Photograph by Spencer Lowell / Trunk Archive
Jammie Hale has lived in Giles County, Virginia his whole life. He’s never wanted to live anywhere else—and why would he? The verdant forest region is fed by the many waterfalls and streams that flow through the surrounding Appalachian Mountains. Spending time outdoors is so popular in the county that officials have even trademarked the name “Virginia’s Mountain Playground.”
“I love where I live,” Hale said. “I love these mountains.”
That’s why the 50-year-old has been hard at work for the last five years. In 2017, Hale learned that a methane gas pipeline over 300 miles long was slated to cross through his community. The Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP), a fossil fuel project owned by several energy companies including Con Edison, courses through his neighbor’s property across the road. Hale is scared—of water contamination or an explosion—but he can’t afford to leave. He doesn’t want to, either.
“I will not allow a corporation to push me out of my home,” Hale said.
His fears aren’t unwarranted. The courts have repeatedly ruled to shut down pipeline construction because the project doesn’t meet environmental regulations, but the venture now has bulletproof legal protection from President Joe Biden. In June, the Fiscal Responsibility Act fortified the gas project by mandating its completion and instructing the courts to stay out of it. By the end of July, the Supreme Court gave MVP the green light to restart construction.
Still, advocates aren’t accepting defeat. If they can’t stop MVP in the courts, then they’ll do what they can elsewhere: in the streets, along streams, and on job sites. The federal and state governments aren’t listening to community concerns. West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin is the pipeline’s biggest proponent; he only voted for Biden’s landmark climate bill, the Inflation Reduction Act, a year ago because he was promised the MVP in return.
A year later, Appalachians aren’t seeing the climate benefits Americans were promised. Instead, families have been left to fend for themselves as fossil fuel interests attempt to strip them of their lands and clean water. They won’t go down without a fight.
Together, folks like Hale are doing what their leaders won’t dare to: standing up to polluters.
MVP was first announced in 2014. Back then, developers projected that the massive gas pipeline would cost $3.5 billion and be complete by 2018. Fast forward to the present, the pipeline is still not complete and has cost over $6 billion.
That’s because, since the very beginning, the courts have acknowledged the dangers the project presents. MVP is set to cut through the Jefferson National Forest, an expanse of over 700,000 acres where elk and bison once lived. By the 1900s, logging by settler-colonizers and industry left the once-wealthy wildlife area barren. That’s how the forest came to be protected: Leaders saw how deforestation had eroded the region, choking the waterways with silt and leaving flora and fauna vulnerable to frequent and intense floods. They wanted it to end—they wanted the land to prosper.
At a 1937 ceremony celebrating the preservation of the area, Agriculture Department Under Secretary M. L. Wilson said: “As sources of inspiration and recreation, [forests] foster spiritual, cultural, and other values essential to mankind. As a living resource, they can be renewed… producing continuous crops for harvest. Forests help stabilize industries and communities and add to man’s physical welfare… [providing]… the greatest good to the greatest number in the long run.”
The same can be said today, and yet, the forest faces similar threats of flooding and erosion now at the hands of MVP.
“The history of Appalachia is being targeted by pollution and extraction,” said Denali Nalamalapu, the communications director for the interstate coalition Protect Our Water, Heritage, Rights (POWHR). “The United States, in some ways, has thrived off the destruction of the Appalachian Mountains and streams and poisoning people.”
“I will not allow a corporation to push me out of my home.”
Since the beginning, the pipeline project has been hit with lawsuit after lawsuit. So far, the courts have found MVP in violation of the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the National Forest Management Act. The company, however, insists the project complies with the law.
“MVP is among the most environmentally scrutinized projects to be built in this country, having been subject to an unprecedented level of legal and regulatory review,” said Natalie Cox, communications officer for project developer Equitrans. “MVP has demonstrated, and will continue to demonstrate, that the project can be completed in an environmentally responsible and protective manner, consistent with the current standards set by the federal and state agencies.”
Building the MVP requires tearing down trees whose roots secure the soil. Without that stability, dirt along the mountain ridges can collapse and pollute waterways. Advocates worry that the pipeline’s construction could harm the endangered Roanoke logperch, a tiny patterned fish found in Virginia’s streams, and the threatened candy darter, a brightly colored fish native to the region. This sedimentation isn’t only bad for fish. It’s bad for people, too.
Hale’s own water has poured from his faucet brown and muddy. Before the lawsuits paused construction in 2018, he suffered from periods where he couldn’t wash his clothes or shower because of the water contamination. He doesn’t want to live through that again. Lately, he’s been especially concerned about the prospect of the MVP exploding once complete. A month ago, a gas line northeast of where Hale lives in Shenandoah County exploded. It was owned by TC Energy, a company not related to MVP.
“This pipeline is threatening all these species—not only them but also the people who live here,” Hale said. “If this thing would ever happen to explode, people will be killed.”
Many of the pipes going into the ground have been left out since before construction paused nearly six years ago. According to E&E News, if weather has worn down the pipes’ protective coating, they could be more prone to rupture or explosion. The concern over the pipeline’s integrity has finally reached federal agencies, too: The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration issued MVP a safety order on August 11 imploring it to inspect, test, and remediate the coating to ensure the project meets safety standards.
On top of all the environmental and safety concerns, there’s also the reality that the pipeline doubles down on fossil fuels. The climate crisis is here, and scientists have been clear that leaders need to transition away from oil and gas to prevent catastrophic temperature rise. Different analyses estimate that MVP could result in a lifetime of six million to 89 million metric tons of carbon contributions.
“The implications are really serious,” said Peter Anderson, director of state energy policy for Appalachian Voices, an organization against the pipeline. “It tells us that governments aren’t taking their climate commitments seriously if they continue to permit new carbon-emitting infrastructure to go into use.”
