Fighting Giants, Part 2: David Meets Goliath

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To get a sense of the stakes for what should have been a boring meeting of the Virginia state water control board (SWCB), just count the state police cars in the parking lot. That would be thirty-seven (37) shiny gray Virginia state police cars on a cold Monday evening. Then take a little tour around the parking lot for the meeting place; a community center in Henrico County with the heart-warming slogan, “strengthening families, uplifting communities.” In addition to thirty-seven state police cars, there was a Henrico Special Events Vehicle, a Henrico Multiple Casualty Events Vehicle, multiple ambulances, a fire truck, a State Police Mobile Command Center Vehicle, two Hazardous Material Vehicles, and a Henrico Police Van. Plus, just to be on the safe side, private plain clothes security provided by Dominion Power.

This is not your daddy’s state water control board meeting. This is Dominion Power’s DEQ’s hand-picked state water control board meeting—and things aren’t going the way they planned.

For starters, approximately 80% of the audience is hostile to the idea of approving the 401 water certifications for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline—the nominal purpose of this meeting. Not just against, but positively hostile. Many have traveled from faraway Nelson, Buckingham or Floyd Counties or even out of state. Nearly two years ago, when the pipeline was first being surveyed, these individuals organized to fight it, and have since formed advocacy groups, and rapid reaction teams, like Friends of Nelson County, Appalachian Mountain Advocates, Wild Virginia, to name a few. There are also larger environmental organizations like Southern Environmental Law Center, Chesapeake Climate Action Network and the Sierra Club, plus progressive umbrella organizations like Alliance for Progressive Virginia coming together to form a potent grassroots, activist force. They have lawyers and individuals dedicated enough to sit through long winded meetings and public comment periods. Despite Dominion seeding many of the comments with individuals on their payroll (or individuals who had been on their payroll); despite the phalanx of state police officers and Henrico County officers, the room was decidedly anti-pipeline.

As the public comment period progressed, because they were frequently admonished to remain quiet, the activists showed approval of speakers by snapping fingers or waving hands. They uniformly turned their backs on speakers with whom they disagreed, or hissed loudly. They were disruptive, effective and sometimes entertaining.

One activist decided to sing her opposition to the pipeline. Another, after stating her credentials as an environmental engineer and planner, said bluntly, “This proposed pipeline is the poorest plan I have ever seen.” Said another activist, “This plan is a disaster.”

A young man with beard and colorful head wrap was even more direct: “I see through all of this. I see through your suits.” [addressing the board] “You are bored. You are so afraid. You are so scared of a single moment of truth. … This world is dying, you must know that. Our rivers, our land, our people, our climate — it’s all dying. If you can’t face that, perhaps something is dying in you.”

Mara Robins from Floyd County and a member of Preserve Floyd stood and delivered a bold declaration, stating in part:

“If you will not protect our water, we the people will. If you will not safeguard our water resources, we the people will, if you will not stop the pipelines, we the people will.”

All the activists, most of the room, in fact, stood with her. She ended on a poetic note:

“Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never failing stream.”

When I caught up with her outside, she was breathless and excited. She showed me her transcript and then whispered, “I thought for sure they were going to kick me out of there.”

She laughed and smiled broadly—she didn’t know yet that her words would prove prophetic.

**

There were supporters of the pipeline, too, of course. Some who had worked for Dominion or other energy companies in the past, some who currently worked for energy companies or similar ventures. They spoke of their years of experience, of being convinced of the safety of the pipeline passageway.

Occasionally, they went into philosophical detours that did not end well.

One made the obvious point that everyone needed power, that the room in which he spoke was being heated and lit by power provided by burning fossil fuels and civilization would be handily lost without it. The diatribe was rather quickly countered by a rousing street chant from the activists:

“Ain’t no power like the power of the people and the power of the people don’t stop!”

