Environmentalists in Virginia and West Virginia Regroup to Stop the Mountain Valley Pipeline, Eyeing a White House Protest

If Russell Chisholm stands in his kitchen in Newport, Virginia and looks east, through his window, he can see the tree-line of the Thomas Jefferson National Forest, a federally-protected ecosystem that is part of the Appalachian Mountains. Soon, the forest could be bisected by the Mountain Valley Pipeline. 

On May 15, the U.S. Forest Service issued its “record of decision” to allow the construction of the pipeline, a much contested 303.5-mile project which, if completed, would transport fracked gas from northwestern West Virginia to southern Virginia, through a 3.5-mile corridor of the forest.

“I wasn’t surprised,” said Chisholm on Tuesday in an interview. “It was awful news.”

Chisholm is the managing director of Protect Our Water, Heritage, Rights (POWHR), one of several advocacy organizations from Virginia and West Virginia that have succeeded in raising enough alarms about the project to waylay several of its permits, delaying the pipeline’s construction. Now, with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) continuing his efforts to fast track the project, Chisholm and his fellow activists are devising new plans of attack.  

Chisholm and his community-based team at POWHR train volunteers from different regions of Appalachia to recognize and report potential hazards from the pipeline’s construction, collecting data and building interactive maps of the pipeline’s environmental repercussions. 

To date, their work has been based in greater Appalachia, but after the Forest Service’s record of decision, Chisholm sees no choice but to lay their grievances at the feet of those he says are responsible for keeping the project alive: politicians in Washington.  

POWHR has been organizing a rally on June 8 in front of the White House to put the burden of the Mountain Valley Pipeline “on Joe Biden’s doorstep,” said Chisholm. “This has clearly become his pipeline now.” 

For the last eight years, many local landowners along the pipeline’s route in Virginia and West Virginia have expressed concerns about the construction on the grounds that it is dangerous, infringes on the environmental justice rights of several low-income and majority-minority communities in both states and would impede the region’s transition to renewable energy.

“The most impacted people are already dealing with a number of environmental hazards across the route,” said Chisholm. 

He referenced, as one example, a map made by one of the organizations under POWHR’s umbrella of the “blast zones” along the pipeline; it shows parcels of land at risk of being impacted by an explosion should, for instance, materials that make up the pipeline degrade due to prolonged exposure to the elements. Several of these regions fall in environmental justice communities in southern Virginia.

“You are taking communities that are experiencing fossil fuel infrastructure that is already harming them,” said Jessica Sims, the Virginia field coordinator for the nonprofit Appalachian Voices, and “you’re just perpetuating that type of systemic harm.” 

Those communities in rural areas along the pipeline’s path may not have the resources to deal with severe malfunctions, she said. “If there were to be some kind of explosion, or some kind of problem, they don’t have the county fire department infrastructure to deal with something like that.”

Two other activist organizations, Halt the Harm and West Virginia Rivers, share those concerns. 

During a webinar they organized last week to inform concerned citizens about the environmental ramifications of the pipeline, Autumn Crowe, who holds a masters degree in soil science and is the program director with West Virginia Rivers, explained how sediment from the pipeline’s construction fouls local waterways. 

“Every time it rains, their erosion controls fail,” said Crowe, who presented a timeline of the project’s history. 

In an interview after the webinar, Crowe said accumulation of sediment from the pipeline’s construction “can get to a point where it can kill off aquatic life” by harming food sources for fish and smothering their spawning beds. 

According to Crowe, the pipeline’s construction impacts over 1,000 streams and wetlands across West Virginia and Virginia. She said the company building the pipeline has failed to lay out a scientifically coherent plan for how it will cross many of those water bodies without causing excessive environmental damage. 

“They did very limited benthic studies,” said Crowe, referring to assessments of aquatic life on stream and river bottoms that Mountain Valley Pipeline was required to submit. Those reports, she said, were submitted “after the fact” about areas “where they already impacted some of these streams.”

“They had eight years to establish baseline conditions,” that were scientifically sound, she continued, “and they have yet to do that.”

The company disagrees. “The Mountain Valley Pipeline project has undergone unprecedented scrutiny and regulatory review,” a company spokesperson said in an email. “The project team has adopted best practices for construction—including efforts to enhance controls on erosion and sedimentation during construction—that raise the bar for pipeline construction in the U.S.”

Despite the hundreds of stream-crossings that remain unfinished, according to Crowe, the spokesperson for the pipeline company said that “total project work” is “roughly 94 percent complete” and that “the project team continues to target an in-service date for the MVP in the second half of 2023.”

