Where pipelines and coal mines intersect: under Hare Krishna shrines

To get to the road where the natural gas pipeline is being built and the coal mine being dug below it, Gabriel Fried must first drive past the Palace of Gold.

In his silver SUV, he pulls out onto a brick road, laid by hand some 30 years ago by fellow devotees at New Vrindaban, a Hare Krishna community nestled incongruously into the hills of the West Virginia panhandle.

“People only imagine that you are perfect,” says a voice on the stereo before Mr. Fried hits the power button.

He drives past a large pond where likenesses of Radha-Krishna deities recline on a swan boat. “That’s our little aviary right there… where the peacocks hang out,” he says.

The car curves along a large ornate wall and past a parking lot laid from gravel that was donated by an oil and gas company.

“And this is the hill,” Mr. Fried says, slowing down next to a single-story home on his right and a green slope on the left. “We’ll be putting a temple there.”

For months, Mr. Fried — the community’s negotiator and guide for the extraction industries — has been trying to get pipelines and coal mines rerouted to avoid the many sacred spaces in the 2,500-acre community.

The small ranch-style house with an apple tree on the front lawn is a case in point.

Now, it’s the home of devotees Andy and Ruth Fraenkel, but 40 years ago, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, founder of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, taught early disciples under the apple tree. Krishna devotees regard anywhere he went as a venerated site, Mr. Fried says, and much of New Vrindaban bears his footprints.

Srila Prabhupada, founder of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, shown here in a photograph from June 1976, sitting under an apple tree in the front lawn of a home now owned by Andy and Ruth Fraenkel. (Courtesy of Bhaktivedanta Archives)

“The house is a place of pilgrimage and [a] shrine,” Mr. Fraenkel wrote in a Facebook campaign asking other devotees to write letters to Murray Energy Corp., whose Ohio County Mine is slated to burrow a nearly 6-foot-tall tunnel under his home. “Tell them you want it preserved.”

Once the coal seam — some 700 feet under the surface — is extracted, the ground will collapse, or subside, on top of it.

At the same time as the coal mine is set to advance underneath, unwelded chunks of Energy Transfer Partners’ Rover Pipeline lay splayed across a brown slice of an otherwise green hill a few hundred yards from the Fraenkels’ house.

Mr. Fried pulls up to a gravel lot filled with pickup trucks and waves to a group of pipeline workers awaiting the arrival of a pipe bending machine. The machine will curve the pipe to the contours of the steep hill.

“This is like my old turf,” Mr. Fried tells the guys.

He’s animated now, reminiscing about his days working on pipelines and spit balling the names of former colleagues in a pipeline union. He wears his work history as a merit badge — both to endear himself to energy companies and to warn them that he’s no pedestrian.

Mr. Fried asks if the workers know that a longwall mine will be crawling underneath the pipeline they’re putting in the ground and collapsing the ground several feet.

They don’t.

Look, Mr. Fried says. All they want is to be proud of their work and walk away feeling they’ve designed a safe product, right?

The pipeliners nod.

When the pipe bending machine arrives, Mr. Fried takes one look and declares that it makes his point: “If this little machine can bend the pipe, imagine what the earth can do.”

A pipe bending machine arrives at a pipeline right of way at New Vrindaban, a Hare Krishna community near Moundsville, where the Rover pipeline is being laid. (Peter Smith/Post-Gazette)

Before he leaves, he makes a point to shake hands and offer well wishes.

“What do the locals think about all this?” one of the pipeliners asks, motioning at nothing in particular.

“Oh, they hate it,” Mr. Fried says.

“What do they hate about it,” the worker asks.

The honest answer that Mr. Fried offers days later is that the community resents Rover for using eminent domain. “Nobody local wants the pipeline coming through because it was forced upon them,” he says.

Eminent domain  — the power to take private property for a purpose that’s deemed to be in the public interest — allows Rover to “cut a much larger swath of land, make a much bigger mess,” and pay less money to those in its path, he says.

A give and take

The Krishna devotee community in Moundsville, W.Va., has been giving and taking its share of the earth’s bounty for decades.

In recent years it signed leases with two natural gas companies, giving them access to the fuel trapped inside the Marcellus Shale some 7,000 feet below the ground and the Utica Shale a few thousand below that. The lease bonus money has already gone a long way toward restoring New Vrindaban’s campus, which had fallen into disrepair.

Under new leadership, the community has slowly rebuilt, funded in part with gas money.

Work to restore the Palace of Gold at New Vrindaban is funded in large part with money from natural gas leases. (Peter Smith/Post-Gazette)

Overall, the relationship between New Vrindaban and the fossil fuel companies has been beneficial, Mr. Fried says. But the day-to-day troubleshooting can take a toll.

Bidding goodbye to the pipeliners, Mr. Fried hops back into his car, pops a green tea mint and answers a call from a devotee calling to complain that another company’s pipeline crew had parked equipment in her driveway with no warning.

“We mentioned that it was kind of rude that they didn’t even ask,” she quips. “All we want is a little compensation.”

Mr. Fried says he’d take care of it. He hangs up and dials Charlie Hill — “a great guy” — who serves as a go-between for Williams Co. Mr. Hill doesn’t answer. He must still be on vacation, Mr. Fried says, and leaves a message suggesting someone drop off a Walmart gift card or something in that vein for the aggrieved landowner.

Then he pulls the car into a field next to a small mountain of tree trunks.

