Defenders of Homes, Hills, and Heritage Unite Against the Mountain Valley Pipeline

Meet five people who are fighting on the ground—from Virginia, West Virginia, and North Carolina—to stop the destructive fossil fuel project before it’s too late.

UPDATE: On September 21, 2022, Senator Joe Manchin released his Energy Independence and Security Act that would fast-track the construction of fossil fuel projects—and mandate approval of the Mountain Valley Pipeline. Environmental groups, including NRDC, are gearing up once more to fight against any efforts to revive this unnecessary and harmful project.

UPDATE: On January 25, 2022, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit rejected two key Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) approvals issued by the United States Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. The decision prevents pipeline construction through Jefferson National Forest, a 3.5-mile stretch that MVP needs to operate, and calls the entire project into question. “The citizens who cherish the Appalachian Trail can take comfort in knowing that our efforts to protect it are not in vain,” says Maury Johnson of Preserve Monroe and POWHR (Protect Our Water, Heritage, Rights). The ruling came as the result of a lawsuit brought by the Sierra Club and Appalachian Mountain Advocates, on behalf of local conservation organizations.

Though it’s been under construction for the past three years—and in discussion since 2014—the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) has been somewhat easy to overlook. Easy, that is, for those who don’t live along its proposed route: West Virginia landowner Maury Johnson calls it the “ugly stepchild of pipelines” because, compared to high-profile pipeline fights like that against Keystone XL, for a long time only a small segment of Appalachian residents seemed to be talking about the 303-mile MVP.

As Gillian Giannetti, an NRDC attorney who focuses on energy issues at the Federal Energy Regulation Commission (FERC), explains, MVP has likely received less national attention because it passes through a rural, low-income part of Virginia, through places even many Virginians themselves haven’t visited.

Still, if completed, its impact would be felt far beyond those areas. MVP would transport fracked gas in an unprecedented 42-inch-wide pipe—double the diameter of Keystone XL’s proposed pipe—through properties in West Virginia and Virginia as well as in North Carolina (via the MVP’s proposed Southgate extension). Along the way, the pipeline would travel under more than 500 local rivers, streams, and wetlands, down dangerously steep slopes, over sensitive and unpredictable karst terrain, and through active seismic zones. MVP is also slated to cut through the public lands of Jefferson National Forest and the Appalachian Trail.

This is why concerned citizens—including landowners, youth activists, and community leaders—have been fighting the project for years, pointing out how it would devastate lands, waterways, and wildlife, while further fueling the climate crisis. (MVP doesn’t deny the harm it’s already caused: To date, it has agreed to pay millions in penalties for more than 300 water-quality violations in West Virginia and Virginia.) Community members have also witnessed the pipeline’s owners seize land via eminent domain from dozens of residents along its route, upending lives and livelihoods, and adding insult to injury.

In May, some relief came in the form of a letter from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommending that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers deny a permit that would allow MVP to cross hundreds of streams in West Virginia and Virginia. Activists see this development as a hopeful setback for the project, which is already three-and-a-half years behind schedule and nearly $3 billion over budget, thanks in large part to their organizing and resistance efforts.

“They're not FERC experts—they're not supposed to be,” Giannetti says of the people living along MVP’s route, several of whom are featured below. “They're thrust into this process against their will, and it takes people who are able and willing to devote their lives to this to protect their property and protect their communities.”

Carson Hopkins, 19, participating in a December 2019 walkout from Blacksburg High School, organized by the Appalachian Youth Climate Coalition to support the implementation of a new Climate Action Commitment at Virginia Tech University. In spring 2021, the Climate Action Commitment was approved.


Courtesy of Carson Hopkins

Carson Hopkins

Appalachian Youth Climate Coalition
Blacksburg, Virginia

For Carson Hopkins, Appalachia is home—and it always will be. “It has something to do with the birds. I love listening to the birds here,” says the 19-year-old, who grew up exploring the woods and waters of their Blacksburg, Virginia, home alongside their ecologist father and ornithologist mother. But it’s also about much more than the birds. “When I started getting into Mountain Valley Pipeline stuff, I started thinking more about the culture here, the connection between rural people and the land, about what these mountains mean to so many people,” Hopkins continues. “And I realized that I could never leave. This place is more than anything else to me, and I will never be able to escape it—no matter where I go.”

It’s no surprise, then, that the destruction from the pipeline’s construction continually guts Hopkins. On what used to be a scenic drive along Montgomery County’s Craig Creek Road, for example, they can’t ignore the huge clearcut gash, with pipes lying on the ground. Meanwhile, the unnatural opening results in frequent floods, taking an irrevocable toll on the hills Hopkins calls holy.

Hopkins is determined to do whatever it takes to make sure the damage doesn’t continue. Leaning on some past organizing experience and seeing an unfilled local niche after the September 2019 global climate strikes, they cofounded the Appalachian Youth Climate Coalition (AYCC) as a high school junior. “There's no person who's running the show; we support each other,” Hopkins says, adding that their goal is to build a nonhierarchical, youth-led rural climate justice movement.

