We In Appalachia Are Done With Being A Sacrifice Zone
Here's what's wrong with Manchin's side deal to the Inflation Reduction Act
Appalachia won’t be thrown under the bus in a side deal to climate legislation. That’s why we’re going to the capital this week, for the “Appalachian Resistance Comes to DC“ rally, on September 8. Our message: we’re done with being a sacrifice zone. If you care about climate, you’ve got to care about us too. It’s the right thing to do. And it’s also the only way we can get better climate policies going forward. The wheelers and dealers who negotiated the Inflation Reduction Act need to work with those of us on the ground who lead this fight, rather than against us.
The side deal proposed by Senator Joe Manchin includes the undermining of laws that protect us from the fossil fuel industry. Manchin also wants Congress to fast-track his pet project, the Mountain Valley Pipeline. Half-completed, the pipeline has been stopped in its tracks by effective mobilization on the ground and in the courts. I have played a small part in this. I am a single mother and grandmother. I clean houses during the day and a local doctor’s office at night. I spend every spare moment resisting the pipeline because it would carry fracked gas close to me and my neighbors in Montgomery County, Virginia, endangering our community even though the gas is not meant for us.
I monitor MVP’s astonishingly crappy work as it digs a deep scar across our land, causing landslides from deforested slopes and contaminating our water supply. The project has already racked up over 300 water quality violations and paid over $2.15 million in penalties in Virginia alone. Sediment from construction has already polluted our water and threatened two species of endangered fish, and muddy run-off will continue to be a problem in the porous karst geology here vulnerable to pollution. Then there is the way the pipe coating has been corroded by UV rays and — not to mention the risks posed by the seismic zone we live in. This pipeline is an accident waiting to happen.
To mobilize my neighbors, I help organize community get-togethers, which we call Circles of Protection. I also go door to door as part of a team conducting a survey that documents the way the pipeline would harm folks already overburdened by pollution. We’re working to establish that the working people of Elliston – mainly white, and some Latinx – should be protected by Virginia’s new environmental justice legislation, as two largely Black communities elsewhere in the state already have been.
I spend a lot of time correcting misperceptions willfully disseminated by MVP. A man once told me there had been a 50 percent increase in local employment due to the pipeline. This is simply not true. Almost all the pipeline workers are from out of state. If there’s one thing we know how to do here in Appalachia it’s use a chainsaw, but even the tree-fellers hired by MVP are from Montana! Maybe the waitress is earning extra in tips, but all that’s happening to most working folks – such as my friend at the gas station – is that they’re working harder for exactly the same salary.
I also spend time, as an older member of the movement, supporting the brave young people who put their bodies on the line. These kids sit peacefully in trees or at a construction site to help protect us, and then the courts give them outrageously long jail sentences – sometimes on charges of terrorism, which is ridiculous. In the meantime, MVP breaks the law 300 times and what do they get? A free pass, if Democrats go along with Manchin. I even took a turn sitting in a tree myself, for several days, to prevent the pipeline from coming through. We protected the trees and water of Yellow Finch for 932 days.
I work long hours, and I have a kid at home; I also don’t have a reliable means of transportation. My ability to participate in national or even state-level government is limited. But I’m fortunate that I can listen in while mopping floors or cleaning bathrooms. My ear-pods connect me to the struggle. In January, I was tuned in to news about a judgment from the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond. The judges ruled that, in granting MVP a permit, federal agencies had “erroneously failed to account for real-world data suggesting increased sedimentation” that would make our water unusable.
That phrase has hit me again in recent weeks. We on the frontline are the folks who collect the “real world data” that allows not only the courts to rule fairly, but helps our allies at the national level make their arguments about the dangers of the fossil fuel industry. Our lives, our health, our well-being, our families, our land: we actually are the “real world data.” Listening in on my ear-pods while I clean, hearing the way our supposed allies are cheering the new legislation because it reduces emissions overall, I wonder if they understand that the people near fossil fuel infrastructure such as MVP are still going to get sick? Do they not realize that we’re the ones who’ve been holding the line?
One of Manchin’s demands, according to the summary going around, is that Congress “give the DC Circuit jurisdiction over any further litigation.” This is because he believes the Fourth Circuit Court is biased against MVP. When a man locked himself to a pipe truck as part of our campaign to obstruct the pipeline, he was charged with a felony, denied bail, and spent five days in jail. But when MVP executives don’t like what justice has served them they just change courts, with the help of their politician buddies. Please make it make sense.
It makes me think of my own family’s experience with the justice system: the way I watched my then-partner, a Black man, get a heavy fine for rolling through a stop sign when the white guy who appeared just before him was excused for exactly the same violation. Later my partner was given a ten-year prison sentence for possession of a substance that is now legal in our state, leaving me to raise our six-year-old daughter alone. They sent him to serve time out of state – too far for me to visit on weekends, given my means.
I felt shame at the time, for not being a better partner, rather than anger at the system. This reminds me of the way so many in my community have just given up, over MVP: “Big money always wins.” I hear that a lot. I see a connection between what happened to my family, and what the side deal would do to frontline communities: an injustice that makes you feel you deserve no better. When I was in court the day my partner was fined for that traffic violation, I started running my mouth. But he shushed me: as a Black man he knew that if he didn’t keep quiet, things would be worse. The voice I have found in the environmental justice movement has led me to see that it needn’t be so.
If Democrats give Manchin his pipeline and gut environmental legislation, it’s not just wrong morally, but strategically, too. In the work we do here against MVP we are the national movement’s eyes and ears on the ground. We are the bodies on the ground, too – or up a tree. Think about it: we are the ones who slowed the pipeline down enough for it to be a bargaining chip in Joe Manchin’s dark power game in the first place! The folks at the national level could not have won what’s in the IRA without us, and they won’t make progress, going forward, unless they remain in alliance with us – and unless we remain motivated to work with them.
When we spend time fighting to stop the pipeline, and therefore to reduce greenhouse gasses, we are fighting not only for our families, but for yours, too – at the expense of time we would prefer to spend at home with our loved ones. We fear for what the future will bring, as do you. But we are already fighting for things that matter to us right now – our families and our health, our farmlands and clean water and fresh air.
I have been moved to write this Dispatch because the climate movement cannot afford for us to be disheartened, here on the frontline, by the weasel words of a Congressional side deal. The only way we are going to fight the climate emergency successfully is through honoring this budding alliance between frontline communities like mine, and the folks who make and influence policy at the national level.
Two fears keep me up these hot late-summer nights. The first is that if the side-deal Manchin has demanded is accepted, this climate alliance will be fatally compromised. And the second is that if MVP goes into operation despite the company’s incompetence, there will be disaster and death along its path.
It’s not too late to reject this dirty side deal, but Appalachians are going to need y’all to make some noise for us. Tell your Congresspeople that we’ve got to fight the climate emergency both with the big plans of the Inflation Reduction Act and in solidarity with the people on the front lines who experience and document fossil fuel damages. To privilege one over the other would be catastrophic.
Crystal Mello has recently been appointed an Equation Campaign Fellow to serve as a community organizer for POWHR (Protect Our Water, Heritage, Rights), a grassroots movement in Virginia and West Virginia.
This dispatch originally appeared in The Nation.
Thanks for reading Dispatches from the Frontlines! Subscribe for free to receive new Dispatches every month.