Pennants flutter above the rolling hills of Giles County; such banners often signal celebration. The Newport community, however, shows no joy — not beneath pipeline markers.
“Most of the holdouts (are) in the eastern part of the county, and I think that’s because of our connection to Newport and the value we feel it has,” said Donna Pitt, coordinator of Preserve Giles County.
The Greater Newport Rural Historic District, which encompasses the village of Newport and the Newport Historical District, is a well-loved part of Giles County. The district is home to members of Preserve Giles County and the Newport Citizens Pipeline Defense, an anti-pipeline organization focused on the preservation of the village — a designated path for the pipeline.
Pitt, who also sits on the executive committee for Protect Our Water, Heritage, Rights, lives a quarter mile from the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline route, originally set to go through the middle of her farm. That route changed due to the presence of nearby Tawney’s Cave and the bats that inhabit it.
When landowners under threat of eminent domain first received notice from Mountain Valley Pipeline that the pipeline would slice through their property, individuals began gathering email addresses and phone numbers in preparation for a meeting that predated the local organizations.
“That first group was maybe 20 people and it was those of us right around Newport who were actually on the pipeline route, and then it expanded from there. Particularly as the route changed, the group expanded,” Pitt said. “We have definitely gotten to know our neighbors a whole lot better.”
Those residents who previously had only been acquaintances now regularly say hello and chat on the phone. Love of the land, they have learned, has forged a common bond in the community that ranges from their personal property to the global climate.
An under-construction natural gas pipeline from northwestern West Virginia to southern Virginia, the Mountain Valley Pipeline consists of a 303-mile route that goes through rural Appalachia, a region subject to stereotyping and often underrepresented at state and national levels. The pipeline has the political support of Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., a decision by the longtime politician that has fostered white-hot anger from many of his constituents and their neighbors across the state line in Virginia. The pipeline, fraught with controversy, kicked into gear a host of heated discussions, particularly regarding the issues of property rights, ecological preservation and the age-old trend of neglect towards residents of Appalachia and their concerns.
A common sentiment amongst members of the anti-pipeline movements is that Mountain Valley Pipeline’s team did not engage in extensive research when planning its route. The angry residents use the caves as firsthand evidence, in addition to the ongoing struggle for MVP to get permits to cross streams along the route.
“I was outraged at this corporation’s assumption that they could come through poor Appalachian counties and they would not hit opposition,” Pitt said. “They did not know what they were getting into.”
Some members of anti-MVP groups along the route have experienced burnout in recent years, in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic and to the recent stalemate connected with the lack of permits that would enable the pipeline’s completion. Despite this, most groups remain active and working hard in their attempts to delay the pipeline.
“MVP has tried to forestall any kind of group activity. They really prefer to talk to individuals,” said Georgia Haverty, owner of Doe Creek Farm. “They try to divide people and say ‘Don’t talk to anybody; you can’t talk to anybody about this.’ We just ignore that.”
Despite efforts by MVP employees to keep the community divided on the issue of the pipeline, along with the natural divisions of Appalachian topography, the local movements continue their tireless march together toward defeating the pipeline. When asked how the fight would unfold if every individual forged ahead alone, Haverty said that they would be defeated.
Haverty said she has learned from the fight that her community’s efforts stem from more than a shared enemy, they share a love for one another as well as for the land.
“We’ve definitely become very close in this fight, and the fight has expanded from MVP to climate change and economic injustice,” Haverty said. “It’s a larger fight now; it’s the same MVP fight, but it’s broadened.”
Doe Creek Farm has an event venue, apple orchard and a restaurant with a view — interrupted by a long, unsightly swathe of the pipeline that slashes right through the property.
“The MVP directly impacts me. It is in the middle of my farm,” Haverty said. “I am in the blast zone, as (are) all of my businesses, and it’s taken 10 acres from me.”
From Doe Creek Farm, the pipeline snakes its way east over hill and dale.
“There’s a lot of issues out there we could have different opinions about, but this particular issue is simply so obvious,” said E. Scott Geller, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Virginia Tech. “It’s one we can all get behind and start talking about.”
Geller, who has lived in Newport for 50 years, is a member of Preserve Giles County. He has been involved with the local anti-MVP movements since the pipeline’s inception. With part of the pipeline construction taking place 200 yards from his property down the road from the locally famous Bald Knob, its proposed path in the early stages cut through his property. Like Pitt, the presence of a six-mile natural cave on his land necessitated a change to the route.
Geller has hosted tree sitters on his property who set up for long periods of time in trees to protest and prevent the risk of damaging the environment. According to a 2018 article from The Guardian, the practice gained popularity in the 1980s in opposition to old-growth clearcuts in the western part of the country. Natural resources, like forests and caves, serve as a driving force in the fight against the Mountain Valley Pipeline.
“Some of the people on our committee, their land was destroyed by the pipeline people — went right across their land — and even though the pipeline folks are willing to pay these people money, they realize it’s not about money,” Geller said. “It’s about our environment.”
Geller’s warmth toward other members of the local movements, who he refers to as the pipeline fighters, attests to the community that MVP’s actions unwittingly united.
“We developed a mutual purpose to try to stop this environmental, destructive thing,” Geller said, in addition to a description of his fellow fighters as dedicated, wonderful people.
At Preserve Giles County’s first official meeting, not all attendees knew one another. By the end of that meeting, the local citizens had forged lasting connections. Geller spoke specifically of Pitt and Rick Shingles, former coordinator of Preserve Giles County.
“They will always be on my list of special people,” Geller said.
Meetings of Preserve Giles County take place weekly at Newport-Mount Olivet United Methodist Church. Since the pandemic, meetings have been less frequent. However, the organization continues to meet the second and fourth Monday of every month, according to Preserve Giles County’s Facebook page, bolstered also by online communication.
Newport-Mount Olivet United Methodist Church, founded in 1850, has survived the Civil War, an earthquake in 1897, and a fire in 1902. If the pipeline’s route adheres to the proposed design and passes through the center of Newport, as is the current plan, the church will sit less than 500 feet from the pipeline. The blast zone of a potential Mountain Valley Pipeline explosion, according to an article by the Roanoke Times, is 1100 feet. With this essential part of Newport history in jeopardy, the community’s outrage fuels their ongoing fight.
“These people in Newport will always be my support group,” Geller said. “We’re neighbors; we’re neighbors in the little town of Newport.”
Geller’s energy for the fight against MVP stems not only from his devotion to the Newport community, but also to the university where he teaches, Virginia Tech, located 15 minutes from a pipeline site on Craig Creek Road near Pandapas Pond.
“Although we do have a sense of community more than most other universities, we are a society that’s become more self-serving these days, more win-lose selfish, because of politics, because of our culture,” Geller said. “We need to get back to that community — standing together to stop something as destructive as the pipeline.”
Calling the community’s six-year fight against the pipeline a success would be premature, but they refuse to cease their efforts.
“Maybe someday the people will wake up and realize that this can’t go on,” Geller said. “We have to save our environment — and yes, I won’t stop. As long as we have a possibility, we will keep going. We will.”
When asked how long he would keep fighting, Geller’s simple response joined a chorus heard through the hollers facing down the Mountain Valley Pipeline every day: “To the end.”