Here lies an example of a symbiotic relationship between the Krishna devotee community and the pipeline company, he says. The trees — cherry, maple, oak — used to line the pipeline right of way but Mr. Fried negotiated with the company to keep them for use in construction or as firewood.

Trees cut down to make room for a pipeline are stacked in a field. Before they were cut, Krishna devotees from New Vrindaban held a fire sacrifice and chanting ceremony to say goodbye to the trees and the other living creatures whose lives would be impacted by their loss. (Peter Smith/Post-Gazette)

“We went up there and had a special prayer for all these trees,” he says. “A fire ritual.”

Just then, his phone rings. Mr. Hill promises to get the crew off the woman’s property and to swing by later with a gift card.

On his way back from the wood pile, Mr. Fried runs into a small traffic jam at the pipeline right of way. The first driver in line happens to be the homeowner who had called Mr. Fried just a short while ago. He pulls up along her Prius to deliver the good news of a quick resolution and promises to stop by soon to buy some beans from her garden.

“Many people look at such things as coincidences. I see all this as being part of the Lord’s plan,” Mr. Fried says. “I see everything as Krishna’s arrangement. He guides and directs how things work.”

On God and gas

This is hardly the only time religious claims have clashed with those of pipelines and other fossil fuel projects.

The Standing Rock Sioux drew supporters from throughout the country in an unsuccessful bid to block completion of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which they contended would foul their sacred lands and water supplies. Other tribes have made similar claims about water pipelines.

In July, a Roman Catholic religious order in Lancaster County, the Adorers of the Blood of Christ, sued to block the taking of a portion of their land via eminent domain for a pipeline project. They claim in part that caring for creation is central to their religious practice and that the Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline installation violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which requires government to act in ways that are “least restrictive” on religious practice. In this case, the sisters say the pipeline company could use a different route that doesn’t affect their property.

The case is pending.

- Peter Smith

In March, New Vrindaban took Rover to court.

The community said the pipeline’s proposed route would desecrate its founder’s desire for a “transcendental village, without any botheration of modern industrial atmosphere.” 

A group of devotees chanted in front of the Wheeling courthouse while Mr. Fried, in his “monkey suit,” made the argument before a judge inside. The two sides arrived at an out-of-court deal by having the pipeline rerouted away from New Vrindaban’s most sacred sites.

The settlement “frees Rover from all FERC-related matters,” Mr. Fried says.

But over a lunch plate of rice, lentils, and vegetables, Mr. Fried reveals that a letter he sent to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in mid-July is rubbing the pipeline company the wrong way.

The letter was intended to notify the agency that Rover would be laying pipeline on top of an impending and yet uncollapsed longwall mine, Mr. Fried says. Ideally, he’d like Rover to wait until the longwall comes through so it could test the integrity of the pipeline before burying it. It’s just a letter, not a matter, he parses.

Krishna devotees sing and chant during a protest of the Rover pipeline in front of the U.S. Federal Courthouse in Wheeling in March. (Darrell Sapp/Post-Gazette)

If Murray Energy is alarmed by the pipeline’s placement, the company isn’t showing its cards.

The Ohio-based miner would only say that it is “working closely with [Rover], the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and other regulatory entities to ensure that the mining in the vicinity of the Rover Pipeline does not pose any risk to our coal miners or to the general public.”

Murray doesn’t usually keep quiet for diplomacy’s sake.

In a multi-year battle with the Rockies Express Pipeline, whose path intersected Murray’s proposed Century Mine in Ohio about a decade ago, Murray argued that there is no safe way to undermine an operational pipeline.

The coal company took its concerns to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. When that avenue was exhausted, Murray sued the pipeline company in court asking for, among other things, the cost of “having” to longwall mine a portion of the mine ahead of schedule in order to get there before the pipeline did.

With Rover, Murray has been nearly mum. In the federal docket, there are scant mentions of its concerns, as the miner and the pipeliner race to complete their work.

Murray plans to be done mining the Moundsville portion of the mine by November, the company said. And while Rover has a stated in-service date of November, its record of delays and recent snags may push that out further.

On the day of Mr. Fried’s tour of New Vrindaban’s fossil fuel sites, for example, work on the Rover pipeline was suspended in two West Virginia counties after regulators found numerous environmental violations and ordered the company to correct them before construction could proceed. The cease-and-desist order was in effect for more than three weeks, ending on Wednesday.

Mr. Fried has no contacts with Murray. While he was able to negotiate with Rover to avoid the site of the community’s first temple —  now a rundown barn with no water or electricity — he sought no such waiver from Murray. 

Mr. Fried doesn’t know if Murray surveyed the barn, but he took the initiative himself. He took photos and shot a video tour of the place, holding up the day’s newspaper as a time stamp. If anything in that barn is damaged as a result of the mining, he says he’ll have proof.

A few days later, though, Mr. Fried sent a certified letter to Murray telling the company about “this sacred building.”

“It was our understanding that the longwall could not go under places of worship, however, it seems that this may be what is happening in this location,” the letter said.

He’s not heard anything from Murray yet, but Mr. Fried said suspects the timing will work out as he’d hoped. One landowner in the community was told to expect the longwall mine to come through the area in two weeks. The pipeline work, however, has shown little visible progress, Mr. Fried said. It now looks likely that the mine will be dug before the pipeline is finished and buried. 

Would that be enough to keep the pipeline safe in the long run?

“I’m not an engineer,” Mr. Fried said. “I’m just a fool on a hill here, trying to keep people from getting hurt.”

Anya Litvak: alitvak@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1455; Peter Smith: petersmith@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416; Twitter @PG_PeterSmith.

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