Although the “No Pipeline” signs speak for themselves, don’t call it a protest. According to organizers, Walking the Line: Into the Heart of Virginia, is a moving celebration of what’s on the line — literally and figuratively — of the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline route that bisects Virginia on a northwest to southeast diagonal.
“We did not walk to protest. We walked to celebrate. To celebrate the land and what’s there, the beauty, the people, what can be destroyed by Dominion’s pipeline,” said lead organizer Lee White, while addressing the crowd assembled to honor the end of the two-week trek.
Walking the Line started near the West Virginia border in Highland County, VA, on June 16, continued through Bath, Augusta and Nelson counties and wrapped up with a church service, water ceremony and community meal at Union Hill Baptist church in Buckingham County on July 2.
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The walk took community members and activists through almost 150 miles of forests, mountains, rivers and streams, farms and homes, all potentially at risk from Dominion Energy’s fracked-gas pipeline.
The 600-mile-long pipeline, a project of Dominion Energy and three other major US energy companies — Duke Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas and Southern Gas Company — is planned to ship gas from the Utica and Marcellus shale plays and run from Harrison County, WV, to Greensville County, VA, then south into eastern North Carolina.
Property owners, residents and environmentalists have been rallying and protesting every step of the pipeline project since it was announced in September 2014. Pending federal approval, construction will begin in late 2017 and gas transport will begin in late 2019.
They’re not just walking. Kirk Bowers, Pipelines Campaign Manager of the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club, said next is “a lot of litigation” around the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Multiple environmental groups are already involved in legal battles around the ACP.
Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition is one group suing the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality over its decision to issue a Nationwide Permit 12 to the Army Corps of Engineers for utility projects, including the ACP, over the next five years. The one permit allows the Corp to review the effects of utility projects on all the streams, wetlands and rivers that are crossed. In the case of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, that’s almost 2,000 water crossings.
Bowers is not appeased by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality’s reassurance that it will also require individual certification of each project under Section 401 of the Clean Water Act in addition to the nationwide permit. He believes it is a meaningless gesture because there are no substantive or detailed construction plans available during the public comment period, and again predicted more litigation.
“People Are Waking Up”
The Walking the Line finale at Union Hill Baptist brought together the walkers, activists, local residents, a congregation, artists, musicians, a politician and yogis from the nearby Yogaville Ashram that hosted the walkers on the last night of the walk.
Union Hill’s pastor, Paul M. Wilson, delivered a sermon touting “water as life” and peppered generously with “Amen’s.”
“You mess with the water, you don’t have anything. We [have] been trying to tell Dominion that for three years,” he preached from the pulpit of the small rural church whose air conditioning declined to work on this 90+ degree Sunday afternoon. “I didn’t even know I was an environmentalist until three years ago. I thought I was just a preacher.”
Kay Ferguson, a founding member of ARTivism, recognized the artists and musicians who created work to illustrate Walking the Line’s mission, including the large Sacred Places map of Virginia displayed outside the church. ARTivism formed after the 2016 presidential election to support activists through a connection with art and quickly joined the ACP fight.
“In this divided time, we are isolated in our individual silos of thought and the messages that make it from silo to silo will be messages of the heart. Messages about what we all love and need, like beautiful land and water. Artists are really good at shaping those heart messages,” Ferguson said.
Seeds of Peace, a collective providing logistical support to activists in front line social, environmental, and economic justice actions since 1986, fed and hydrated the walkers every day.
The Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club provided additional support including shuttles for day hikers and a porta potty hauled by trailer. One walker, Deborah Kushner of Nelson County, set out on day one hoping to make it the whole way, and she did.
Calling the trip “powerful”, she said they came across two households in particular whose residents were not aware of the pipeline plans, having purchased their houses within the last year.
It was not pleasant to break the news, Kushner said, but “people are waking up.”
Reception in the different areas they walked through varied somewhat but was mostly positive, Kushner said. “We got a few birds and shaken fists, but a lot of honks of support and thumbs up.”
Local Buckingham resident Chad Oba, whose home lies within a few hundred yards of the pipeline route, led a water ceremony and sign dedication. Water samples from several communities along the route were recognized and mixed together, with property owners coming from as far away as Bath County near the first third of the pipeline route to pour their offering from the local water source they treasure.
The water and a mix of soil, also from along the route, were then used to plant ornamental okra, sunflowers and Jerusalem artichokes at the base of the sign. Lee White highlighted Deerfield Valley, VA, whose entire population of around 130 people relies on a single spring for water. The recharge area for the spring covers over 11,000 acres in close proximity to the pipeline path.
The earnestness, determination and sense of shared purpose at Union Hill Baptist on Sunday, July 2, was as palpable as the heavy humidity hanging in the air.
But is that enough to defeat a massive pipeline project supported by the state’s Democratic governor?
Right now, the pipeline seems to have political will on its side. National politics and the future of the EPA aside, Virginia’s Lt. Gov. Ralph S. Northam, the Democratic nominee for November’s gubernatorial race, has called for a comprehensive environmental review of the project but not condemned it outright. He won the recent primary battle over former Rep. Tom Perriello, who does oppose the pipeline.
Ross Mittiga, a progressive candidate for the 57th District seat in the Virginia House of Delegates in attendance at Union Hill Baptist, pledged to fight the pipeline but also lost in June’s primary.
One of Pastor Wilson’s sermon refrains, a clever play on the name of Virginia’s largest utility, “Thou shall have no dominion here,” will undoubtedly be tested and tested again as the Atlantic Coast Pipeline battle plays out.
As the Sunday celebration was winding down, Pastor Wilson offered one more prayer, “We are living with this nightmare. But it’s going to be alright. This land has seen suffering. Let’s heal this Earth and this community with celebration. Amen.”