Driving the Drill Rig 5

Judy Wicks’ deputy ranger, Katherine Rapin, here. Since last October, I’ve been her right hand gal, supporting her action-packed, often unconventional day-to-day life. In a roundabout way, I moved to Philly because of Judy. She presented her memoir, Good Morning, Beautiful Business at an event near the college I attended in Michigan. I felt a deep connection to her values and wanted to learn from her ability to operate outside of convention to catalyze our communities to do better. I spoke with her after the presentation, purchased her book, and set up a time to meet for lunch in Philadelphia. Three years later, after moving to the city and keeping in touch with Judy, I answered her call for a personal assistant.

As you know from the lists of events in her newsletters, even at 70, Judy doesn’t sit still for long. She’s out spreading the word about building local economies, fighting climate change, rallying for progressive political candidates, and supporting under-resourced Philadelphia entrepreneurs with a micro-loan and mentoring program. To bring you first-hand accounts of her latest escapades, I’ve begun work on a new series, “Where’s Wicks? Reports from her Deputy Ranger." Read on for the first in the series, Driving the Drill Rig 5.


Driving the Drill Rig 5

When our packed car reached the farmlands of Lancaster County, I saw golden cornfields bisected by deep trenches and massive links of pipe climbing a bucolic hillside.

“Look at the scars on this beautiful land - some of the most fertile soil in the country,” Judy bemoaned. She, David Funkhouser and Lou Ann Merkle were squished together in the back seat. Earlier they’d reminisced about protesting together at the Women’s March on Washington and at Standing Rock, but now we all watched out the window, dismayed by the construction project tearing through the surrounding landscape.

I was driving the crew, plus a reporter from WHYY out to Mountville, PA for demonstrations against the Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline. The 197-mile, $3 billion project is being constructed to carry natural gas from the Marcellus Shale in northeastern PA through Lancaster County and on to the Chesapeake Bay for export. Judy and her friends had committed to civil disobedience that day in opposition to the pipeline. It was my job to make sure they got to the site and to record the event.


I kept one eye on the dashboard, noticing the battery on Judy’s electric Chevy Bolt drain faster than anticipated because of the cold temperature and weight of five passengers. It was the first long trip we’d taken in the new car, and for a moment I wondered if we’d end up stranded in Lancaster County. With five miles to spare we made it to our destination. Miraculously, I later found a charging station just a mile away and juiced up for the ride home.  While we were here to oppose fossil fuels, it was heartening to know that there was progress toward an alternative - electric vehicle ownership had increased enough to warrant a charging station in such a small town.

In the basement of a church in Mountville, we joined about 40 members of Lancaster Against Pipelines (LAP) gathered at long tables enjoying coffee and donuts. Some of these citizens have been fighting the project since 2014; ten new recruits had traveled from Philly, responding to Judy’s call to action (link).

I was among those new recruits, and I wasn’t quite sure what the day would bring. But when I met LAP co-founders Malinda and Mark Clatterbuck I felt a surge of motivation to join their efforts.

Malinda, a Mennonite minister, small in stature, spoke with great passion and indignation as she called our attention to the front of the room, reminding us of land that has been taken by unjust use of eminent domain. “There’s been a huge change in the social contract without much discussion in the past few decades,” she said, “I’m striking a blow on the corporatization of America.”


Her eloquence and dedication inspired me: I knew she had poured so much into this movement, prioritized protecting her land and community over personal comfort and leisure time. I felt empowered to strike my own blow.

I grabbed an LAP t-shirt with the message, ‘You Will Not Spoil this Land.” Judy and Lou Ann layered up in the bathroom, pulling on diapers in preparation for a long afternoon occupying a drill site. Judy stood in front of the mirror, bright red shirt stretched tight over her long down jacket. “I look like a football player!” she laughed.

About an hour later, we rode together in the front of a school bus, on our way to a work site. Bright orange fencing lined sections of the road and cranes towered over exposed earth. Pipes, 42 inches in diameter, lay in trenches, poised for burial. Actually seeing the torn up land was powerful; it instilled a sense of urgency, an inability to deny or downplay this unjust construction.

Hearing from the people who were directly affected by the project was equally powerful. I talked with Jon Telesco, police liaison for LAP, as he directed the bus driver to the action site. The builder from Conestoga told me that a section of the pipeline is already buried on his next-door neighbor’s property. “We’ve been fighting this for three and a half years,” he said. He lives about two miles from the construction site on Witmer Road where the bus stopped and can hear the drilling equipment from his home.


