A Landmark Environmental Precedent Was Just Set in Virginia

A Landmark Environmental Precedent Was Just Set in Virginia

A Landmark Environmental Precedent Was Just Set in Virginia

Thanks to frontline activists and a new law promoting environmental justice, Virginia became one of the first states to recognize the disproportionate impact of pollution on Black, Indigenous, and low-income communities.


I recognized the older woman immediately as she stood up to address the six members of the Virginia Air Pollution Board gathered in the Pittsylvania County Hall in Chatham, Va., on December 3 last year. A month before, she’d attended a story-telling workshop I ran, where we trained members of the community how to resist the laying of the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) Southgate through our lands by telling the stories of their own lives. She had sat quietly, taking it all in, and now here she was at the hearing, dressed in that way of Southern women when they go to church.

“I wasn’t going to speak, but I have found the courage,” the woman said. “I suffer from asthma, and it’s bad enough with the two compressor stations already in Chatham. I don’t believe I would be able to breathe at all, with a third.” The hearing was about the proposed Lambert Compressor Station that MVP planned to install as part of its Southgate Extension. This would carry fracked methane gas from the fracking fields of West Virginia across Virginia into North Carolina—right to the doorstep of my own home, along the Haw River in Mebane.

I am an enrolled member of the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation, with American Indian, Irish, and African blood in my veins. I was a Department of Defense intelligence analyst and a military wife. I first became aware of the effects of pollution through witnessing my own daughter’s struggles with asthma and auto-immune illnesses that the doctors told us were a direct result of where we had raised her—places like Fort Bragg housing complexes that were literally built on the trash laid down to solidify the swamp.

I recently learned the word otiwate, Lakota for “the place where your mother broke water.” I never understood why I had such a calling to return home. No matter where I was, I would have to come home yearly to visit my family. Five years ago, I moved back permanently. I left a decent government job, a wonderful house, and big-city convenience, to raise my children with the values my grandparents instilled in me. Returning to rural North Carolina, I became a councilwoman for my tribe, and this is how I found out about the MVP Southgate which threatens to run through many of our sacred burial sites—which the company describes as “piles of rock.”

In my own testimony before the Virginia Air Pollution Board last month, I called these pipeline permits a modern “Doctrine of Discovery” (the rationale for the European colonization of the Americas.) “We must be done dying for the benefit of industries,” I told the board. Referring to the two gas compressor stations that had been polluting Chatham’s air for 50 years, imposed on the community, as I put it, “during a time when intimidation tactics by the Klan would often stifle Black and Indigenous people, often making them accept whatever nasty environmental pollution was to happen,” I added: “No more. I am not taking this anymore. I refuse. Slow lynchings are devastating our Black, Brown, Indigenous, communities of color, and rural white farming communities.”

In an astonishing precedent, the Air Pollution board agreed—by a margin of six to one. This has never happened before in Virginia, where regulatory boards always vote in favor of industry. Two factors caused the shift, and both must be celebrated and understood so they can be replicated across the nation as our movement against pollution and the fossil-fuel industry grows in force and influence.

The first factor is that Virginia is now one of the few states in the Union—and the only one in the South—that has an Environmental Justice Act, passed in 2020. This requires the state to promote environmental justice and take particular consideration of whether a given group of people bears “a disproportionate share” of negative environmental impacts. The Air Pollution Board found that this would be the case in Chatham: 32 percent of the people living within a mile of the proposed new compressor station are Black (the state is 20 percent Black), and 31 percent of those living within five miles of the site are “low income.”

The second factor is related. Members of these very communities—such as the woman who attended my storytelling workshop—were standing up and speaking for the first time, pushing back the fear of generations. Of course, the big environmental organizations such as Sierra Club have an impact, particularly when it comes to technical considerations, but they have not managed to stop the pipelines. That has been done by people power. This is what the Virginia Air Pollution Board decision showed us!

Earlier last year, we had a similar victory in North Carolina, where we succeeded twice in ensuring that the MVP Southgate was denied a water quality permit. At one online rally to explain the issue, we attracted 3,000 participants, and this resulted in a huge campaign with other organizations that bombarded North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), who received over 1,000d letters, 600 phone calls. The DEQ agreed: We didn’t need this pipeline.