Another less sanguine moment occurred when an apparent Ayn Rand fan announced that all those in opposition to the pipeline were anti-capitalist frauds.
He shouted, loudly, “I stand against denigrating the virtue of profit!”
Which was greeted by a stunned silence as the crowd tried to determine if he was actually serious, and then there was the combined hissing of all the activists voicing their disapproval like the sound of an enormous snake.

Perhaps the worst moment came near the end when an amendment was in the works and the water board chairman, Robert Dunn, decided to chide the activists, saying, “Maybe when you get older some of you will begin to understand how these things work.” That did not go over well with at least one activist shouting back, “I’m 67!”

And this was when Mara Robbins, who was amazed that she had not been ejected as she spoke through her declaration the previous day, finally was ejected. Wearing a bright blue bandanna, she and another activist were led from the meeting by state police officers because of their loud protests against the chairman’s words. Outside the meeting, she said simply, “We will not allow this pipeline to be built…. If they exhaust us of legitimate means, then we take it into our own hands.”

 

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 This image is from Richmond.com–it’s a photo of Mara being escorted out after her outburst at the chairman’s comment.

 

It might come to that, but for that Tuesday, December 12, there was a compromise, of sorts. It was likely the legal arguments and the incompetence of DEQ’s process itself which forced an amendment, and thus a delay in the pipeline construction.

What was the DEQ process? They had recommended approving construction permits and then, later, reviewing plans along the way for several specific factors that impact water quality, including storm-water management, erosion control and efforts to monitor a complex limestone geography called karst. Because of this process, uncompleted reports from the DEQ that should have provided information to the SWCB about everything from sediment build up to slope erosion and karst geography were never provided.
“The DEQ’s erosion and sediment control plans and stormwater control plans are incomplete and have not been presented to the Board,” said David Sligh, Wild Virginia’s Conservation Director. “Karst analyses are incomplete. Data related to specific water body crossings is non-existent. The Nationwide 12 permit has not yet been authorized and determined to be applicable. The procedure is not based on sound science and is legally flawed. We cannot accept this betrayal of our trust and our rights without challenge,” Sligh stated.

Those and similar words likely helped to push the state water control board to reconsider rubber stamping the ACP pipeline in the same way they rubber stamped the MVP pipeline.

Tuesday afternoon, just as the board was preparing to take a vote (that all the opponents thought was a mere formality), board member Timothy G. Hayes moved that the certification be amended so that it would not go into effect until all those reports were completed.

He said the move was intended so the board could “at least have the opportunity to have one more swing at it if we have to.”

“The board today acknowledged what we’ve been saying all along, that this process is flawed,” said David Sligh, afterwards, “This is an advance over what we thought we might get today.”

Although the victory is mixed, the certification was approved but it won’t go into effect until the reports are completed and accepted—through a process which has yet to be determined—the activists I spoke with were genuinely pleased.

“It could have been worse, much worse,” said one activists, noting a straight up certification like the MVP pipeline was what many thought would be the outcome.
Said another, even more simply, “I’m not grieving today.” A sense of collective relief. The activists had managed to buy themselves, and their cause, some time.

Outside the meeting, David Slight explained, “Everybody from the landowners to the activist groups, to the students mattered today–the collective effort is what mattered. We have never seen this kind of uprising of people in this state on an environmental issue. I’ve been working on these issues for over 35 years and I’ve never seen this kind of effort. I’ve never seen this kind of unity.”

Perhaps it was that collective action and unity which explains the incredible number of police officers for a wholly peaceful meeting between anti-pipeline activists and brokers for the state and Dominion Power. That had the mark of fear in it; fear of the people and their organizing.

As the board shut down the meeting and multiple lines of state troopers—between twenty to twenty-five again– began herding the audience out, Sharon Ponton of Nelson County sang out: “People gonna rise like the water,”

Others joined in, as they trailed out of the community center, singing, “Shut this pipeline down.”

By Jack Johnson

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