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“What does democracy look like? This is what democracy looks like.” This was the sound that echoed up Draper and over College Avenue to kick off the protest on Henderson Lawn against the Mountain Valley Pipeline in Blacksburg on Saturday, March 23 at noon.
The protest was in response to the proposed $3.5 billion pipeline that will cut through Virginia and West Virginia.
The project is primarily being funded by EQT and NextEra.
The 40 or so student protesters from Virginia Tech, Christopher Newport, University of Virginia, and Mary Washington, were followed by cameramen and photographers frantically running trying to stay ahead of the group and get a shot. A small number of Radford students were also in attendance.
Protestors met up with the majority of the crowd at the lawn which included representatives from environmental groups from Craig, Roanoke, Montgomery, Franklin, Monroe, Giles, Pittsylvania, Floyd and Summers counties, as well as representatives from the New River Valley.
The protest switched between a few songs played by various bands and singers followed to talks from a wide range of speakers with various backgrounds including former professors, student activists and state senators.
The protestor’s complaints were as varied as the speakers that represented them. Maury Johnson, a representative from Monroe County spoke to the issues of the supposed job creation that a major pipeline would bring.
“There is no proof of many permanent jobs maybe a few, but we’ve seen projects like this before and they mainly just create temporary ones,” said Johnson.
Johnson also raised concerns on the safety of pipelines.
“There have been 350 documented accidents involving pipelines in the last 15 years. The number could be as high as 500, but for sure 350,” she continued.
One incident Johnson mentioned involved part of Interstate 77 melting. The proposed pipeline will also be within a half mile of an elementary school in Giles, while the safe evacuation distance is 2 miles for a pipeline explosion.
Another issue with the proposed pipeline is that surveyors have been going on to peoples land without their permission while they are at work. Numerous citizens of Giles County have had neighbors tell them that while they were at work people have gone on to their land to “pre survey”. Surveyors are legally required to issue a letter of intent 18 days before they plan to survey in Giles. No letters of intent have been issued, according to Rick Shingles, a former professor at Virginia Tech and one coordinator of Giles County’s presence at the rally.
Citizens were also worried that the natural gas being created by the pipeline would be shipped out overseas in a way to compete with Russia who has a natural gas supremacy throughout Europe. Even though this supremacy has led to a lack of meaningful sanctions against Russia by most European nations.
The final concern and perhaps the one that garnered the most reaction was towards the effect on the environment. The pipeline is set to run through many environmental habitats including that of the bear and bald eagle. The spiny mussel which is an endangered species is also at risk due to its construction. Milly Smith a sophomore and head of the Virginia Tech Environmental Coalition said, “We can’t count natural gas as clean energy since the process still emits greenhouse gasses.”
Shingles added that the pipeline, “supports a process (fracking) that is at the expense of the world. It is a monster that will devour the world.”
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, FERC, has been overseeing the pipeline due to it crossing state lines. They are trying to declare some of the land eminent domain. Mike Hamlar, who is running for state senate of the 19th district of Virginia, warned the crowd of nearly 120 people, “The offer they make you is not worth it.”
Hamlar believes that the best way to stop the pipeline from being constructed is “Supporting the opposition to the pipeline based on property rights” and (that his) “Main concern is the law as a state senator… so that would be the best way to tackle it.”
While Hamlar’s concern is preventing the pipeline through legal means, Dick Woolf and Ray Roberts of Preserve Craig County have a different view.
“We are united in opposition and have been disenfranchised… Craig has muscle,” said Woolf, whose group has already gained 1000 signatures on a petition in opposition to the pipeline. Roberts, who has been part of environmental activism “Since the ‘70s” said that (this was) “the largest grassroots movement I’ve ever seen.”
The energy at the rally was contagious. Men and women of all ages chanting classic protests shouts on the power of community action and a few tailored to the event itself. There was an overwhelming sense of hope in the air. Woolf believed that “construction will never start.” Shingles addressed the students in the crowd telling them, “(They) are the future and will be ones to fix the world.”
Only time will tell if the rally achieved it’s goal of preventing the MVP from being constructed, but if the strength of this community is undeniable.
As Woolf said, “As much as I hate the mountain valley pipeline, I love how it has brought people together … to not make this an issues about individual backyards but as a whole.”