I first experienced the power of grassroots activism when I worked on the Obama campaign in 2008 and saw how we were able to mobilize, bringing so many people of color out to vote for the first time. I thought about this at the beginning of last year, when we found out that landowners in North Carolina were receiving threatening letters from MVP: They would be taken to court if they did not sign their land away in an easement. These were mainly generational families of Black, brown, and white small farmers working or living on plots of about 30 or 40 acres. In these communities, where there has been a long history of violent racism and dispossession, such a letter is truly terrifying. Once we realized that no one along the hundred miles of this proposed pipeline knew anything about it, we decided we needed to act.

I have always spent summers in Pleasant Grove, our small community in Alamance County, N.C., the location of my grandparents’ home. My family, and other Indigenous people, have lived here since the 1700s. It was here that I learned about our community and culture by watching my grandparents cook and participating in church, traditional harvests, planting, and ceremonies. In the corn and tobacco fields with my grandfather, I learned the importance of water and protecting our resources. This is where I gained a deep respect for the water and Earth.

But through the loss of culture I was also taught that I always needed to wear shoes outside because of germs and parasites! Much of my motivation in resisting the pipeline has come from a reconnection with the culture that was taken from us. My husband, Jason Crazy-Bear Keck, is Choctaw, and we teach our family and community the importance of planting an indigenous garden. This brought us into the practice of seed-keeping, and connected us with a nationwide movement of Native Americans who are seed protectors. We also teach young people to play the traditional stickball game. In both these activities, we find ourselves more rooted to the land—the land we play on and the land we plant in.

Last May, Jason and I and some others organized a Pipeline River Walk along the hundred-mile route of the Southgate Extension, knocking on doors and informing people about MVP’s plans. There were about a hundred of us, from tribes and communities across the state, and I saw the rainbow walking! We collected water from a spring right where the pipeline is supposed to begin, and then from the Dan and Bannister Rivers too. We poured the collected water into the Haw River at the end of the pipeline route, along with all our prayers and intentions. The water is already terribly polluted with industrial chemicals; we prayed that it would heal itself.

The journey that began with this Water Walk culminated at the hearings in Chatham seven months later. But it is not over yet, of course. Just days after the Virginia Air Pollution Board decided against the Lambert Compressor, the state’s Water Control Board approved a different MVP pipeline permit. And MVP has announced its intention to appeal the Air Pollution Board’s decision.

We still have a long way to go, but the road just got shorter. Last week, as I was writing this piece, the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, in Richmond, Va., rejected permits issued by the US Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management allowing MVP to cross three and a half miles and four streams in the Jefferson National Forest, citing compliance failures and inadequate consideration of environmental impact. This was the second time! The writing for MVP is on the wall: It is time to abandon the project.

As I prepare myself for the battles ahead, I find myself thinking back to a meeting I attended in Asheville, N.C., while campaigning for Tom Steyer in the 2020 Democratic primaries. Asheville, of course, is a liberal bastion—perhaps the greenest town in the South. As happens too often when I meet other environmental activists, I was the only person of color in the room. The conversation was all about carbon neutrality—really important of course, but I thought, “You guys are totally missing the point. That issue is so distant to the immediate concerns of Black and brown people on the front lines. We don’t even deal with that. We’re just trying to survive and exist and live our lives with clean water and clean air, and the way you are talking is just not going to grab people in the community.”

The world has changed. Now, that “environmental racism” has become recognized, we attracted media and funder attention when we started mobilizing people against the MVP Southgate Extension last year. People sat up and took notice. If last month’s victory in Virginia proved one thing, it is how essential we folks on the front lines are in the fight against pollution—and thus also against fossil fuels, and for climate justice.

Dispatches from the Frontlines are stories directly from the leaders fighting—and winning—the battle for a fossil-free future. They are published monthly by the Equation Campaign in collaboration with The Nation. Equation Campaign is a 10-year initiative funding movements on the ground to keep fossil fuels in the ground. Read more dispatches here.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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