By Tom Ewing
Ewing teaches world history courses at Virginia Tech. He is working with graduate students to write a history of the Catawba Tuberculosis Sanatorium.
David Butterworth’s defense of the Mountain Valley Pipeline (“Pipeline protests are hurting workers,” Aug. 5 commentary) tears a destructive path through the truth in the same way that his beloved pipeline is destroying family farms, wooded hillsides, and mountain streams across Southwest Virginia. His misleading, false, and reckless criticism of protesters serves the interests of the corporate investors whose pursuit of profits ignores the realities of climate change, defies environmental standards, and endangers the citizens of Virginia.
At the core of the stop the pipeline protests is a recurring question in American — and especially Appalachian — labor activism: Which side are you on? In the midst of the Great Depression, Florence Reece was hiding in her Harlan, Kentucky home when sheriff’s deputies, working for coal mine owners, came to arrest her husband, a local union organizer. The next morning, she wrote the lyrics to what would become an anthem for generations of protestors taking a moral stand against corporate interests in pursuit of profit regardless of social cost.
Today, citizens of Southwest Virginia face the same question in dealing with the MVP: Which side are you on? Are you on the side of the profit-seeking corporations driving pipeline construction to extract fracked natural gas for international export? Or are you on the side of family farmers losing their livelihood, property owners watching their land being destroyed, and environmentalists concerned about the fate of our planet?
Protests against the pipeline are primarily motivated by the extraordinary danger posed by climate change. MVP is part of a fossil fuel extraction system that undeniably contributes to rising temperatures. This process, if left unmitigated, will continue to increase sea levels, exaggerate extreme weather, and create increasingly difficult living conditions around the world. Stopping the pipeline is a part of a much broader effort to finally come to terms with the fact that today’s actions will have dramatic — and potentially devastating — implications for the future of the planet. Butterworth obscures this reality when he mentions that the rainfall total for 2018 in the Roanoke Valley was the highest in recorded history, without recognizing that increased moisture is a documented result of global warming.
Butterworth’s distorted, exaggerated, and misleading descriptions of the non-violent actions taken by pipeline protesters invokes familiar themes for anyone who knows the history of activism dedicated to protecting basic human rights, especially in the American south. Defenders of segregation regularly blamed “outside agitators” for challenging Jim Crow laws and demanding recognition of civil rights. Pipeline protesters follow in a long tradition of building coalitions and uniting those determined to stop injustice and protect human rights. When pipeline builders deploy armed private security forces to intimidate those speaking out, they are following in the footsteps of the strike-breakers denounced in these lines from “Which Side Are You On?”: “Don’t scab for the bosses / Don’t listen to their lies / Us poor folks haven’t got a chance / Unless we organize.”
The urgency expressed in this short-sighted and self-serving article reflects an obvious fear that investors will flee from the pipeline project once they recognize that their desired profits are unlikely to exceed the increasing costs of construction. In an earnings call on July 30, 2019, the leaders of EQM Midstream Partners LP faced questions from investment agencies who cited “a lot of chatter in the marketplace” about whether EQT would “kind of walk away” from the MVP. Butterworth is clearly concerned that if EQM walks away from this project, members of his union will not be able to complete their work. This outcome seeks increasingly likely as state regulators finally recognize the environmental damage caused by this project. But if it comes to fruition, it will be the fault of corporate planners and project managers, not the protesters. If (or more likely, when) the MVP is abandoned, the bosses will return to their out-of-state headquarters, leaving local communities with nothing but scarred landscapes, devastated farmlands, silted streams, and abandoned pipes.
Everyone living in Southwest Virginia must ask this question: Are you on the side of an out-of-state corporation that’s destroying the local environment to serve the interests of investors, all while contributing to climate change? Or are you on the side of community members and environmental activists trying to stop this wanton act of destruction? I know which side I’m on — the side of those who protest, speak, pray, and even sing and dance in defense of trees, water, and people.