There’s something magical about standing in a place and realizing that in every direction you look, there are mountains. It’s as if you’re sitting in a natural fortress, or a protected oasis.
Walking on the soil that is slated to be uprooted by the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) and recognizing that this land could be stripped of that beauty is unimaginable, especially for the communities of western Virginia.
“We chose this area because of its quietness, peacefulness, good clean quality air, and water,” said John Laury, a farmer in Buckingham County, VA. “That’s why we’re here. We have a right to be here and regardless, no company has a right to decide who should be the victim of their financial gains.”
A farmer and rancher, Laury and his wife Ruby have lived in a house they built upon moving back to Laury’s hometown in Buckingham County since 2004. The couple raise cattle for market and now own nearly 20 cows, which have become their source of income during what was meant to be their retirement.
The Laury’s rural, quiet farmhouse is surrounded by open fields and bales of hay. A metal barn for livestock backs up to the house. Aside from a few brays from their two donkeys, the only sounds are those from bugs and the breeze.
The ACP is proposed to run near their property line. There would also be a compression station located less than one mile from their home. This would not only disturb the Laury’s daily life, but create stress for their cattle.
“The proposed pipeline, if it should happen to come in, the most concern that I have is what happens if there’s a leak,” Ruby Laury said. “In this area, we have wells that we get our water from, the ground wells. The other thing we’ve heard and we’ve seen [is] where compression stations have actually blown up. There’s one that happened not too long ago in Appomattox. That’s a big concern to me. We’re like a ground zero. If anything happens, everything around here is going to be destroyed.”
“They seem to target areas that are predominantly of black Americans, also poor people,” explained Ruby Laury.
“They do it because of the fact we are less likely to speak out, less likely to have resources to fight it,” John Laury said, his speech slow and methodical. “So they make it easier for them to overpower us. It’s a trend.”
Their particular neighborhood is predominantly African-American, and according to the National Register of Historic Places, several areas within Buckingham have been declared historical.
“This particular area, we have a lot of slave burial grounds, natural springs, creeks, and we would rather not see them disturbed. Definitely not polluted,” John Laury said. “We get our water from wells here. We don’t live near a town or city, so we depend on our wells for our drinking water.”
Groundwater pollution can be a side effect of fracking, as it requires the use of local well water to extract natural gas.
“Tons and tons of water is used to drill down into these wells that fill with toxic chemicals. The gas comes up, they have all this waste water, what do they do with it? Typically they dump right back into those creeks and waterways,” Carolyn Reilly, a pipeline fighter in the Appalachian branch of Bold Alliance, explained. “Communities are just destroyed and devastated in West Virginia.”
Although the Laurys and many within and outside their community have sent letters, attended board meetings, and met with their local representatives, they have received little to no assurance that stopping the pipeline’s construction is possible.
“Big business, politics, corruption, unfortunately seems to override the voices of the people,” John Laury said. “We have to hold our representative responsible. We don’t want to put them in office. We have to rise up and let them know that we are their constituents and they’re supposed to represent us.”
In 2014, the ACP partnership created plans to build a 600-mile underground pipeline stretching from West Virginia to North Carolina. The ACP alliance includes Dominion Energy, Duke Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas, and Southern Gas Company. The proposed pipeline would be 42 inches wide and have three compressor stations, which help pressurize natural gas and create efficient transportation.
According to their website, the proposed route of the ACP has changed over 300 times to accommodate landowners and their properties, yet much of the pipeline running through Virginia counties such as Nelson, Augusta, and Buckingham will directly interfere with private homes and property.
“There’s no way to build infrastructure without having some impact on private landowners,” said Dominion Media Relations Manager Aaron Ruby. “We value the extremely important contribution that landowners make to building that infrastructure, and we think it’s very important to treat all landowners with fairness and respect.”
According to Ruby, over 70 percent of the affected landowners have already signed easement agreements for a project he assures will create several thousand jobs, an enormous boost in tax revenue, and a major reduction of greenhouse gases.
“In case you were not aware, there are also four large underground natural gas pipelines already operating in Buckingham County,” Ruby said. “They’ve been there for several decades.”
Ruby also confirmed that the Buckingham County Board of Supervisors approved the construction of the compressor station, despite worries from residents.
“We have an acre of land and we are 26 years into a 30 year mortgage,” said Becci Harmon, 58, a landowner in Augusta County. “Three years ago this month, we received our first certified letter from Atlantic Coast, saying they were interested in coming and surveying our property. In three years we have never allowed them to survey. Unfortunately, they came and trespassed on our property and surveyed anyway, without our permission. We only have an acre of land and the proposed 42 inch gas pipeline would come through our drain field and take out our drain field and take out our septic tank.”
According to Virginia law, natural gas companies have the right to examine a property to satisfy federal regulation requirements without the landowner’s permission. However, according to the proposal for the line, Harmon’s rectangular acre of land would be entirely overtaken by the ACP during the two years required to build it. She not only worries for her own health, but that the threat of an explosion or leak could harm the rest of her neighborhood, as well.
“We’ve lived a nightmare for three years because we wake up with this on our mind, and we go to bed with it on our mind. If we get up in the middle of the night it’s on our mind,” Harmon said. “You can’t make any kind of plans. This is just constantly on your mind, that you’re liable to lose what you’ve worked for. It makes you angry, too. It makes you very angry.”
