About two dozen University of Vermont students marched from UVM’s campus to the Burlington office of Sen. Patrick Leahy Wednesday to ask Vermont’s senior senator to take a firm stance against two pipelines under construction – the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota and the Vermont Gas Systems pipeline in Addison County.
Kelsey Aaron, a sophomore Environmental Studies major, helped organize the demonstrators. She said she recognizes that Leahy may not officially have direct power to stop either pipeline or scale back the police presence at Standing Rock, but that he should use his political clout and advocate against the pipelines.
“As our politician, we want you to show responsibility and use your senatorial power – which, Senator Leahy is one of the most powerful senators in the senate – and apply that power,” she said. “Because he has done it before in different situations.”
Eleanor White, a freshman, was helping gather students to write messages of support on a UVM-green flag with the university’s logo on it. The students plan to send it to the protestors at Standing Rock in North Dakota, where hundreds have been arrested as they attempt to stop construction of the Dakota Access pipeline.
“We’re doing this because we want them [protestors in North Dakota] to know that we stand with them, and we’ve also seen other universities do this,” she said. “And we know that this is also an intersectional struggle; we’ve seen flags from Syria, from Palestine, from Black Lives Matter, because this is a struggle of class and this is an international workers’ struggle.”
The event was organized in part by the UVM chapter of the International Socialist Organization.
Scarlett Moore, a first-year geography major, started off the demonstration speaking to the group about the cause. She drew parallels between the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Vermont Gas Systems pipeline to Addison County.
“Geprags Park in Hinesburg is the last property standing in the way of construction of this pipeline,” she said, “a pipeline that is transporting fracked gas through the state. Despite the fact that fracking is illegal in Vermont, it is still legal to transport fracked gas and to sell it within the state, as this pipeline is doing.”
Vermont Gas uses natural gas piped from Canada, where it’s sourced through the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” though the company has also taken steps to get fuel from renewable sources like farm waste.
The students weren’t entirely critical of Leahy, however. They acknowledged that Leahy signed a letter along with Sen. Bernie Sanders and three other senators urging President Barack Obama to stop all construction on the Dakota Access pipeline “until a complete environmental and cultural review has been completed for the entire project.”
“We know he signed on to a review of the construction and to potentially halt the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline,” said Owen La Farge, a senior at UVM. “But we want immediate action to stop the arrests and halt the construction and recall the [North Dakota] National Guard.”
David Carle, a spokesman for Leahy, said in an email that “Senator Leahy’s staff welcomed the group that stopped by” and that Leahy has “been greatly concerned by images and reports from the protest in North Dakota.”
Carle pointed out the letter to the president and added that Leahy’s staff has “been in touch with the Justice Department about the Standing Rock Sioux chairman’s request for the Department to intervene.”
In the statement, Carle said Leahy’s silence on the Vermont Gas pipeline has been intentional.
“This is a project of the State of Vermont, not within federal jurisdiction,” Carle wrote. “There are no federal funds being used in its construction, and no significant federal permits required. For that reason he has not commented on whether the project should move forward. As a Vermonter he has always supported strong local and state environmental protection rules and believes that regulatory reviews should, as intended, provide the opportunity for citizens to be heard as part of an open and transparent permitting process.”
A group of Hinesburg residents has taken their fight against the Vermont Gas pipeline to the Vermont Supreme Court. At issue is whether Vermont Gas should be allowed the right, through eminent domain, to build the pipeline under Geprags Park in Hinesburg.