by Luisa Black | Zoom Out Mycology
In the spring of 2016, the resistance of Indigenous people against a pipeline routed through their sacred burial grounds rocked the country. For many people watching and following, this was the first political display of a mounted resistance against a pipeline, or even the first time seriously considering the potential social harm of a pipeline beyond its relatively self evident ecological harm. The No Dakota Access Pipeline resistance, often referred to as #NoDAPL, was a lightning rod for action against environmental racism from around the country, with thousands of supporters eventually flocking to the Oceti Sakowin camp to lend material support, and hundreds more of solidarity demonstrations staged around the country.
Perhaps it had such a potent effect on people around the world because it, in so many ways, perfectly encapsulated many convergent histories of environmental injustice in America: the “classic” narrative of the American government in collusion with a resource-extracting company once more seizing sacred Indigenous lands. Iconic images of unarmed water protectors chaining themselves to construction equipment or running out in front of militarized police vehicles captured our collective imagination - everyone, after all, loves an underdog story, especially if it seems like, for once, they may just win.
However, after an incredibly protracted and fraught on-the-grounds battle against the pipeline and a few false victories, in early 2017 the newly elected President Trump ordered the Army Corps of Engineers to continue the construction and end the environmental impact assessment they had begun per the demands of the water protectors. The tribal council elders and leaders ordered the more grassroots elements of the occupiers to retreat, and they announced their intention to continue the battle against the “Black Snake” in court.
It is against this background of poignant historical context and evolution of resistance that, on the east coast of Turtle Island, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline marches slowly but surely towards construction, and resistance against it in various forms mounts, concedes, and makes way for new tactics. A close study of the long and torturously inaccessible process of permitting, reviewing, and approving the pipeline serves only to illuminate that the structures in place intended to prevent and moderate ecologically devastating projects seem to only obfuscate rather than make more transparent, alienate rather than democratize, and enable rather than regulate.
To back up a little, in September of 2014, a coalition of energy giants including Dominion Resources, Duke Energy, AGL Resources, and Piedmont Natural Gas, announced its plans to build the Atlantic Coast Pipeline through the states of West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina. In 2015, Dominion Resources commissioned the consulting and communications firms ICF International and Chmura Economics and Analysis to conduct reviews of the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s impact on West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina. In July 2017, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, still lacking input from the Army Corps of Engineers, issued its final environmental impact assessment, acknowledging that the pipeline would result in adverse “impacts on steep slopes and adjacent waterbodies and associated aquatic resources; forested vegetation; Endangered Species Act (ESA)-listed Indiana bat, northern long-eared bat, Roanoke logperch, Madison cave isopod, clubshell mussel, small whorled pogonia, and running buffalo clover; and karst, cave, subterranean habitat and the species associated with these habitats.” Confusingly, instead of refusing to grant the requested certificate because of these concerns, FERC merely recommended a number of “mitigation measures” in the case that the adverse impacts were to happen, which they clearly demonstrated would happen. Dozens of grassroots groups and non-profit giants alike organized around the FERC hearings and city council meetings frantically, canvassing, submitting comments, writing letters to representatives, circulating petitions, and scheduling phone banks. In October 2017, despite massive and vocal opposition, FERC approved Atlantic’s certificate of public necessity request based on cited information “supplied by Atlantic and DETI” and “other stakeholders” (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission).
Perhaps this decision was justified. After all, multiple massive governmental organizations would only give the stamp of approval to something clearly demonstrated to be beneficial with economic, environmental, and sociological research, right? However, research data that was not funded by Dominion or any of its subsidiaries could not be clearer that the ACP will be harmful along all three axes. Even FERC’s environmental assessment, biased though it was towards favoring the pipeline, acknowledged the precarity of the pipeline’s path through fragile karst topography, the likelihood of spills, ruptures, and other accidents, and the devastating impact the pipeline will have on rare and endangered species in the multiple protected wildlife areas and natural parks that it will run through. Furthermore, the overall “lifetime” negative effect of natural gas emissions on global climate change is just as harmful as the effect of coal emissions (Southern Environmental Law Center).
