I first witnessed Elizabeth McCommon address a crowd in December of 2014, just a few months before we were formally introduced, at an open house for the Mountain Valley Pipeline held in the Salem Civic Center. A press conference had been organized by the opposition down the hall from the company’s open house. Elizabeth was next to last to speak in a long line of scientists, educators, and community organizations speaking out against the MVP proposal and the economic impact report compiled by EQT. After a few words, Elizabeth sang in front of local news cameras in protest:
come on ye Southwest Virginians and listen unto me
don’t waste your fond affections on the power company
for NextEra and EQT they only thing they love
is the sound of the cash register when it goes jing-a-ling
Over the course of our later conversations, I learned Elizabeth, for much of her life, has been a songwriter and performer. The lyrics she performed in December were from a song originally composed in the 70s, titled, “Letter from Home,” written in response to an electrical power company’s attempt to dam the New River. (One recording of the song can be found here, copyright Elizabeth McCommon.)
Elizabeth now lives in Blacksburg, Virginia. We met in late March to discuss her perspective on the pipeline and her role as a community organizer. As different communities in the NRV continue in their efforts to halt the proposed project, we take a look back to earlier in the year in an excerpt from a discussion with someone who helped to spearhead formal resolutions by local government representatives and to establish an organized movement across the region.
Has this process been different in any way from the others you’ve been involved in?
In what way?
“It changes every day. You know: here’s where we’re going to put the line, now we’re going to move it here because these folks made too much noise, now we’re going to move it over here. It’s having to constantly recreate an organization in a new place, every week. And it’s been crazy-makin’. So people, as soon as the line is moved, they say, ‘whew, okay, that’s it, I’m out.’ It’s interesting. It’s really the same fight with the power companies in their various incarnations of attempting to satisfy our needs to be comfortable and warm.”
You’ve been primarily involved in Montgomery County, is that correct?
“Preserve the New River Valley. That’s how we began to try to link together all these counties that initially were going to be affected. We were fortunate to get a couple of technical people, and up went the website, up went the Facebook page, and they are just maniacs at gathering marvelous information. They don’t sleep I think. We got together and formed Preserve the New River Valley and then we were trying to reach out to every county that we knew at that time was going to be affected by the pipeline, and organize within each county and bring them together to form a sort of a coalition.”
What does that involve?
“The first thing we did was we went to our local representatives, our Boards of Supervisors. We made a presentation to them. We let everybody know, we’re coming to your Board with this information, come and listen. Little by little the groups just grew and grew as they realized that Wil Stanton, who did the website, was just impeccable with his sources and information. So we went to Floyd, Montgomery, Giles, and we then helped other organizations as well.”
When you meet with a group, you go to help organize and coordinate?
“Yes, let’s get some committees, let’s get some tasks assigned.”
What’s that been like in the different communities in the NRV?
“Oh, it was very successful in some ways and not at all in others. It’s not ‘us and them,’ it’s all us. I don’t want to move the line, I want to stop it.”
What about this area stands out to you? What makes it special?
“I had this little epiphany many years ago. We had an old farmhouse that was built in the 1880s, out of virgin timber, and one night on the tin roof the rain was falling, and I said my god, this water is going into my creek, which is going into the New River, which is going into the Ohio and the Gulf of Mexico! And just two miles away, the water of my neighbors house is going to the Chesapeake Bay. We’re at the top of the watershed! We’ve got to be really careful, we’ve got to protect it.
It was clear to me that I had the feeling like one of my hens. If you’ve never raised chickens, a mother hen is a fierce opponent if you are going to cause danger to her chicks. I’ve seen a hen chase a cat up a tree. And that’s what I began to feel like, I felt like I’ve got to protect this watershed, I’ve got to take it under my wings and make sure nothing happens to it.”
Mountain Valley Pipeline, LLC is scheduled to submit its formal project application to FERC in October 2015.
Featured image: Elizabeth McCommon in her home in Blacksburg. March 2015. Photo by Will Solis.