Watching Out for Our Neighbors

“We’ve lived here 30 years and we wouldn’t live anywhere else. We love visiting the city but we enjoy coming home. We’ve had opportunity to move a couple times through jobs, but we never did.”

“What is it about this place that draws you back?”

“Well, look around, the serenity of it all. The quiet. Our sense of space. That’s the primary reason for me.”

“I like being able to just go out and walk, anytime. To head in those hills, just go out the door and go for a hike. I grew up in Roanoke proper. It’s not a big city, but our house was on Route 11 so it was constant traffic. Now I could never, never not be in the mountains. There’s something about these hills.”

* * *

The day started early. Morning on Bent Mountain is high and bright by 7:30 a.m. after the fog and mists have burned off, after the sun asserts itself through thick branches and stretches over open fields. On this particular morning, Mary Beth Coffey is getting into her truck at 6:45. This has become her routine over the past couple of weeks. Wake up, put gas in the car, and begin the patrol with her neighbor, Jackie. Monday, July 6th was the first day of routing, biological, and cultural surveys on Bent Mountain for the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline, and Mary Beth wanted to be ready to confront any surveyors she found trespassing– on her land or on anyone else’s.

“We’re just a tiny a 3 acre plot here, but we’re watching out for our neighbors,” she says.

Bruce and Mary Beth have lived on the mountain since 1985, off of a gravel road that leads past a row of pines up by a forested creek. Beyond the house lies an uphill field surrounded by forest and brimming with wild thistle. The Coffey’s moved to the mountain seeking higher ground after their previous home had been severely damaged in a flood.

“We knew we were going to have a family, and it’s a good community up here,” Mary Beth says, “there was a school at the time, an elementary school that all of our children ended up attending, so we were really excited about that.”

Bent Mountain Elementary closed in 2010, but it later became the Bent Mountain Center, a non-profit center that provides educational, recreational, and social events for the community. Though he is often on the road for his job, Bruce, along with Mary Beth, assists the center with coordinating events.

Not even a few miles away from the community center, the path of the Mountain Valley Pipeline was originally drafted to run close to the Coffey property– too close for their comfort at a mere 125 feet away from their home, with the permanent easement edging up to the side of the house. For a time it remained just on the other side of the fence line, snaking downhill through a large acreage of both field and forest, until they were made aware of a change in the route, putting the line even closer to their home and the easement seemingly going through it. As soon as they received the letter of intent requesting permission to survey their land, the Coffeys immediately replied with a certified letter: no. Access denied, signed in ink with red permanent marker.

Bruce and Mary Beth Coffey attend a FERC Scoping meeting held in Elliston, Virginia on May 5, 2015. The meeting was one of only two scheduled in Virginia.

Bruce and Mary Beth Coffey attend a FERC Scoping meeting held in Elliston, Virginia on May 5, 2015. The meeting was one of only two scheduled in Virginia. Photo by Will Solis.

Mary Beth Coffey points out the route of the pipeline close to her property on July 4, 2015.

Mary Beth Coffey points out the route of the pipeline close to her property on July 4, 2015. Photo by Will Solis.

Since the original MVP letter notifying them of the project, which they received back in October like so many others on the mountain, the Coffeys have attended the local meetings and MVP openhouses. They filled binders with fact sheets, print-outs, handwritten drafts of letters to FERC, notes, various photocopies covered in pen.

The proximity of the pipeline to their water well, a short distance of 15 yards from fence line, is one of the hardest details to digest, Bruce says. Safety is an ever-growing concern for those who oppose the pipeline. Natural gas pipelines in other parts of the country—most recently California, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania– have made headlines for dangerous, and sometimes lethal, explosions. Buried pipeline is touted by Mountain Valley Pipeline, LLC and other companies in the industry as the safest method of transporting natural gas over long distances. The company also advertises operations of the line in accordance with FERC regulations as an illustration of their commitment to safety, along with routine maintenance and monitoring of the line “365 days a year using sophisticated computerized systems and around-the-clock personnel.”

For the Coffeys, this isn’t enough to change their minds.

Bruce continues, “Is it going to affect our well water in some way? Probably so. And if there is by chance some type of catastrophic event, you can kiss this house goodbye. If it blows around here we won’t stand a chance.”

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The past two weeks have seen non-stop activity for Bent Mountain (“but I’m amped,” Mary Beth says with a laugh), especially for those who have taken on responsibility to keep watch over the community. Coordination efforts have been made to keep track of those who have denied survey access and those who haven’t, ensuring the information relayed to surveyors is accurate. Mary Beth even facilitated a phone exchange between an absent landowner who previously denied access and surveyors who were trying to enter the property, ultimately resulting in the surveyors leaving.

“When I approach them I say very little,” she explains. “Everybody responds to them a little differently, but bottom line, we are pushing against them. All of us are.”

Interactions with surveyors, sometimes amiable and sometimes heated, have only strengthened the sense of camaraderie on the mountain, particularly for those patrolling the roads, up and down Poor Mountain, Bent Mountain, and the Parkway.

“It is stressful because it’s a heightened alertness,” says Mary Beth. “Any sound of gravel crunching or the sight of a white SUV has us on alert.”

“It’s exhilarating in one way because we are challenging what we’re being told should be right, but it’s also very scary. We don’t know if they are going to continue. You begin to doubt when you hear people say  FERC has only denied one pipeline project, but then you look at the press and see there are a lot of scientific reasons coming forth why they shouldn’t approve it. I don’t know if FERC will even look at that, but you can’t feel confident that it’s going to happen. The surveyors coming out can also give you doubt, you know, because they are really putting forth an effort here.”

She pauses, then resolves,

“But so are we.”

Mountain Valley Pipeline, LLC is scheduled to submit its formal project application to FERC in October 2015. 

Feature image: Mary Beth points to a small dot on a map of the route of the Mountain Valley Pipeline. The red line farthest to the right shows the original route, while the blue line she points to on the left is the estimated new route that is even closer to their home, putting the easement through the house. Photo by Will Solis.