Pipeline voices: Activists look back on a historic victory

In 2018, Dominion began cutting down trees to make way for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which has now been canceled. Photo: Pipeline CSI In 2018, Dominion began cutting down trees to make way for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which has now been canceled. Photo: Pipeline CSI

On July 5, Dominion Energy abruptly canceled the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, an $8 billion project that would have carried natural gas 600 miles from West Virginia to North Carolina. Environmental activists of all persuasions spent six years fighting the project before finally prevailing over the gigantic power corporation. As the victory set in, C-VILLE caught up with some of central Virginia’s anti-pipeline activists, giving them a chance to reflect—and look ahead. The following interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

 

John Laury

John Laury is the secretary of Friends of Buckingham. He lives in Union Hill, a historically Black community in rural Buckingham County that would have been disrupted by the pipeline.

C-VILLE: Where were you when you heard the news? What was that moment like?

JL: It was amazing to me. I have been praying about this. We have been in the struggle for—working on our sixth year. Really, I was elated. I felt the load was lifted off of me. But at the same time I wasn’t sure that what I heard was true.

Then my mind began to reflect back, to one of the Board of Supervisors meetings two years back, when our pastor Paul Wilson spoke. Dominion was in control at the time. 

He gave the example of David and Goliath. David, a little shepherd boy, with smooth stones and a slingshot, going against Goliath and all of his weaponry. But David was going in the name of God, and Goliath was going on his strength. 

We were always talked to as if this was a done deal. We were even told, “you’re wasting your time. You can’t go against Dominion.” This is what we were against.

Can you describe your home in Union Hill a little bit? What role do you think Union Hill played in the victory against the pipeline?

From where I live now, I was raised across the road. I would be the third generation raised on that 52 acres. We grew greens, and always a garden every year. Fruit trees. That generation believed in raising their food, preparing in summer for the winter.

I enjoyed the four seasons. I enjoyed the people and the natural earth. Spent a long time in the woods. Ate a lot of fruit off the trees the other generation had planted.

We depend on an underground water source, we have wells, that’s the source of water for our home.

As we spoke on panels in different areas of the state—some out of state—we realized that there were other states dealing with similar issues that were detrimental to them as well. The pattern was in the areas of people of color, and the poor, lower income areas…When we raised awareness as to what was happening here in Union Hill, that made a difference.

It’s not just a Union Hill issue. It’s a people issue. And as one of the quotes from Dr. Martin Luther King tells us, if people are hurting anywhere in this world, it should be the concern of all of us.

 

Alice Clair

Alice Clair is a local musician who grew up in Nelson County. Her childhood home is less than a mile from where the pipeline would have run.

C-VILLE: What was your reaction to the news?

AC: I was screaming and crying. No exaggeration, I was screaming and crying. Just, ultimate elation—and also relief. I always said it wasn’t going to happen. But for that to come true is a relief.

You’re a musician. You wrote some songs about the pipeline. What role do you think music played in the effort over the last six years?

Robin and Linda [Williams] are songwriters in Augusta County, and they wrote “We Don’t Want Your Pipeline.” And that has become a classic for us in Virginia, and maybe across the U.S., fighting pipelines.

When I was in high school, Dominion would set up information sessions for the public in our gym. We would go in and be protesting in my high school, people would bring their guitars and play that song. 

I think music, it motivates in every kind of way. If you can get a bunch of people together singing a song, that’s a great way to energize people towards a common good.

Can music help translate this victory into something even bigger?

I had friends travel out to fight against the Keystone and the DAPL pipelines. There’s been so much music that’s come out of that. Not only using old folk songs of protest, but making new ones. 

The fight is not over even though I won at home—I’m so lucky that I was one of the few that could win at home. My land out in Nelson is not going to be affected anymore. Time to turn our eyes to the next one. We’re looking at the Mountain Valley Pipeline now. It is not over, but we’re feeling darn good. 

This is how it should work. If our country may turn to a true democracy one day, that’s what it’s all about. The people using their voice. If the majority don’t want it, it shouldn’t be there. 

 

Ben Cunningham

Ben Cunningham is the field director of the Pipeline Compliance Surveillance Initiative, a group that used technology and community volunteers to document the construction violations Dominion committed as they started building the pipeline. 

C-VILLE: Where were you when you heard the news?

BC: I was about to bite into a really killer sandwich at 3:12pm on Sunday when my intern with my Pipeline CSI program, Virginia Paschal, texted me, all capital letters, CONGRATULATIONS!…Then she sent me a link to an article about it. Then I spent the next half hour just crying in joy and disbelief. 

What was the final straw for Dominion? 

We would never claim that this was all one group or all one strategy’s effort. Death by a thousand cuts—we all believe that’s what it took. It’s gone from Supreme Court hearings and all sorts of different legal battles, to people [protesting] in the trees trying to stop this and other pipelines, to science-and-technology-monitoring programs like ours, as well as strategies like political pressure. Really, community organizing is the bottom line.

…The story of environmental work in this country is the project never dies, people get burnt out, and so on. So I’ve just been plugging away at it, as have hundreds and maybe a thousand other people in various different ways.

Can the win against the ACP set an example for activists fighting other projects?

We’ve got, now, an example that we can win, against the largest political contributor to both parties in our state, arguably the most powerful corporation in our state, and one of the most powerful utilities in the country.

There are countless injustices around the world. I believe in starting where we live—it’s what we’re most familiar with, where we can be most powerful, and where we can effect the most change.

 

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The oil market collapsed with Covid. The demand for energy tanked. The pipeline was no longer needed. No activists won anything.