GRAND ISLAND -- They fought slick roads and a driving snow Thursday morning to take their place in line.

Mothers with babies, union representatives, protesters hoisting signs reading, “Stop the pipeline, I stand with Randy,” all arrived here for the final U.S. State Department-sponsored hearing on the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.

By mid-morning, a few hundred people had lined up outside the Heartland Events Center to speak.

Security was tight as State Department staff searched bags and used metal detectors. They prevented demonstrators from bringing signs inside the events center, forcing several to turn around and take them back to their cars.

There were no prominent demonstrations in favor of the pipeline. Opponents loomed large.

At 9:30 a.m., nearly 100 pipeline opponents held a news conference inside a 4-H building near the events center. Protected from the weather, a festive mood reigned inside as a polka trio played music and people grabbed free signs at a booth.

A potluck in the back of the room provided food and a forum for protesters who had come from across the country to share stories about the potential impacts of TransCanada's proposed pipeline.

Susan Connolly of Marshall, Mich., said her family suffered health problems after a pipeline carrying tar sands oil burst near her home, inundating 40 miles of the Kalamazoo River with heavy crude.

“We had immediate health effects,” she said, citing headaches and skin rashes her family experienced. “We're going to continue to fight. We're going to continue to speak up.”

Matt Leonard of 350.org, a pipeline foe, said he expected 500 to 1,000 protesters.

The hearings come after a draft supplemental environmental impact statement was released by the State Department in which federal officials downplayed the risks to the Ogallala Aquifer.

The environmental review also responded to concerns about the global warming implications of the project by suggesting oil deposits in Alberta probably would be used whether the Keystone XL project went forward or not.

The broader context for action on TransCanada's $7 billion plan for connecting the tar sands with Gulf Coast refineries is a pending presidential permit necessary to cross the border between the two countries.

As the first hearing closed before the start of the second hearing Thursday, opponents again gathered in the 4-H building. Old friends hugged and grabbed free carrots, crackers and cheese from tables as the polka trio played the “Chicken Dance” and “Hokey Pokey.”

It looked to be a long night when testimony resumed, with 230 registered speakers left from the day's total of 290.

“We want to thank you for coming out and giving your two cents,” an accordion player told the audience.

Inside the events center, registered speaker No. 61 began his testimony.

Reach Kevin Abourezk at 402-473-7225 or kabourezk@journalstar.com.