By Jennifer Lewis

Lewis is president and founder of Friends of Augusta. She lives in Waynesboro.

Virginia’s pipeline industry has a troubling record of putting profit before people, a practice that becomes more dire in the face of the COVID-19 outbreak. While many Virginians are taking important steps to slow the spread of coronavirus, either by staying home or working essential jobs to provide us all with the care and resources we need during this difficult time, some companies are still jeopardizing community health by sending workers out to do dangerous, non-essential labor. This includes the fossil fuel industry, which has deemed the construction of polluting, unpopular, unnecessary pipelines more important than the health or safety of workers, workers’ families, and ultimately, all of us.

Already, an important coalition of groups has called on Governor Northam to halt construction and the permit approval process for pipelines and compressor stations until the COVID-19 pandemic is under control. Currently, the Transco Southeastern Trail Expansion in Northern Virginia and the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) in Southwest are still building as usual, yet the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has suspended field work. Why are these projects resuming business as usual when DEQ surveyors and inspectors are indefinitely withheld? On top of that, MVP is planning to bring out-of-state workers posing a huge public health risk to nearby communities.

Any argument that pipeline construction is “essential” labor falls flat upon further investigation. Most of the gas from these pipelines or compressor stations isn’t consumed in Virginia, but is exported overseas. Companies will try to argue that they somehow serve the public good in Virginia, but there is no evidence for that, and this argument exists only to conceal the profit motive.

Given that this labor is non-essential, construction crews must be sent home. While at work, they risk exposure to COVID-19, which they then take home to their families and loved ones. This reckless violation of present social distancing recommendations flies in the face of CDC advisories, and is offensive to the efforts and sacrifices Virginians are making to keep their families and communities safe.

Virginia’s brave EMTs, firefighters, healthcare professionals, and other first responders are already strained by the number of coronavirus cases cropping up in Virginia. Emergency response preparedness needs to go towards coronavirus healthcare needs at this moment. We simply do not have the capacity to prepare for a pipeline accident right now, even though they happen frequently. Any first responders dispatched to the situation would be putting themselves at the risk of contracting COVID-19, and resources would be pulled away from the coronavirus response. We cannot afford this and Governor Northam knows that.

Although we may fight hard against these disastrous pipelines, we stand with the workers who build them and believe they deserve just compensation. Fortunately, the pipeline’s parent companies are more than equipped to pay workers even while construction is halted — Dominion, for instance, brought home 277 million in excess profits in 2018. Surely, they can take care of their workers in the interim.

If Governor Northam wants to keep Virginians safe and slow the spread of COVID-19, he will use his executive power to halt all construction of fracked gas pipelines and compressor stations immediately.

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