Third-party assessments of the economic impact of the pipeline that were not paid for by Dominion demonstrate not only that the pipeline and its fragility will result in marked decreases in property value, but also that there is demonstrably no need or demand for additional energy infrastructure in the area - even leaving aside the very questionable strategic benefit of continuing to invest in unsustainable energy infrastructure when market research shows that solar and wind energy will dominate the market demand within the next ten years. Finally from a purely economic standpoint, the pipeline’s supposed job creation is a tried and true myth. In fact, states that have built pipelines have actually sustained losses of manufacturing jobs in the long term, as well as increased electricity prices (Southern Environmental Law Center, Appalachian Mountain Advocates).
Moreover and most importantly, voices of the communities adjacent or directly in the route of the pipeline from all over the three states have raised their desperate opposition and concern. The ACP will disrupt the lives and health of rural poor people and urban poor people in Virginia, North Carolina, and West Virginia alike. Dominion is taking access to rural people’s land by eminent domain to construct the pipeline, in many cases land that has been in their families for generations and that contains the well water that they use for drinking and washing. Furthermore, a compressor station are necessary to make the pipeline work and “regularly release toxic emissions such as methane, nitrogen dioxides, particulate matter and volatile organic compounds (VOC’s) in the air with ‘blow-down events’, or ‘venting’ which cause elevated contamination of the air” (Southern Environmental Law Center). Instead of building many compressor stations all along the pipeline, Dominion plans to just build one giant compressor station to handle 200 miles of the pipeline squarely in a historically black neighborhood called Union Hill. Union Hill was founded by freed slaves after the Civil War and contains many significant landmarks to local black history as well as countless hundreds of year old African American neighborhoods. “The compressor station would release toxic health-harming gases and health-harming noise pollution 24/7” (Mothers Out Front).
On November 11th, a day after a 210,000 gallon oil spill in the still-under-construction Keystone XL Pipeline, I went a city council meeting about the proposed Southside Connector Pipeline, mapped to go directly under the water reservoirs of Norfolk residents. I was just one person in an incredible turnout against, most thoroughly represented by the local chapter of grassroots movement Mothers Out Front. Norfolk City Council, perhaps wishing to avoid making a deeply unpopular decision in front of such a large audience, voted to delay the decision about the connector by two weeks, and then by another month. The connector, like the compressor station in Union Hill, is routed to go through (you guessed it!) Norfolk’s “predominantly African-American neighborhoods, senior citizen apartment complexes and houses of worship” (Mothers Out Front).
On December 12th of 2017, the State Water Control Board of Virginia voted to approve the certification for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, as recommended by the Department of Environmental Quality. This was the final legal barrier to the pipeline’s construction, and with it, the last hope for preventing its destruction through the State-given avenues of the law, regulatory boards, and petitions gave way. What will take the place of the legal resistance we’ve seen thus far? Will we learn from the occupations and direct action at Oceti Sakowin, or will we continue pouring our energy (no pun intended) into the strategies of petitions and respectable rallies that have proven time and time again to fail? Only time can tell if the ACP will inspire a similar wave of courageous actions and nationwide sympathy, but the water protectors of the east would do well to take note of the bravery of the Indigenous people who precede them in resistance.
About the author:
Luisa Black is a community organizer, community gardener, and overall community enthusiast sowing seeds and spreading spores for a liberatory vision of the future in Norfolk, VA. She is a language arts educator and a Brazilian anarchist with a fondness for leftist southerners, swamps, mushrooms, and everything else you have to take a little extra time to understand. Her study of social ecology has led her to believe that "no one can be free until we are all free, and that we cannot fight environmental collapse and decay without defending those whom environmental injustice affects the most."
Appalachian Mountain Advocates. “Letter: Virginia cannot approve proposed natural gas pipelines lacking critical information about impacts on state waters.” 25 October 2017, Appalachian Mountain Advocates, http://www.appalmad.org/2017/10/25/virginia-cannot-approve-proposed-natural-gas-pipelines-lacking-critical-information-about-impacts-on-state-waters/. Accessed 16 December 2017.
Stanton, Elizabeth., Comings, Tyler, Jackson, Sarah, & Karaka, Ezgi. Atlantic Coast Pipeline Benefits Review: Chmura and ICF Economic Benefits, 12 July 2015, Southern Environmental Law Center, http://www.synapse-energy.com/sites/default/files/Atlantic-Coast-Pipeline-Benefits-Review-14-150.pdf. Accessed 16 December 2017.
Mothers Out Front. “Virginia: Pipelines.” Mothers Out Front, n.d., http://va.mothersoutfront.org/pipelines. Accessed 16 December 2017.
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