Remaining Refusals

Steve and Anne Bernard are artists living and working in Franklin County. Earlier this month, we sat down in their studio to discuss the pipeline surveying taking place in Franklin, surrounded by proof of their artistic passions: years of pastels and paintings hanging, propped against the walls, and in various states of progress on easels in their studio not far from 220. Steve, raised in Franklin County, and Anne, hailing from upstate New York, both studied art and spent time in New York before returning to Franklin, to the house where they have now lived for 35 years.

Cahas Mountain, one mountain of several in the area in the path of the MVP route and the quintessential landmark in Franklin, can be seen from their studio, not far in the distance.

They received their initial notification letter, like many others, in the fall of 2014.
They received letters of intent to survey their land, like many others, soon after.

“It’s just a shock because we’ve lived here in this idyllic location for so long,” Anne says. “We really haven’t had to worry about anything coming through here. We love it so much. We can make our art here in peace.”

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Elizabeth and her Letter from Home

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.

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Concerns at the Community Center

On July 28th many landowners and residents of Bent Mountain gathered at the Bent Mountain Community Center to discuss how to respond to the surveyors attempting to enter properties to conduct routing, biological, and cultural surveys for the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline.

The community center was, until 2010, the home of Bent Mountain Elementary School. The school closed after its 99th year and has since been used as a library and a hub in the community for classes and events.

Since early July, several people living on Bent Mountain have encountered surveyors attempting to enter their properties despite formal, certified letters of denied access. An estimated 60 people attended the meeting that featured a Q-and-A session with Roanoke County’s Assistant Chief of Police regarding the approach officers would be taking in response to calls.

Roanoke County's Assistant Chief of Police answers questions from Bent Mountain residents. July 28, 2015.

Roanoke County’s Assistant Chief of Police answers questions from Bent Mountain residents. July 28, 2015. Photo by Will Solis.

The community was transparent in sharing their concerns with the Assistant Chief and with each other. Several questions were raised about refusing survey access, rules regarding landowner presence to deny surveys, and current state laws regarding posting property and trespassing.

The crowd was encouraged to call police if they encountered anyone trespassing on their properties, though the Assistant Chief could not anticipate what sorts of legal action could be taken once officers are dispatched.

“If you call us, we will come out,” he said. “Our primary objective is to keep the peace and push down any conflict.”

“We are following the instructions we have been issued,” he added.

Roanoke County's Assistant Chief of Police answers questions. July 28, 2015.

Roanoke County’s Assistant Chief of Police answers questions. July 28, 2015. Photo by Will Solis.

Community members exhorted one another to continue to deny permission either verbally or in writing up until surveyors arrive at their property. Many have designated friends or family members to watch for and meet the surveyors on their behalf.  Several people raised their hand when asked who in the room had volunteered as designees.

Individuals who have granted survey permission were still encouraged to confirm survey dates and times ahead of the survey team’s arrival.

Other speakers at the meeting focused on encouraging those in attendance and offering support for the community.

“FERC has acknowledged the opposition to this is unprecedented. Whatever you are doing, keep doing it,” said Mara Robbins, community organizer for the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League. “I’m sure everyone here has things they need to be doing with their families and children, but you are here, and it’s making a difference, and we thank you for that,” she said in closing.

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.

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Surveying continues

Though residents of Bent Mountain have denied access to surveyors regarding the Mountain Valley Pipeline, many received letters that routing, cultural, and environmental surveys would begin in the area between July 6 and July 31. Mountain Valley Pipeline, LLC writes on their website that the pipeline is being routed “to avoid environmentally sensitive areas to the greatest extent possible.” On July 6, neighbors, friends, and families in the community began patrolling the roads, taking turns in shifts and alerting each other to the presence of surveyor’s on each other’s properties by way of texts, calls, and social media updates.

Four Corners, Franklin

When driving through Franklin County, the first thing you might notice is the landscape. It undulates. Hill after hill of fertile ground provides prime estate for farmers, ideal for livestock and crops of all kinds. What was once an entirely rural farming community has developed into residential areas considerably since the 60s. Even with recent developments it remains, like many areas in Southwestern Virginia, a picturesque pastoral. Within a radius of just a few miles are numbers of farms, many inhabited by people who have lived in the area for years, their families’ multi-generational residents of the county dating back centuries. Much of Franklin is comprised of people who have made their livelihood from working the land, coaxing sustenance from the soil to feed their livestock, their families, and the community.

One such place is Four Corners Farm, a family-run, chemical-free, producing farm owned and operated by Ian and Carolyn Reilly.

The Reilly’s use organic methods in every part of their farming process that aims to restore the land as it is used. The day’s work begins with feeding and watering the farm’s 350 chickens at dawn (a mix of Ameraucanas, Amberlinks, Barred Rocks, Golden Comets, and Black Australorps, to name a few), releasing them from the coop in which they have been sleeping, protected from hawks and foxes by their guard dog, Buster. Because of its wheels the coop is portable and is rotated to different parts of pasture every couple of days to keep from tiring the land, allowing the grazing areas to replenish naturally while the chickens feast on a fresh spot. The chickens also act as a form of tick control. Then there are the pigs rooting out overgrowth in the wooded areas, the cows contentedly grazing in the lower pasture, and the broiler baby chicks sweetly chirping in the brooder house. For the family who wants to give to the land as much as it gives, the daily to-do list can change in an instant and is always full.

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The NRV meets the MVP, an introduction

The news came late in 2014. It was not until September when it officially broke that many counties in the New River Valley were in the projected path of a new energy project called the Mountain Valley Pipeline proposed by Mountain Valley Pipeline LLC, a joint venture between EQT Midstream Partners, LP; NextEra US Gas Assets, LLC; WGL Midstream; and Vega Midstream MVP LLC.

This fracked natural gas pipeline, it would come to be known, planned to be 42″ in diameter, would be buried in an underground trench. Drawn remotely from computer desktop to run for over 300 miles through the hills, ridges, valleys, and creeks of Appalachia, the pipeline at this time was slotted to traverse close to 15 counties, including Giles, Craig, Montgomery, Roanoke, Franklin, and, finally, in Pittsylvania County, where it would connect with an existing Transco compressor station. Homeowners began receiving letters from the company, alerting them to the path’s presence on their properties.

The valley saw the plans shift that season when the line’s route was moved out of Floyd County in the fall of 2014. The plans have been shifting ever since, with various alternate routes drafted, rallies coordinated, open-houses and scoping meetings held along the way. Questions of property and landowner rights, company experience, safety, and damage to local business and the environment have been fueling the fight of communities against the corporation. Supporters of the project point to the promises made by the company, referencing job creation, less expensive fuel, and energy independence as reasons for the pipeline’s necessity to the region. Most currently, the private company has sent certified letters threatening the legal action of eminent domain to residents who continue to refuse survey access, while surveying contractors have recently been arrested for trespassing on private and federally protected lands. Mountain Valley Pipeline, LLC is scheduled to file a formal application for project approval with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) in the fall of 2015.

This summer, storypike’s first series will focus on those in the direct path of the line, taking a documentary look at these communities and individuals by focusing not only on the details of the pipeline project but what defines the sense of community in the rural New River Valley today.

What tangible details of everyday life have been and will continue to be affected by the pipeline, and in what ways?

While acknowledging the complicated issues presented in harvesting sources of energy in rural Appalachian communities, our hope is to document subtle details of this story as it develops through the sharing of local and personal histories.