By George Copeland Jr.
Capital News Service
RICHMOND — A coalition of activist groups throughout Virginia rallied Thursday against natural gas pipelines scheduled for construction across the western part of the state, North Carolina and West Virginia.
While rallies were held in Blacksburg, Floyd, Roanoke and Franklin County, 10 members of the coalition made their presence known outside the gates of the Executive Mansion on Capitol Square, singing songs and chanting. They were led by Jessica Sims and Stacy Lovelace of the Virginia Pipeline Resisters.
Sims described the rally as a way of showing "solidarity with those communities being affected by the Mountain Valley and Atlantic Coast pipelines as tree felling has begun."
The two pipelines would span multiple state lines, carrying natural gas to public utilities in the three states. The protesters focused on the West Virginia activists sitting in trees, blocking the Mountain Valley Pipeline's 300-mile clearing efforts in the Peters Mountain area of Monroe County. The tree dwellers intend to stall the clearing efforts because if the tree felling isn't completed by March 31, construction will be delayed until November to accommodate the local bat population, buying activists more time to halt the projects.
Saying the tree sitters were "doing the work" federal and state organizations hadn't done, Lovelace called on West Virginian law enforcement to refrain from arresting the activists or property owners "under threat of charges of trespassing for being on their own land."
The Richmond protest was part of the group's continued efforts to sway Gov. Ralph Northam's position on the pipelines. While Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax has openly opposed their construction, Northam remains undecided.
"He didn't really say yea or nay; he said he'd rely on the science," Sims said, "and if that's the case, he shouldn't be supporting them."
While the full scope of the pipelines' environmental effects aren't known yet, similar construction has led to complications. State regulators ordered those installing the Rover Pipeline, also running through West Virginia, to stop construction on Tuesday, following multiple water pollution violations. That same day, the Norfolk City Council voted to let the Atlantic Coast Pipeline run under two Suffolk reservoirs containing most of the city's water supply.
The companies behind the Atlantic Coast Pipeline — Dominion Energy, Duke Energy and Southern Co. — have stressed the economic benefits the pipeline could bring to the three states. Calling it a "game changer," they estimate that construction of the project will generate 17,000 temporary jobs and over $2 billion in "economic activity." They also say the pipeline would help with service shutoffs caused by high demand during cold weather, and lower electricity costs overall.
However, independent research from the Applied Economics Clinic disputes these promises. Locals affected have also criticized the contractor chosen for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, Spring Ridge Constructors, because it consists of companies based in states outside of the American Southeast. Another analysis from industry expert Gregory Lander, given to the State Corporation Commission, used Dominion's own data to project a $2.3 billion increase in customer billing because of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.
Calling the company's estimates "greenwashing" and "a falsehood," Sims said, "even by their own commissioned reports, the number of permanent jobs is less than 100."
Dominion has worked to ease the process of construction in affected communities since 2014, three years before any public hearings or formal documentation about the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. These efforts have included grants totaling $2 million to various towns in the pipeline's 600-mile path, and using eminent domain — typically a government power — to force landowners into allowing trees on their property to be removed. The developers have also hinted that the pipeline may expand into South Carolina.
The Virginia Pipeline Resisters plan to continue their efforts to raise awareness of this issue every Wednesday from 10 to 10:45 a.m. behind the Office of the Governor, and Sims urged the public to voice their concern to legislators.
"Let them know that you're concerned about Virginia's water and you want them to act in the best interest of Virginia."