The older woman was the one I recognized as she stood up to address six members of Virginia Air Pollution Board who gathered in Chatham, Va.’s Pittsylvania County Hall on December 3. She had been to a story-telling workshop I led a month earlier, where we taught community members how to resist the construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline Southgate through our lands. We did this by sharing stories from their own lives. She had sat still, taking in everything, and now, she was at the hearing dressed in the way Southern women dress when they go to church.
The woman said that although I was not going to speak, I have found the courage. I suffer from asthma. It is bad enough that Chatham already has two compressor stations. I doubt I would be capable of breathing with a third. MVP was presenting a proposed Lambert Compressor Station, which it planned to install as part its Southgate Extension. This would transport fracked methane gas across West Virginia and North Carolina to my home, along the Haw River.
I am an enrolled member in good standing of the Occaneechi Band, Saponi Nation. I have American Indian, Irish and African blood. I was a Department of Defense intelligence analyst, and a military spouse. I was first exposed to the harmful effects of pollution when my daughters developed asthma and other immune disorders. Doctors told me that these illnesses were caused by the environment in which they were raised. Fort Bragg housing complexes were built literally on the trash that had been dumped to solidify the swamp.
I learned the word recently otiwateLakota, the place where your mother broke her water. I didn’t understand why I felt the need to return home. No matter where my location, I had to go home each year to see my family. I returned home five years ago. I gave up a good job in government, a beautiful house, and big-city convenience to raise my children with the values that my grandparents instilled. I returned to rural North Carolina and became a councilwoman for the tribe. This is how I discovered about the MVP Southgate. Threatens to run throughMany of our sacred burial spots are described by the company to be piles of rocks.
I called these permits modern in my testimony to the Virginia Air Pollution Board last week. Doctrine of Discovery(The reason for European colonization of Americas. I stated to the board that we must stop dying for the benefit industries. Referring to Chathams’ two gas compressor stations, which had polluted Chathams air over 50 years, and imposed on the community, I said: “No more.” I’m not going to take this anymore. I refuse. Slowly, lynchings have decimated our Black, Brown, Indigenous, and rural White farming communities.
The Air Pollution board is a remarkable precedent We are in agreementA margin of six to one. This has never happened in Virginia before, where regulatory boards vote in favor industry. This shift was caused in part by two factors that must be celebrated. They should also be understood so that they can be replicated across America as the movement against pollution and the fossil fuel industry grows in strength and influence.
First, Virginia is one of the few States in the Union and the only one in South that has an Anonymizer. Environmental Justice ActThis law was adopted in 2020. This requires that the state promote environmental justiceConsider whether a certain group of people has adisproportionate amount of negative environmental effects. The Chatham Air Pollution Board determined that this would be true: 32% of Chatham’s residents live within a mile from the new compressor station. (The state is 20% Black). 31% of Chatham’s residents live within five miles of it. 31 percent of Chatham’s residents are low-income.
The second factor is also related. The second factor is related. Although the Sierra Club and other large environmental organizations have had an impact on technical issues, they have not been able to stop the pipelines. People power has done that. This is what we learned from the Virginia Air Pollution Board’s decision!
We had an earlier last year. Similar win in North CarolinaWhere are we? It was twice successfulWe made sure that MVP Southgate was not denied a water quality permit. We organized an online rally to explain this issue. This resulted in a large campaign with other organizations. North Carolinas Department of Environmental Quality was bombarded with over 1,000 letters and 600 calls. The DEQ said that the pipeline was unnecessary.
When I was working on the Obama campaign in 2008, I was first exposed to the power of grassroots activism. I saw how we were capable of mobilizing and bringing out so many people of colour to vote. When we learned that landowners in North Carolina were receiving threats letters from MVP, I was struck by the thought. They threatened to take them to court if their land wasn’t signed away in an easement. These were mostly Black, Brown, and White small farmers living on plots ranging from 30 to 40 acres. This letter is extremely frightening in these communities, which have a long history racial violence and dispossession. We realized that no one knew anything about the proposed pipeline for the 100 miles we were passing through, and we decided to take action.
I have always spent summers in Pleasant Grove, our small community in Alamance County, N.C., the location of my grandparents’ home. My family, along with other Indigenous people, has lived here since the 1700s. It was here that my grandparents taught me about our culture and community. I also learned about the traditional harvests, planting, and church. I learned about water and the importance to preserve our resources by working in the tobacco and corn fields with my grandfather. This is where I developed a deep respect for water and the Earth.
But, I was also taught by my loss of culture that shoes must be worn outside to avoid parasites and germs. My motivation to resist the pipeline came from a reconnection to the culture that was taken away from me. Jason Crazy-Bear Keck, my husband, is Choctaw. He teaches his family and community about the importance and benefits of planting an indigenous garden. This led us to the practice of seed-keeping and connected us to a national movement of Native Americans who are seed protectors. We also teach young people how to play traditional stickball. Both these activities help us to be more connected to the land-the land we play on, and the land that we plant.
Jason and I organized a Pipeline River Walk along the 100-mile route of Southgate Extension last May. We knocked on doors and informed people about MVPs plans. We were about 100 people, representing tribes and communities from across the state. I saw the rainbow walk! We collected water from a spring just where the pipeline is supposed start, and then from both the Dan and Bannister Rivers. We poured the water we collected into the Haw River at each end of the pipeline route along with all our intentions and prayers. The water is already extremely toxic. Polluted with industrial chemical substancesWe prayed that it would heal.
Seven months later, the Water Walk ended and the journey continued with the Chatham hearings. It is not over, however. Just days after the Virginia Air Pollution Board ruled against Lambert Compressor, the states Water Control Board approved another MVP pipeline permit. MVP also announced its intention of appealing the decision by the Air Pollution Boards.
There is still a lot of work to do, but we are now closer to our goal. As I was writing this piece last week, the US Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit, in Richmond (Va.) rejected permitsissued by the US Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, allowing MVP to cross three miles and four streams within the Jefferson National Forest. This was due to compliance failures and insufficient consideration of environmental impacts. This was the second time. MVP has made it clear: It is time for MVP to leave the project.
As I prepare for the battles ahead of me, I recall a meeting I attended in Asheville while campaigning to support Tom Steyer in the 2020 Democratic primaries. Asheville is a liberal bastion, and perhaps the most green town in the South. I was the only person of color present, as it happens all too often when I meet environmental activists. The conversation was all focused on carbon neutrality. This is an important topic, but I thought you guys were completely missing the point. It is so far away from the immediate concerns for Black and brown people at the front lines. That is something we don’t even deal with. We are just trying to survive, exist, and live our lives with clean air and water. Your talk is not going to grab the attention of the people in the community.
The world has changed. Now that environmental racism is well-known, media and funders have been drawn to our efforts to mobilize people against the MVP Southgate Extension last fiscal year. People stood up and took note. The victory in Virginia last month proved one thing: how important we, the people on the frontlines, are in the fight against pollutionand so against fossil fuels and for climate justice.
Dispatches from the Frontlines These stories are directly from the leaders who fight for a fossil-free world. They are published monthly in the Equation CampaignIn collaboration with The NationEquation Campaign is an initiative to fund movements on the ground for fossil fuels conservation. It has been in existence for 10 years. Read more dispatches Here.