Landowners are also fighting in court to keep MVP from taking their property.
“This government-backed land grab scheme is constitutionally problematic for many reasons, and landowners just want their day in court,” said Mia Yugo, lead attorney for the Virginia landowners, in an email.
“The history of Appalachia is being targeted by pollution and extraction.”
All the evidence against the fracked gas pipeline led the courts to rule against the developers, but the courts have little power now that the president and Congress are forcing MVP through. Section 324 of the Fiscal Responsibility Act requires judges to rule favorably on the project.
“There is a history of Congress using its legislative authority to unilaterally approve specific infrastructure projects,” said Hannah Dobie, a staff attorney at Harvard Law School’s Environmental and Energy Law Program.
That history hasn’t brought comfort to pipeline opponents who are worried about what precedent this sets for other controversial infrastructure projects. In their eyes, this move is unconstitutional. Whatever happened to the separation of powers and checks and balances?
“The fundamental basis for our constitutional argument is that the separation of powers prohibits Congress from picking winners and losers in pending litigation and from telling courts how they have to resolve a specific case in favor of a specific party,” said Spencer Gall, a staff attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, another organization challenging the project. “It sets a precedent every American should be concerned about.”
Indeed, Fourth Circuit Judge Roger Gregory lamented how Congress may have undermined the Constitution in its move to mandate approval in the courts. In an August 11 opinion on a ruling following the Supreme Court’s go-ahead, he wrote: “The separation of powers is therefore the keystone holding our republic together… It ensures that no president mistakes the people of this country for royal subjects… I fear Congress has employed this Court’s constitutionally directed deference to legislative prerogatives to undermine the Constitution and, in the process, it has made the Court an accessory to its deeds.”
He goes on to put his concerns plainly.
“I wonder if Section 324 is a harbinger of erosion not just to the environment, but to our republic. That, only our Supreme Court can decide.”
On Saturday, Virginia State Police arrested 22-year-old Rachel Elliott for locking herself to construction equipment in Montgomery County, Virginia. She and about 30 others were there with banners that read “No pipelines on stolen land” to stop the MVP with one tool no one can take from them: their bodies. The group stopped construction for seven hours, according to Appalachians Against Pipelines, the organization behind the ongoing spree of direct actions targeting the project. Elliott was released on bail.
“You can’t come here and ignore the pain that this pipeline has caused,” she said in a statement ahead of the action. Elliott came to Virginia as an ally from California. “Ponds have dried up, livestock have died, family lands have been abandoned because people can’t look out their windows without being reminded of the destruction being forced on them by corporations and politicians that don’t care if they live or die—without wondering if today’s the day that the pipe blows and turns their family to ash.”
Activists have been ramping up opposition to MVP. Since construction restarted in July, pipeline opponents have led at least nine direct actions on work sites. During one week in August, activists claim they stopped work on five separate occasions. MVP says opposition activity hasn’t affected construction progress. Activists, however, see these types of protests as central to delaying the gas project over the course of its lifetime, explained Dora, an organizer with Appalachians Against Pipelines who wants to shield her full name to ensure MVP doesn’t pursue legal action against her. The lawsuits were one piece—protests were another.
“These tactics have really worked together for years to stop this pipeline,” Dora said. “There’s been sustained action that is creative, disruptive, and effective.”
Starting in 2018, water protectors took to tree tops to stop bulldozers from cutting down the beloved forest. A rotating cast of tree-sitters continuously occupied the canopy for three years until they were forcibly removed in 2021. Nowadays, most actions involve locking down equipment or walking onto work sites to stop construction.
“We’re really at a point in this fight where the other avenues for challenging the pipeline have been taken away,” Dora said. “Direct action is the way forward.”
Pipeline protesters in the U.S. are facing more risks as states criminalize such approaches. Since the Standing Rock movement challenged the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016, 42 states have enacted laws to limit or criminalize protest in some manner, according to the U.S. Protest Law Tracker from the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law. Some states include language specific to oil and gas pipelines.
“People can’t look out their windows without being reminded of the destruction being forced on them by corporations and politicians that don’t care if they live or die.”
Nonviolent civil disobedience isn’t the only strategy advocates are investing in. Since 2015, West Virginia Rivers Coalition has trained over a thousand volunteers to monitor water quality, said Autumn Crowe, the organization’s program director who helped develop its pipeline monitoring program. Before the construction of MVP even began, volunteers were gathering baseline data so that they could identify when something was wrong.
“Community members are often the ones to spot pollution events first,” Crowe said. “They’re the ones most familiar with their streams. They’re the frontlines.”
The region’s streams and rivers have stories to tell. If the temperature is too high, waterways may be losing shade from clear-cut trees. Contamination could tweak a channel’s acidity levels, endangering wildlife that swim through it.
Lief Hurt, a community organizer with POWHR who took the training last year, has focused recent water sampling on MVP construction. Several times a week, they drive to project sites and pull out their measurement kit. Sometimes, they visit only one site. If they arrive where construction is active, they stay to monitor.
“We’re looking for violations,” Hurt said. “We’re looking for proof of disruption. We’re looking to show people since this has been permitted, here are the things they are destroying on a day-to-day basis.”
The destruction is impossible to ignore for those living around it. Hale heads to the frontlines as much as he can. He grows fruits and veggies, which he shares with protesters during actions. He’s taking his own action at the polls, too. He’s been voting for 30 years, but having lost faith in the president, Hale is considering abstaining entirely in 2024—the first time he’s ever done so. “You’re either with us, or you’re against us,” Hale said. “You can’t be both.”
Biden promised his community he’d be their climate president. What they got was another dirty deal.