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Virginia Tech Appalachian studies professor Emily Satterwhite chained herself to a site excavator in protest against Mountain Valley Pipeline construction June 28, 2018, to bring attention to the Appalachian community.

“I have always admired the people who have stood up to power (against) corporations,” Satterwhite said. “When the fossil fuel industry announced an expansion into the county — where I live in Appalachia — I knew immediately that it was something I would have to take a stand against.”

At dawn, Satterwhite ascended into the morning air on top of Brush Mountain. A 30-foot construction excavator, which was owned by the Mountain Valley Pipeline, became the subject of Satterwhite’s protest where she demonstrated opposition to the project’s presence in Southwest Virginia. Determined to protect her Appalachian community, Satterwhite climbed the imposing structure to act as a physical barrier and delay construction. Satterwhite bound herself to the excavator’s hydraulic piston through a steel lockbox, known as a sleeping dragon, securing her forearms to the structure.  

“I wanted to block construction,” Satterwhite said. “I chose Brush Mountain because it’s so close to Blacksburg and Virginia Tech as this special, sacred place for us here. When they were using heavy equipment to degrade the ecosystem, I climbed an excavator and locked myself to it at dawn.”

“They are actually quite climbable,” Satterwhite said. Perched for 14 hours, she remained in the excavator despite pressure to remove herself from authorities. 

Satterwhite was confronted by state police during her demonstration and taken into custody.

According to The Roanoke Times, authorities met Satterwhite with aerial platforms and removed her bonds with a grinder shortly before arresting her for trespassing. Despite legal ramifications, Satterwhite vocalized her and her community’s opinions toward the pipeline.

Banners surrounded Satterwhite saying, “Water is Life — we won’t back down,” to encourage the dismissal of the pipeline. 

Satterwhite noted that the multi-state project is “a crystallization of all the things that are wrong with our democratic and capitalist systems.” 

“It is not just about a not-in-my-backyard pipeline fight, it’s because the Mountain Valley Pipeline is such a good case study [on] how regulations fail the people and how the law authorities are forced to come on the side of corporations,” Satterwhite said.

The joint venture of Mountain Valley Pipeline LLC has collided with legal challenges amid multiple federal permits suspended by the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals which has significantly delayed the continuation of the pipeline.  

According to the Richmond-Times Dispatch, construction in some stretches ceased due to the recent pending lawsuit filed by the Sierra Club, an environmental activist group, in October 2019. Concerns over pipeline impacts on endangered species in Southwest Virginia as well as sedimentation and erosion in the Jefferson National Forest have been at the forefront of legal roadblocks. 

Satterwhite began opposition efforts against the pipeline after witnessing tree-sit-in blockades at the Jefferson National Forest during late February 2018. She started teaching herself about direct action and focused her energy toward fighting the pipeline in May 2018. 

Satterwhite’s demonstration was inspired by a collective opposition to the project. According to the Mountain Valley Pipeline website, construction began in February 2018 and is designed to span approximately 303 miles across Northwestern West Virginia and Southwest Virginia. Virginia counties covered by the pipeline comprise of Craig, Franklin, Giles, Montgomery, Pittsylvania and Roanoke.

Satterwhite received support from current and former Virginia Tech students, colleagues and New River Valley activists who were there at the scene. The professor acknowledged that her supporters who were “not in a position themselves to take that kind of risk to their future,” nevertheless demonstrated climate urgency by their physical presence. About 30 to 40 bystanders were present while law enforcement waited.

“There is not a true substance of public input,” said Russell Chisholm, vice coordinator of Preserve Giles County and co-chair of Protect Our Water, Heritage, Rights. “We carry all of the financial and social burden of the project.”

According to the Mountain Valley Pipeline website, the company provides a total of 34 jobs across the state of Virginia. The Pittsburgh-based company recruits a majority of their labor force from union-sourced, temporary workers which, in effect, provide limited job opportunities to the local community. Temporary employment for the New River Valley area may include tasks such as holding street signs and security.

Additionally, the potential for depressed real estate values, losses in tourism and high costs in water and sedimentation repair are some concerns New River share in the wake of the pipeline’s construction. 

“For me, that means I can never sell my land,” said Karolyn Givens, a Blacksburg resident and owner of a farm in Newport, Virginia. In 2018, construction for Mountain Valley began on Givens’ farm through the practice of eminent domain. 

Eminent domain is the acquisition of private land by the federal government for public use. According to the Mountain Valley Pipeline website, since October 2017, Mountain Valley has been able to enact eminent domain through the Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity granted by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

“It’s an issue that needs to be settled in court,” Givens said. “This abuse of eminent domain and using it for this purpose, it needs to be settled in court,”

With the pipeline bisecting Givens’ farm, Mountain Valley presence may alter her spring which runs underneath a nearby cave, a site that uses dynamite for path clearing. 

Additionally, Givens fears that the 42-inch-diameter pipe may destroy her vintage 1836 farmhouse amid a potential explosion during construction. 

“I don’t want Appalachia to become a graveyard of pipelines,” Chisholm said. “It’s other generations and people other than yourself that are going to have to pay the price.”

Original plans for the pipeline began in 2015 and accompanied with it massive community efforts to stop its path. Preserve Giles County, a citizen’s activist group based in Newport, Virginia, simultaneously began its grassroots campaign to oppose the pipeline and closely monitor Mountain Valley policies. 

“The biggest focus of our work all along has been to push back a deeply flawed regulatory process for these projects,” Chisholm said. “That means submitting technical comments toward regulatory agencies such as the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission as well as our state agencies like West Virginia’s Department of Environmental Protection and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.” 

Those against the Mountain Valley have also expressed aspirations for their home in Southwest Virginia. 

“My hope for Appalachia is a two-fold,” Satterwhite said. 

Both environmentally and economically, Satterwhite wants her Appalachian community to be fossil fuel independent while simultaneously providing alternative forms of employment to those reliant on gas companies for work. Satterwhite hopes this transition can be secured through concrete legislation from state politicians. 

“People recognize, as we were in the 1960s, we are in a historical moment that requires mass collective action,” Satterwhite said when asked about climate change and the urgency behind passing Green New Deal. 

Beyond her 2018 protest, Satterwhite continues to engage with the Virginia Tech population like the Appalachian Youth Climate Coalition and Virginia Tech for Climate Justice. 

“I think the message from Emily was very clear,” Chisholm said about Satterwhite’s June 2018 protest. “It was (like), I stand with my community. I stand in the way of harm and am not going to capitulate or facilitate further harm to my community (whether) here in these mountains or globally.”

A life built in Appalachia is a life worth preserving which Satterwhite has strongly proven. Her hope, as well as many others’, remains the same: for Mountain Valley Pipeline to leave and restore Southwest Virginia to its natural glory. 

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