As I stepped off the bus, I imagined what it was like to live in the small house just across the street from the drill site. The front door was about 200 yards from where the workers operated the rig. Not only are their lives being disrupted during construction, but they will now live next to a pipeline carrying highly explosive gas, with the risk that something could go wrong and harm their family.  

The grating sound of the drill, the stack of gigantic pipes, and the fleet of white trucks at the site reminded me of what Mark said earlier that morning, “We have an opportunity to demonstrate the outrage we feel and we have to take advantage of this invasion while it’s active and it’s visible.”

The time had come for me to make my decision. Our group of protestors had been told that we had a couple options. We could stand safely by the side of the road where we could wave banners and sing, or we could walk onto the drill site and risk possible arrest, while supporting the five who planned civil disobedience. Clutching my notebook and camera, I stepped forward.


As twelve of us walked onto their site carrying banners up to the drill rig, the workers watched us. The hum of the drill got louder and I felt dwarfed by the massive industrial equipment. As I got closer, snapping photos of our group occupying the site, the sound suddenly stopped. The workers conferred in a group, white helmets bent together.

I knew that these workers, all white men, had a perspective vastly different from mine. I imagined for some, this was just a way to pay the bills, but for others, building a pipeline was a source of pride, a feat of engineering that would benefit the US economy by more efficiently transporting natural resources. I wondered what would shift their mindset, what might open them to the possibility that this project was perpetuating a dependence on a source of fuel that continues to cause catastrophic climate change.

“You know that’s a dangerous piece of equipment,” one worker said as Judy climbed the narrow metal platform of the drill rig. She and four others stood side-by-side on the rig and locked their wrists together through segments of pipe. The men in green vests eyed them as they made calls to security. We could hear the support group singing from the road: “We’re gonna rise up, rise up til it’s won.”


When the first police officer arrived on site, I felt a wave of anxiety - there was a small chance that we could be arrested on the spot for trespassing. He conferred with our liaison Jon Telesco. I watched, hoping he would give us a warning to leave the premises before the arrests began.

Jon relayed his message: we had five minutes to leave. Those who chose to stay would be arrested. I  had done my part and walked steadily away from the site, turning around to take a last photo of the group of five lined up on the rig, an American flag waving in the clear blue sky behind them.  


Three hours later, after more officers and the property owners arrived on site, the ‘Drill Rig 5,’ were arrested.

During the ride to the jail, Judy says the police were friendly, chatty even. Wrists cuffed behind her back, she talked with the officers about the solar panels on her roof. They pointed out the barns and homes collecting clean energy in Lancaster. These officers seemed to respect the goals of LAP, says Judy, and they treated the protesters they’d just arrested kindly.

It was a vastly different experience than what she witnessed at Standing Rock, where indigenous people and their allies faced rubber bullets and tear gas, and were held in chain-link cages for days after being arrested.

“I did think about the comparison between how well we were treated in a white community where we were all white compared to where there’s racial tension as there often is between native people and the descendants of white settlers,” Judy says.

Though Judy didn’t feel the same fear she felt while marching with the women at Standing Rock, she was reminded of what the community there modelled: that we must have the courage to protect our water and land in a non-violent way. It’s what inspired her to stand on the drill rig, chained to her fellow citizens in the brisk wind for nearly three hours.

“I hope that, when there is another action to fight climate change, more people will answer my call, and other people will answer their call and we’ll build a movement of resistance against the fossil fuel industry  to protect all that we love.”

That day, I saw the power of massive, destructive machinery up against the power of the human spirit, the force of the corporate fossil fuel industry against the force of courageous citizens. And we made an impact: we succeeded in shutting down construction for the day. It was a reminder that when citizens work together over a committed period of time, civil disobedience does bring change. And our bold risks are needed now more than ever.


Yesterday, Judy returned to Lancaster for her  hearing. She paid $184.25 in court costs and was mandated 10 hours of community service to be completed in the next 30 days. She and the Drill Rig Five left the courthouse and went out for celebratory beers and tacos.

On Friday, April 13, they'll convene at the statewide Rally Against Pipelines at the Rotunda of the Capitol Building in Harrisburg. Join them to demand policy that will protect the farmlands, watersheds and communities of Pennsylvania.