In the foothills of Poor Mountain, protesters continue their ongoing attempt to thwart the destructive progress of the Mountain Valley Pipeline.
I first saw the damage while driving down 81 towards my hometown in Montgomery County. The Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) was approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission about a year ago, despite public outcry. Now the construction scars haphazardly across the Blue Ridge Mountains, exposing a wide strip of clay.
Looking at the stripped land, it’s not hard to see why local Virginians are so opposed to this project. The ugliness of the pipeline is the perfect emblem of the environmental threat it represents.
The recent history of natural gas has shown that pipelines pose significant risks to the environment and public health. Just this month, Kentucky suffered a deadly gas leak explosion, one of many in a rising national trend. The karst geography of southwest Virginia heightens risks, because the land is so vulnerable to seismic activity, erosion, and sinkholes.
Despite environmental concerns and local resistance, MVP has begun cutting through mostly residential property through the process of eminent domain, notably intersecting the Appalachian Trail, the Blue Ridge Parkway, and the Jefferson National Forest. Construction has proved to be disastrous, and protests and legal actions continue with heightened urgency.
As you might expect, the steep grades of the Blue Ridge Mountains don’t make great construction sites. It rained a lot this spring, carrying large amounts of sediment from destabilized slopes into streams. In early August, the Department of Environmental Quality issued a stop-work order on a two-mile stretch of land in Elliston, Virginia, finding that MVP had failed to use adequate measures to prevent erosion.
In fact, there are many accounts of the hazardous oversight of the pipeline throughout Virginia, from endangering surrounding private residences, to endangering wild fish. To illustrate this, photos surfaced of an excavator comically tumbling down an easement in the area. One contractor died during a tree-felling operation, which their spouse claims was due to negligent and dangerous working conditions.
Many of these issues are currently being litigated, but construction has been allowed to continue along its two-year timeline.
The last remaining blockade protest in Virginia is located just a few miles from the area of the stop-work order, at the foothills of Poor Mountain, once indigenous Cherokee territory. Appalachians Against Pipelines has blocked construction for almost an entire year, costing MVP hundreds of thousands of dollars in delays, according to the LLC’s estimates.
The construction reached the ridge opposing the encampment of tree-sitters a few weeks ago, causing tension to rise. The MVP crew works from 7am – 7pm, seven days a week (frequently accompanied by police), a constant background noise at the camp. One protester shouted “take a day off!” down the hill as the work wrapped up for the night on a Saturday.
For the protesters, even a few hours of peace for this land is a victory. Two activists were arrested last week for chaining themselves to machinery, obstructing work for an impressive six hours. One of them is being held without bail. These are the latest of many arrests, at least 12, in the last year.
The two sides of the holler (a mountain valley so small you can shout across it) couldn’t be more different. The easement is a terraced clay monochrome, littered with spare pipe and excavators, surrounded by sandbags (which seem laughably inadequate) to prevent soil from falling into the creek below. The other side is home to a healthy stand of maples, pines, and oaks that shade the tents of protesters, and hold the soil rightfully in its place.
The protesters have identified endemic snakes and box turtles in the area. At night, there are owl sounds and, often, a bear looking for food at the camp. This is just a sample of the biodiversity that the pipeline is interrupting.
One of the first species to feel the effects of erosion are actually water bugs. Local volunteers (including my mom) are trained by the organization Save Our Streams to observe these indicator insects as a way to monitor water health. These efforts are important in keeping the state Department of Environmental Quality accountable.
I grew up around this kind of ecosystem, and I’m so grateful to the people who are dedicating themselves to protecting the wildlife and the community. Local protests and legal efforts have been inspiring and driven in fighting the industrial giant MVP.
It’s not easy to occupy wilderness year-round, especially with the added pressure of looming legal action. For activists in Elliston, doing the dishes involves building a fire to boil water, and at the end of the day everything has to be secured away from the bear (who always seems to find something to knock over). On the ground, security measures must always be in the forefront of discussions. Above, two tree-sitters inhabit spaces no wider than a front door at all times, now overlooking the easement.
Every day Appalachians Against Pipelines continue to occupy land is a day that keeps the land from becoming a mudslide. Each day delays dangerous fracking, potential explosions, and exploitative infrastructure that threatens the drinking water of rural citizens.
Perhaps most importantly, in the long term, the resistance is creating a legacy of environmental activism in an area that has historically been exploited for natural resources and labor.
Follow Appalachians Against Pipelines on social media to learn how you can support them. If you are interested in supporting local water monitoring efforts you can volunteer or donate to Save Our Streams or Protect Our Water, Heritage, Rights.
Note: Op-Eds are contributions from guest writers and do not reflect RVA Magazine editorial policy.
Top Photo by Joanna Patzig