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Pipeline Outrage Is a Human Issue, Not a Political Issue

The fight against pipelines can unite progressives and libertarians, city folk and country folk.

Red Terry at a pipeline protest in Waynesboro, Virginia (Photo: WHSV.com)

Red Terry at a pipeline protest in Waynesboro, Virginia (Photo: WHSV.com)

I almost cried at a press conference, watching a mother and her grown daughter explain the dramatic lengths they’d gone through to protect their property in Southwest Virginia’s Bent Mountain from the Mountain Valley pipeline.

If the pipeline is constructed, it will transport fracked natural gas from West Virginia to Virginia and perhaps North Carolina.

Much to the Terrys’ outrage, their land is on the route — and eminent domain is forcing them to allow their land and trees to be destroyed, including a 100-year-old apple orchard. The pipeline will also cross their creek 23 times, threatening both erosion and groundwater pollution.

Theresa “Red” Terry, her husband, and two children went through all proper channels to try and stop it. Paperwork didn’t work. Speaking out didn’t work. Trees were about to be cut down. Their last line of defense was their physical bodies.

The Terry land has been in the family for seven generations. It’s the children’s birthright. The land should go to them, not the government — and certainly not to a private corporation that wants to make money off fracked natural gas.

So when nothing else worked, the Terrys built wooden platforms in two trees. 61-year-old Red and her 30-year-old daughter Minor lived in these “tree-sits” for 34 days, not touching ground, defending their property by putting their bodies between bulldozers and their trees.

The two men in their family, Red’s husband and son, also joined the fight, but stayed on the ground as ambassadors. The family’s protest is completely nonviolent.

Though this story focuses on a Virginia case, oil and natural gas pipelines are a national concern. About 60 different pipelines are currently pending across the country.

Here’s what I learned from the Terry women.

This isn’t a Democratic issue, or even just an environmental issue. In fact, pipeline outrage can unite progressives and libertarians, city folk and country folk.

Why? Because pipelines go through private property, knocking down trees, destroying the land, and crossing streams. And when corporations claim eminent domain, private landowners don’t get a choice. (See why conservatives get riled up just as much as liberals?)

And, across the political spectrum, we all care about clean drinking water. We all care about our children’s health. Beyond the very real concerns of climate change and the pressing need to invest in renewable fuels instead of natural gas, pipelines pose additional, immediate health risks.

Rural communities are most directly affected. Pipelines harm drinking water, leak natural gas into the air, and create other health hazards, particularly for kids.

And that’s the best case scenario. What if there’s a leak? Or an explosion?

Opposing pipelines isn’t a political issue. It’s a human issue.

After 34 days, the Terry women were forced to come down from the trees after a judge threatened them with fines of $1,000 a day (to go directly to the pipeline). Almost immediately, workers cut down many trees — more even than was allowed — including their 100-year-old apple orchard. Still, the family continues to fight.

Because of the Terrys and other “tree-sitters” in Southwest Virginia, this case is getting leaders’ attention. This pipeline could be stopped.

Like in New York in 2017, when the state refused to sanction a pipeline approved by the federal government (and the supreme court chose to stay out of the fight). Or like in March, when Pennsylvania shut down a pipeline due to safety concerns.

In Virginia, many state legislators are getting directly involved in the Mountain Valley Pipeline case, and the state water board has opened the door for more review. On May 15, a federal appeals court even struck down a key permit for another pipeline planned to run through Virginia, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which could halt construction.

The Terry women may have come down from the trees. But the fight has just begun.

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Norah Vawter

Norah Vawter is a freelance writer living in Northern Virginia.

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