Now a student at Appalachian State University, Hopkins recently spent months visiting activists at the Yellow Finch tree-sits, where two young people perched in trees along MVP’s route in Montgomery County for 932 days in an effort to block pipeline construction. And Hopkins also seeks out ways to connect with community members beyond the AYCC network. “We try to reach across the aisle and talk to as many people as possible, especially because we operate in Appalachia, where many people disagree with us,” Hopkins says. “But we find little commonalities, like loving the land, and we start conversations so people can maybe begin to realize they actually don’t like this pipeline.”

Crystal Cavalier-Keck

7 Directions of Service
Mebane, North Carolina

Crystal Cavalier-Keck is on a mission to educate—about tribal sovereignty and rights in the United States, about missing and murdered Indigenous women in communities bisected by pipelines, and about the environmental and health dangers posed by the Mountain Valley Pipeline and its proposed 75-mile extension, MVP Southgate. If built, the pipeline would snake its way down from the shale fields of northern West Virginia, coming within miles of her home in Alamance County.

A citizen and former tribal council member of the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation, Cavalier-Keck likens the pipeline owners to colonizers, in the way they have ravaged the landscape with little regard for those who live there. “They just do whatever they want, and it’s disheartening,” she says. “We’ve been fighting this war for hundreds of years, and we still get taken advantage of, everywhere.”

But the mother of five is not alone in her resistance efforts. Together with her husband, Jason, she founded a BIPOC-focused environmental and health grassroots advocacy organization called 7 Directions of Service. “We're not just fighting for ourselves—we're fighting for everybody,” she says. The No MVP/No MVP Southgate Water Walk the group organized in early May showed just that. From bikers to ministers to parents with babies in tow, and with 17 tribal nations represented, more than 100 people knocked on doors to educate the local community about MVP. Many of the residents they encountered didn’t know a pipeline was planned to come through the area. At three separate rallies in North Carolina and Virginia, the group prayed for the water’s healing and the pipeline’s cancellation. Cavalier-Keck and other organizers are planning another event, a Unity Day, for late August.

Cavalier-Keck (front, left) taking part in the No MVP/No MVP Southgate Water Walk on May 2, 2021
Credit: Myles Green

Cavalier-Keck laments the modern-day shift toward individualism and remembers how neighbors used to more readily look out for one another. “Instead, we have relied on the government to protect us,” she says of regulations that purport to safeguard the right to property and access to safe drinking water. “But these laws were not put in place to help protect Black and brown people—people like me.” Cavalier-Keck is working to restore a sense of community and to reclaim political power with numbers in order to stop the pipeline from destroying the region’s natural resources. “Everything is going to be affected by it because we all tie back to water, but these corporations don’t get it,” she says. “Don’t you understand that when you kill something, you can't bring it back?”

Pastor Morris V. Fleischer (front, right) at the interfaith event “Giving Witness: Responding to Violation of Community & Creation”
Credit: Courtesy of Pastor Morris V. Fleischer

Pastor Morris V. Fleischer

Newport–Mt. Olivet United Methodist Church
Newport, Virginia

From his office desk at Newport–Mt. Olivet United Methodist Church, Pastor Morris Fleischer hears constant beeping, scraping, and explosions—the overpowering sounds of Mountain Valley Pipeline construction up the hill, just a couple hundred feet from the 170-year-old church building. He’ll never forget how the trees first started coming down on Good Friday three years ago, and the palpable sadness he felt as he reflected on both the landscape’s permanent destruction and the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Still today, Fleischer says, “every time a piece of equipment or pipe on these huge flatbed trucks comes through, there's this sickness in the pit of my stomach. And those whose families have lived on the property for several generations or who bought property here to retire? I can’t imagine how sick they feel.”

Fleischer’s fight against MVP began about six years ago, and ever since, Preserve Giles County, one of many local citizen advocacy groups, has been meeting in the church’s fellowship hall two times a week. For the pastor, who has led the small, community-minded Newport–Mt. Olivet congregation for 13 years, the resistance isn’t just spiritual—it’s also about safety. The church, located 45 yards from a segment of the pipeline, lies squarely in its “blast zone,” an area at high risk in the event of an explosion. “I also see it from the theological lens of my Christian faith: the stewardship that we are called to have for God's good creation,” he says. “That's ultimately the key for me.”

To that end, he’s sought training as part of the Methodist Church’s Earthkeeper program to further his advocacy efforts. Through the program, Fleischer has discovered tips for hosting informational sessions to educate the community, documenting violations by the pipeline company, and writing op-eds and signing petitions. He’s also learned how to support local families who are navigating the burden of eminent domain battles. To encourage solidarity, Fleischer has also linked up with other faith leaders in the area and to hold space for the community to protest and vent their frustrations. An interfaith service the leaders organized, timed to coincide with the start of MVP’s construction in the area in 2018, drew several hundred people to Newport’s Village Green.

