Note: The text from most of this post was published as an op-ed piece in the News-Leader on 7/17/20.
A Six-Year Fight Against Dominion
Celebrate the victory—the defeat of Dominion Energy’s Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP), a 600-mile, high-pressure, fracked-gas pipeline planned to rip through West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina. It was a six-year fight for people’s land rights, our water, environmental justice, and common decency. We defeated more than just a pipeline, we defeated the mendacious, well-funded fossil fuel lobby and their government allies, namely Virginia Governors Terry McAuliffe and Ralph Northam and the leadership at the very top of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).
I often heard, “It’s a done deal, you will never win.” I never, ever lost hope and knew from the core of my being that somehow, we would win.
For sure, this victory could not have happened without the persistent, thorough, and ever-vigilant legal teams working for its demise, but what brought about the tsunami of opposition from thousands of common people like me? Our abhorrence of the pipeline goes much deeper than just the environmental and eminent domain issues.
More Than the Environment
It was easy for me to enter the fight. At first, it was because the pipeline was going to damage our streams and take people’s property against their will for corporate profit. And why did we need more fossil-fuel infrastructure when what we really need is a global, warlike effort to use renewable energy to stabilize climate change? Those were worthy enough causes to get in the fight, but what galvanized my resolve was how Dominion Energy, the builder of the pipeline, treated people—with disrespect, and bullying. My first galvanization happened the night of our only local Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) hearing on March 19, 2015.
Dominion Slam-Dunked Our FERC Meeting
The meeting was strictly timed: a two-hour meeting with only three minutes for each speaker. It was FERC’s chance to hear from the people in Augusta County, whose land would be taken and whose streams would be damaged by the mayhem of constructing what would be the largest and most expensive fracked-gas pipeline in Virginia’s history. Dominion took advantage of us. They slam-dunked us. And that made me grit-my-teeth-mad and put me in the fight forever until the end.
My neighbor and I arrived two and a half hours early to stand in line to get our chance to speak for three minutes. I’ll never forget the well-dressed young woman with the clipboard greeting only some people as they arrived at Stuarts Draft Middle School. “Who is she?” I thought, and “Should we check in with her?” Some of the people she checked in were escorted inside to a special room and some were placed in line. What was going on?
Dominion’s clipboard lady was making sure the company had plenty of people speaking in favor of the pipeline. Dominion brought in so many people that many of the locals did not have their chance to speak. The imported speakers were treated to a meal in a private classroom, while other “imports” held their place in line. How was this fair?
Perhaps it’s no surprise that I watched the same scene unfold five years later on the sidewalk in front of the Supreme Court of the United States on the night of February 23, 2020. The Justices would hear the USFS v. Cowpasture River Preservation case, also known as the “Lorax” case, the next morning. I got there at 10:30 p.m. And there, another well-dressed lady with a clipboard was checking people in—placeholders for Dominion people and their allies. Just before dawn the next morning, the well-dressed, slick-haired Dominion people arrived to take their places in line, and this time money was exchanged for the placeholders.
We had been there all night, in the cold waiting for our opportunity to hear the case. I looked up at the towering Supreme Court building and saw the words, “Equal Justice Under the Law,” and thought, “how could this be? Is this really America?”
Dominion Used Quick-Take Condemnation
Another galvanizing moment for me was Dominion’s use of “quick-take” condemnation. I had never heard of this legal maneuver until the ACP. It’s a way to take possession of someone’s property in emergency situations before the court can award compensation to the landowner.
Union Hill—Textbook Case of Environmental Racism
The most recent case of blatant environmental racism occurred in Union Hill, Virginia. This was, perhaps, the most galvanizing moment for me. Dominion planned to build a compressor station there, which would have caused 24-7 air pollution and noise in a predominately African American community. The historic community had been founded by many of the current residents’ ancestors, who were newly freed slaves. Dominion and the Virginia DEQ both denied, even in federal court, that Union Hill was a community of predominantly African American citizens. The data were clear as day, and yet Dominion denied it in court. The judges saw through Dominion’s tainted lens of urgency and ruled against the company.
And what about Governor Northam? The man with the black-face scandal in his past who is now trying to restore his credibility with the African American community. I have not forgotten that he disbanded the Governor’s Advisory Council on Environmental Justice or that he removed two Virginia Air Pollution Board members for noting the racial injustice of the compressor station in Union Hill. I have not forgotten that he has been absolutely silent about Union Hill.
Dominion’s Blanket Permit to Cross Thousands of Streams
During his gubernatorial campaign, then-candidate Ralph Northam informed the media that he sent a letter to DEQ requesting that Dominion perform a stream-by-stream assessment of stream crossings instead of relying on a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (COE) Nationwide Permit. DEQ did not follow through on that. The ill-planned pipeline would have crossed over 1,400 streams in Virginia, 189 in Augusta County alone. I’m a farmer. I had to get an engineer to design a crossing for my cows to cross a stream on our farm. I also had to submit a joint permit application to the COE and the DEQ for my cows to cross the river. Did Dominion have to comply with the same regulations that a common farmer does? No! It received a blanket permit for all the stream crossings.
Dominion Violated Its Permit to Cut Trees
When Dominion began clear-cutting trees in the path of the pipeline in Virginia, the company was cited for violating the conditions of the permit. How could we trust Dominion to build the largest high-pressure pipeline in Virginia history when it could not even follow simple guidelines to fell a tree?
Common Decency Wins
In the end, it wasn’t just about the pipeline. It was about Dominion taking advantage of the permitting system, the government, the people, and their property. I was fighting for the environment, racial justice, and, most important, common decency. And this time, the people and common decency won!
So Many to Thank
To the thousands of pipeline fighters, organizations, lawyers, landowners in the path, journalists, and politicians that helped us defeat this pipeline, I want to say thank you. Thank you for your long-lasting support of our water, our property rights, and common decency.
In Virginia, we need to help our fellow pipeline fighters to defeat the Mountain Valley Pipeline and then help Virginia meet the goals of the Clean Economy Act. Economies that depend on fossil fuels are not sustainable. Rise up and help us move forward with climate change, environmental justice, and respect for each other.
My First Article About the ACP Was Published Six Years Ago
It has been an emotional six-year journey to defeat this pipeline. I went back to the first article I wrote about it, which was distributed by The Bay Journal News Service on September 23, 2014. The article, “Unwise Pipeline Calls for People Power,” remains on target today.