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* * Emily’s resist

The first thing you think when you sit down with Emily Satterwhite, the woman who chained herself onto a piece of pipeline construction equipment for 14 hours on the Mountain Valley Pipeline corridor last month, is that she doesn’t fit the look, the stereotype, of an eco-warrior. She’s a tall, thin, light-complected woman with a gentle demeanor, comfortable in business/professional attire, an associate professor at Virginia Tech for 13 years. But her apparent equanimity belies a steely resolve.

We sat to chat on an outdoor bench in downtown Blacksburg, safely in the shade, as she said, “I got enough sun in those 14 hours to last all summer!

“Citizens from around the area went through all the regulatory and legal processes to protest this project,” she said, “and we failed. The system has failed us. The MVP is being built and nobody wants it or needs it other than investors.”

It passes through four Virginia counties – Giles, Montgomery, Roanoke, and Franklin – and all their boards of supervisors, plus the town of Blacksburg, passed resolutions against it. To deaf ears.

“I had participated in rallies, protests and marches before,” she admitted, “but had never deliberately undertaken illegal direct action as a means of exercising my First Amendment rights. What led to my decision was my alarm that the fight against it, and the numerous filings of violations of water quality violations, had generated no response from the state DEQ (Department of Environmental Quality). The state Water Control Board didn’t even seem to know there had been 20 citizen-documented violations of the permit they approved.”

I said the whole process seemed surreal to me. Meeting after meeting presented sentiments and votes against construction, and then if by magic it got approved and moved forward anyway.

She and her family have not been directly affected, like Peter Montgomery whose story I wrote about a few weeks ago here. But, “The pipeline route is about 5 miles from downtown Blacksburg, and if it blew up, it would be devastating.”

The possibility isn’t remote. A newly constructed 36” pipeline blew up in northern West Virginia last January. The MVP is 36% larger by volume. Luckily, nobody was killed, but, she said, “Even the company admits that a swath as wide as three football fields would be incinerated. It may be as much as 2 or 2.5 miles in the incineration zone.

“We understand that there is an 80% chance that it will blow rather than merely leak when it fails. And newer pipelines have been more likely to fail.”

Residents and neighbors along its path face the immediate nightmare of construction noise, pollution, and lifestyle disruption. Ongoing is diminished property values, diminished stream and drinking water quality, soil erosion and sedimentation, and then there’s the constant real fear of being incinerated in an explosion or resulting forest fire, either through shoddy workmanship, earthquake, or terrorism. Remediating drinking water quality and enhancing emergency services falls to us taxpayers while the investors reap the benefits.

“The DEQ, the State Water Control Board, and Governor Northam have the power to stop the pipeline and should stop the pipeline because that is what is in the best interest of Virginians.”

Emily decided to take direct action. She climbed upon an earthmover and chained herself to it.

“I have been an advocate for Appalachia for decades now. I have watched as mountaintop removal mining has blasted the (coal) region to smithereens. It’s been not only the mountains and water and lives, but the corruption of democracy that has been devastating. While I was earning my PhD and raising my daughter, it was frustrating not to be on the front lines. Now was the time not just to talk the talk, but to walk the walk. I needed to show how strongly I believe that this is wrong on every level. So I chained myself to an earthmover.

“I’m in trouble. I face two misdemeanor charges, each with a potential for $2500 fine and a year in jail. If I spend much time in jail and can’t do my job, I could risk (losing) tenure and be fired. I’m generally a rule follower. But I’m at a point where I think we can’t continue to go ‘business as usual’ and keep our heads down. Otherwise all is lost.

“Friends through all walks of life and co-workers in many disciplines at Tech have been mostly supportive. I hope it inspires more people to show up. I would like to see other people at the construction route saying, ‘This is wrong; it is not okay with me.’ It’s a travesty in our own back yards and it deserves attention and action.”

Emily has obtained legal representation and has a court date in August. My guess is that we’ve not seen the end of her activism.


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