“This has connected the community in ways that it has never been connected before. It's too bad it's taken something like this tragedy to do that, but I'll take it as a silver lining of this mess,” Fleischer says, noting that residents who are usually at odds politically have put those differences aside to speak out with a common voice against the pipeline. And despite being tired, he stresses that they will continue to fight and do whatever they can to stop MVP from destroying their pristine corner of Appalachia forever. Of the pipeline’s developers, the pastor says, “I don't think they realized they would run into so much resistance coming through this community.”

Maury Johnson speaking at a public hearing for a bill that would classify a variety of pipeline protests as felonies, February 2020
Credit: WV Legislative Photography, Perry Bennett

Maury Johnson

Preserve Monroe and POWHR (Protect Our Water, Heritage, Rights)
Greenville, West Virginia

Maury Johnson can’t drink the water from the tap on the 300-acre farm that’s been in his family for 150 years. Instead, he pays $30 each month to use bottled water for drinking and cooking. Johnson transports the dishes he rinses with that water to a friend’s house for an occasional thorough scrub; to wash his clothes, he drives to a laundromat, 25 miles away. Johnson also has to limit the number of showers he takes—otherwise, he says, he’d end up dirtier than when he stepped in, thanks to the presence of an overwhelming amount of sediment caused by MVP’s karst blasting. Pipeline construction on Johnson’s property severely harmed his well in 2018.

When MVP approached Johnson about its project in late 2014, he questioned whether it was a good idea. After letting the company survey his land, he caught the company telling several lies, such as denying the existence of natural springs on his ancestral land. Then, Johnson reluctantly signed an easement allowing the company to build 2,000 feet of pipeline across his family property, including on top of two of the land’s numerous springs, along with a permanent 800-foot access road.

“I decided that if they were going to go through with this, I was going to make sure that this was the most scrutinized piece of pipe ever put in the ground, anywhere in the world,” says Johnson, who prides himself on not being easily intimidated. He’s lived up to his word, filing to date more than 200 complaints to FERC and West Virginia’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) for possible construction violations, taking tens of thousands of photos, and investing in a drone for additional surveillance of the destruction. When he’s not documenting the details happening on his farm and across the region, Johnson is helping to run a local advocacy group called Preserve Monroe. The former teacher also serves as an executive committee member of POWHR (Protect Our Water, Heritage, Rights), a regional interstate coalition focused on protecting communities from fossil fuel infrastructure, traveling to rallies, giving testimony, joining lawsuits, and more. Johnson knows how much he frustrates the pipeline company. “They thought I'd shut up. And I’ve found ways to not shut up.”

For good reason, Johnson is well known throughout the region for his selfless dedication to the cause, doing whatever he can, whenever and wherever he can, to fight the pipeline, especially when it comes to helping out his fellow resistors, neighbors, and activists who have become like family to him over the years. And although he says Greenville-area residents are a tight-knit community—people who take pride in their slow-paced rural life—debate over the MVP has split families and the community in a way that will take decades to heal. At the same time, he notes, many of his neighbors have long seen themselves as stewards of the land. “I don’t think the pipeline company had a clue what they were going to get when they came here. Next to the mountains themselves, the resistance has been the hardest thing they’ve had to deal with.”

The SUN SiNG Collective, a project of ARTivism Virginia, with Bernadette BJ Lark fourth from the right
Credit: Courtesy of Bernadette BJ Lark

Bernadette “BJ” Lark

ARTivism, Virginia
Roanoke, Virginia

“Artivist” Bernadette “BJ” Lark believes that one day good will triumph over greed. That belief, and a deep desire to be part of the solution, fuels her work as an activist using her art—the gift of music—to resist the MVP. Born and raised in South Carolina’s coastal Lowcountry, she is the daughter of a pastor and a missionary. Community outreach and leadership skills run in the family. Lark has used those traits on behalf of pipeline resistance before: In 2018, she jumped into the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) fight, angered by the project owners’ plan to put a compressor station in Union Hill, Virginia, home to many descendants of freed enslaved people. After ACP’s cancellation last July, following years of public backlash, she grew more confident that the fight against MVP could also be won.

“We render ourselves powerful when we stand together in the best interests of each other,” Lark says. Along with the seven other professional musicians in the SUN SiNG Collective, a project of ARTivism Virginia, she shares her talents through original songs like “Water Is Life” at threatened properties, rallies, and other gatherings in Virginia and beyond.

Not far from her hometown, Lark has come face to face with the devastation that’s already occurred on and near friends’ properties—muddied waters, clearcut swaths of forest—and it’s instilled in her a sense of urgency to band together, tap into a unified heartbeat and rhythm, and fight back.

“As an artist and activist, I am just lending my voice,” Lark says. “We're pressing in with all these phenomenal, amazing gifts. We believe that we can reach the soul of humanity—and we won't stop until everybody hears the song that things have got to be good for all, not some.”

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