Many trees may have already been felled, miles of pipes have been assembled and a sleeve of earth to hold those pipes has been tunneled across hundreds of miles, but Appalachian Voices’ Sims said construction still must traverse “some of the most steep, trickiest spots.”

Tracking the number of fully restored “spreads,”—segments of the pipeline that have been completed with the disturbances to the surrounding terrain repaired—is the most accurate benchmark for the project’s progress, according to Sims. Only once the landscape around every section of pipeline has been “restored,” she said, could the project feasibly be considered complete. 

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Mountain Valley Pipeline puts the number of fully restored segments at 55.8 percent. 

Some of the areas where the pipeline isn’t connected lie in topographically challenging areas, like the mountainous terrain of the Appalachians, where Chisholm lives. “It’s mind boggling that anyone would attempt something through this region,” he said.  

Right now, according to mapping by POWHR, fracked gas could not travel a mile through the pipeline before reaching an incomplete stream crossing in West Virginia. “This idea that MVP is going to just start up construction again and be in service by the end of this year is incredibly misleading,” Chisholm said. 

Even though the project has secured a permit to work in Jefferson National Forest, the pipeline must still acquire a handful of other permits from separate federal and state agencies, he said. Obtaining those permits may soon prove easier, given Manchin’s ardent support for the project, and for easing the permitting process for energy infrastructure projects overall. 

After Manchin tried to make approval of the pipeline part of a deal for passage of last summer’s climate legislation, he introduced the Building American Energy Security Act of 2023 this month. The bill would require federal agencies to issue the Mountain Valley Pipeline its outstanding permits within thirty days of its passage. The project “will strengthen our energy and national security, boost the economy in West Virginia and benefit the entire nation by bringing more than 2 billion cubic feet of natural gas online daily that will help power homes and businesses,” Manchin said in a statement issued after the U.S. Forest Service issued its record of decision.

The bill is similar to one Manchin proposed in 2022, which several environmental organizations in West Virginia and Virginia organized against, dubbing it “the dirty deal” after reporting revealed that Manchin was trying to pass the law as part of a temporary bill to fund the government last fall. “We defeated the dirty deal multiple times,” said Chisholm. “The support is not there for it.” 

Other opponents see easing the permitting process as setting a dangerous precedent.

“If we’re going to allow companies to bypass environmental laws, then why do we have them in the first place?” Crowe said during the webinar hosted by Halt the Harm and West Virginia  Rivers. 

Later in the presentation, an audience member said easing the permitting process for new renewable energy projects is crucial to combating climate change. But he expressed trepidation about a bill that also speeds approvals for fossil fuel infrastructure.   

“Yes, we need to streamline permitting for renewable energy,” said Crowe. But federal agencies may be “too understaffed to turn around environmental review documents.”

This bottleneck is ostensibly addressed in Manchin’s bill, which allows for seven renewable energy projects of “strategic national importance” to be designated for “priority federal review.” But those provisions are tied to similar allowances for the production, transportation and storage of fossil fuels

Before it transports a drop of natural gas, the Mountain Valley Pipeline may already have an expiration date in the state of Virginia. 

In 2020, Virginia passed the Virginia Clean Economy Act, a law which requires two of the state’s biggest utility providers to generate all of their electricity “from renewable and zero carbon sources” by midcentury. When the law was passed, greenhouse gas emissions from natural gas facilities, including pipelines, in the United States totaled just over 200 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent—roughly the same amount of emissions as burning over 224 million pounds of coal—according to a greenhouse gas emissions inventory report by the EPA.

This is “a climate disaster in the future,” said Sims, of Appalachian Voices.

To prevent Mountain Valley Pipeline from garnering its remaining permits, Crowe said that activist organizations must continue to work as a coalition. “It’s impossible for one organization to go over all the materials this process has generated,” she said. 

Working together is “why we’ve been so successful challenging them,” she said, “but all of that goes away if they can just get congressional approval.” 

POWHR is prepared to add a federal effort to the mix. Chisholm said he hopes the June 8 White House demonstration will compel President Biden to “call an end to this project the way that he did with Keystone XL” pipeline in 2021. 

When Chisholm begins his drive to D.C., he said he will have to cross through a potential “blast zone” from the Mountain Valley Pipeline. 

The pipeline also cuts across the Appalachian Trail close to Chisholm’s property. Occasionally, he will walk up along the trail and cast his gaze across the treetops of the Jefferson National Forests toward Sinking Creek Mountain. There, he said he sees “just this open scar” running along the mountainside where pipeline construction is partially completed. 

The mark, he said, is “a constant reminder both of what we’ve accomplished, and what we’re trying to protect—and what we’re up against.”

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