The public use of private property is possible through eminent domain, defined as the capability to expropriate private property for public use, given there is payment of compensation to that property’s owner. Eminent domain is extended to private companies if the company’s project is proven as a public utility and approved by the federal government. Those companies are then required to complete a mutual easement agreement with every affected property owner.
“We took a hard line position from day one that really, we believe in a property rights and free market approach that allows every single individual along the route, at a minimum, to say yes or no, thumbs up or down to the pipeline,” said Richard Averitt, a landowner and businessman in Nelson County. Averitt originally moved to Nelson County in 2003 with his extended family to ensure a close proximity with his sister, who was diagnosed with AIDS in 1989.
“As you can imagine with her condition, she can’t get life insurance. And she’s a global advocate and activist for AIDS so she’s not in a banking job. She doesn’t have the kind of retirement fund that would support [her daughters], so she invested in property as a way to have an asset to leave them. And the pipeline literally would bisect that property and render it more or less useless,” Averitt explained.
Although his sister is still alive and continues to be an activist for AIDS-related causes, Averitt and his family wanted to create a sense of security by moving into the peace and quiet of Nelson County. Averitt recently purchased a large piece of property in addition to his own, which he intends to preserve and develop into a resort area worth $35 million and creating 125 permanent jobs.
“Our concept was to build a place that was focused specifically on the food, the products, the goods that are created in this beautiful part of Virginia and also on this sense of place–to nest cabins all throughout this property to celebrate the same reason that we love living here so much,” Averitt said. “Imagine something 125 to 150 feet wide all the way through the center of this property. So several thousand trees, they would plough the landscape, they would irreparably disrupt the creek, and then they say that the resort and the pipeline can co-exist with no problem, which of course is complete nonsense.”
Averitt has held meetings with almost every representative from Virginia including both gubernatorial candidates, both Virginia senators and the entire McAuliffe staff. “Warner told me face to face, ‘I don’t want to touch this. It’s a total tar baby. There’s no win,’” Averitt said. “I know that. I appreciate that, sort of as a business guy. I also own a software company. I’m clearly a capitalist. I understand that, but you’re an elected official. You don’t get to choose which positions you support and don’t. You support the positions that your people care about.”
Averitt’s major concern about the politicians in Virginia is their willingness to accept corporate donations from Dominion, ultimately causing conflicts of interest within their constituency surrounding the ACP. According to Averitt, nearly all 140 elected Virginia representatives from both parties have accepted monetary donations from Dominion over the last ten years.
“What does that tell you? Why would Dominion, a for-profit shareholder corporation, give to every one of those elected officials? It has to be because they expect a return,” Averitt said. “The only return they can get is they can buy your vote, or they can buy your silence.”
According to the Virginia Public Access Project, Ralph Northam accepted $31,599 from Dominion Energy during this election cycle, while Ed Gillespie accepted $28,500.
“It’s an issue of saying, ‘I can’t be bought and sold.’ And we don’t have that answer from Northam,” Averitt said. “He says that’s true. He says, ‘How dare you suggest I can be bought or sold,’ and yet he continues to take money from the people he has to regulate.”
Averitt explained that the ACP alliance’s motivation for the pipeline is twofold, since on top of any profit they may create from pumping natural gas through the ACP, their investment has a guaranteed return. “Because it is a public utility project, they are guaranteed 100 percent repayment of their investment,” Averitt said. “The ratepayers will pay back all $6 billion. No chance you lose that money, no matter how long it takes. On top of that, they get a 12 to 14 percent rate of return.”
Although the ACP alliance gives compensation to the landowners affected by the project, those landowners will not receive transportation compensation once the pipeline is installed.
“If I don’t want the pipeline because my family has been here for five generations and I don’t want it on my property, that should be a reason enough,” Averitt said. “If I don’t want the pipeline because I’ve got an economic project that’s a higher and better use, that reason should be enough. If I don’t want it because I don’t believe in fracking, that’s my right, that’s the basis of property rights. They’re the fundamental rights, our entire democracy, and society, and economic system is built on.”
Several landowners, including Averitt and Harmon, were sent letters stating if they did not allow surveyors onto their property, they would be forced to oblige through a court order.
One of these landowners is Virginia Davis, the owner of a small produce market in Augusta County, whose property has been surveyed three times to document pre-existing cracks in her store’s foundation and who continues to receive survey requests. Davis, 58, has lived in this area of Virginia her entire life. The proposed ACP would follow her property line that encompasses both her home and her business.
“If they’re incompetent in their surveying and they’re lying about their reports and they’re doing all this other stuff that doesn’t give you a lot of competence, then I’m thinking, what if they’re out there and a stray rock flies into the store and hits a customer in the head and kills them?” Davis said. “Are they going to claim responsibility for that? Or is that going to be on me?”
As with her fellow landowners, political parties aren’t of much consequence to her–rather, she feels she has no representation at all. “They’re just railroading everything through,” she said. “Dominion doesn’t care, it’s all for Dominion’s profit. The politicians are bought and paid for, you don’t have a say in anything.”
Despite their fears and worries, this perseverant country community continue to rely on their tenacity, faith, and further hope their voices may be heard.
“Our lives do matter,” John Laury said. “Whether we are being considered less consequential, our lives do count.”
*Photos by Landon Shroder. Video by Jacin Buchanan.