who is also a member of the village council) has betrayed his community. Simon Greenwood, the owner of 120 houses and numerous farms in the area, used his position on the village council to subvert the democratic process. When the paperwork allowing the exploration came up for discussion at the village council meeting, he didn’t bother to disclose that he had leased the land or that he stood to benefit from the deal.
In fact, there was no discussion at all about fracking at the 2010 council meeting where the issue was briefly raised and the paperwork granting permission sailed through. No community input was gathered and the permitting process defies logic and reason. No consideration was given to water resources or the effects of air pollution.
So today, the energy company Cuadrilla is using the dangerous procedure to explore for oil less than a mile from the Victorian era Ouse Valle Viaduct that provides water for 750,000 people. Ninety-two feet high and almost 1,500 feet long, with 37 circular arches, it could certainly be destroyed by seismic activity. The incessant noise from drilling is angering local farmers. Local residents despair of the damage to the endangered species and the countryside.
A peaceful protest camp has lined the road leading to the drilling for the past few months. During some periods, as many as 600 people have camped near the site. A recent march from the village included hundreds of people. Local residents like Kathryn and Vanessa have provided food and water and have often spent time at the camp themselves. The camp kitchen was quite impressive, full of local vegetables, nutritious foods and a fantastic bouquet of flowers.
As I prepared to catch my train back to London and to go onward with my travels, it was obvious that large numbers of police were gathering. This morning, I sadly read the news. A violent eviction of peaceful protesters was taking place.
Kathryn’s statement to BBC says it all: “We are horrified at the treatment of these dedicated people who have been here with our blessing for weeks now, helping us to protect our countryside, our health, our water, our air.
“The council is not acting today on behalf of the majority of residents of our village.”