* * *

The couple listened to what the employee of TransCanada Corp. had to say.

“She told us how supposedly this was going to lower our gas prices and support all these jobs,” he recalled. “The impression she gave was if we didn’t support this, we’d be un-American.”

They were open-minded to the project, they said as the agent departed, but they wanted to do a little research before continuing the negotiation.

What they learned has since turned the Tanderups into two of the pipeline’s most committed opponents.

On Saturday they will invite 7,000 people to their farm near Neligh for the state’s largest anti-Keystone XL rally, a day culminating with musical performances by Willie Nelson and Neil Young. Organizers hope the event will energize the opposition and even change some opinions as two legendary voices float above the gentle hills of northeast Nebraska.

Meanwhile, pipeline supporters, some of whom have ridiculed the event and its headliners, will likely keep their distance. That may include most of the 1,600 residents of Neligh, the town nearest the concert site, according to one local pipeline supporter.

“You see a few signs around the area about keeping the water clean, but that’s the minority, in my opinion,” said Joe McNally, a Neligh attorney.

The Tanderups said they never imagined that they would play a key role in helping pipeline opposition groups raise hundreds of thousands of dollars. Perhaps that’s because they come off less as activists than typical retirement-age farmers.

After all, how many environmental radicals keep a framed print of “The Last Supper” on the living room wall above his-and-hers recliners?

Art Tanderup, 62, who smiles easily and laughs heartily, described himself as a political moderate. He voted for Dave Heineman, the Republican governor who has been a strong advocate for the pipeline — but that was before Keystone XL hit so close to home.

After Young and Nelson agreed to perform at the event, the allotment of 7,000 tickets priced at $50 each sold out in less than two days. The Tanderups will be paid for expenses, such as harvesting corn early to provide parking and space for the audience, but said they are not profiting from the event.

TransCanada has escalated payment offers to those who have declined to sign easement agreements in Nebraska — the only state on the 1,200-mile route where the company has yet to secure all of its right of way. Easement terms running into the six figures, however, have thinned the opposition, so that now about 100 of the more than 500 affected landowners remain holdouts.

When asked if he was simply waiting for a better offer, Art Tanderup’s smile faded and his brow furrowed.

“They could offer me $10 million, and we’re not going to take it,” he said.

Helen Tanderup, 61, said she feels an obligation to protect land that has been in her family for almost a century. She resents being thrust into the role of activist, she added, saying the plan was to live out their retirement years enjoying the farm with their children and grandchildren.

“But that didn’t happen,” she said.

The farm is located along a gravel road not far from a two-lane highway in Antelope County. It features a towering red barn raised in 1917 and 160 acres of land upon which the Tanderups now grow corn, soybeans and oats.

Helen Tanderup’s grandfather bought the farm after he returned to Nebraska from serving in World War I. Her parents also farmed the home place, and it’s where she grew up.

Art and Helen raised their children in Blair. Art spent his career as the library media specialist for the public schools in Tekamah. Helen worked in student services at Metropolitan Community College in Omaha.

They stayed connected to the farm. For about the past 15 years they’ve been driving back and forth from Blair to tend crops, and they started living on the farm full time about three years ago.

They’ve spent the past two years fighting a 36-inch, high-pressure pipeline that would carry some 830,000 barrels of crude oil daily 4 feet below their land.

The U.S. State Department’s review of the project has stalled as it awaits a decision from the Nebraska Supreme Court on the constitutionality of the law used to route the pipeline in the state. The high court won’t likely issue an opinion until late in the year.

TransCanada says Keystone XL will be the safest pipeline ever built, with state-of-the-art computer monitoring equipment to detect ruptures and shut down the flow as quickly as possible. State and federal environmental regulators who have reviewed the project multiple times over six years say a leak would not likely result in widespread groundwater contamination.

The Tanderups, along with other opponents, believe that the environmental impact studies were inadequate.

One of the things that turned the couple against the project was learning the pipeline would transport a type of oil called bitumen. Mined below ground in Alberta, bitumen is so thick that it must be separated from sand and clay using a centrifuge. It is then diluted with liquid chemicals so it can flow through pipe.

Opponents of the pipeline say bitumen behaves differently from conventional oil when released in water. They also argue that the chemicals blended with the crude represent a health threat.

Cleanup crews that responded to a pipeline release of about 1 million gallons of diluted bitumen in Michigan’s Kalamazoo River in 2010 found that the oil quickly sank. The industry says the substance floats in still or slow-moving water, but rapid cleanup is essential: All oil can degrade and disperse over time.

The Tanderups said they remain unconvinced. The soil in their region has a high sand content, and the water table is about 90 feet below their property. They use that water to irrigate their crops, and they drink from a domestic well on the farm.

“Water is life,” Art Tanderup said. “You can’t drink oil.”

Soon after the land agent paid a visit, the couple found themselves seeking allies. They joined the Nebraska Easement Action Team, a group of landowners who refuse to negotiate with the company. They also aligned with Bold Nebraska, the first pipeline opposition group, and the Cowboy and Indian Alliance, an organization formed to protect “sacred land and sacred water” from oil spills.

Although the Tanderups may have once accepted moving the pipeline route away from their property, they now want the project killed. They said that mining the oil sands threatens the health of indigenous people and wildlife in Canada. Supporters of the pipeline point out that mining bitumen also creates jobs in a region of Canada where they once were scarce.

Last spring the couple invited members of the Ponca Tribe of Oklahoma to plant sacred corn on the farm. Records indicate that the land was on the Ponca Trail of Tears, named for the forced march of the native Nebraskans in 1877 to Indian Territory in Oklahoma.

The Tanderups also collaborated with landscape artist John Quigley on an anti-pipeline crop art display.

Art Tanderup also has participated in a protest on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. During the trip this spring he met Young, a Canadian who has lent his voice and music to the fight against developing the oil sands. Quigley and actress Daryl Hannah also played a role in bringing Young and Nelson together for the concert.

While the event is being supported by pipeline opponents across the country, it has gotten a mixed reception in Neligh. Art Tanderup knows some of his neighbors have signed agreements with TransCanada, and others in the community support the project. He mentioned how a recent greeting he offered to someone at the grocery store went unreturned.

Locals either love the idea of the concert or hate it, said McNally, whose law firm provides legal services to the City of Neligh. But when it comes to the pipeline, he guessed a public opinion poll would return a firm majority in support of the project, because of the jobs and taxes it would bring to the county. In February, the State Department said the project would create 1,950 construction jobs for two years and 35 permanent jobs.

Supporters are concerned about protecting the county’s land and water, McNally said, but they are willing to accept a certain amount of risk in exchange for economic benefits. He pointed to the presence of wind farms in the county as a clean energy industry embraced because it came with jobs, landowner payments and other benefits.

“Even if there is some controversy involved, if there’s some money being spent that will help our businesses grow, that’s what we want,” he said.

Concert organizers’ request to have local emergency medical technicians on standby during the event was turned down. McNally, who also is a volunteer firefighter, said in part that was because one of the department members is getting married Saturday. A private ambulance service has been retained.

In Neligh, organizers dropped off 200 tickets, which were to be sold to local residents only. While the tickets have been purchased, McNally said he knows of more than a few people who hope to resell them at a profit.

Art Tanderup said he just hopes the event is safe and graced with nice weather. Though he’s gravely serious about his effort to stop the pipeline, he seems to enjoy his role as an activist farmer. He said it fits with his former career as a teacher.

But if anyone asks him to sing while he’s on stage Saturday, he’ll quickly defer to Young and Nelson.

“I don’t think they’d want me singing or playing, either one,” he said, with a laugh. “Talk about vacating 7,000 people in a hurry.”

Contact the writer: 402-473-9587, joe.duggan@owh.com

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