A Landmark Environmental Precedent Was Just Set in Virginia

I recognized the older woman immediately as she stood up to address the six members of the Virginia Air Pollution Board gathered at the Pittsylvania County Hall in Chatham, Va., on December 3 last year. A month before, she’d attended a story-telling workshop I ran, where we trained members of the community how to resist the laying of the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) Southgate through our lands by telling the stories of their own lives. She had sat quietly, taking it all in, and now here she was at the hearing, dressed in that way of Southern women when they went to church.

“I wasn’t going to speak, but I have found the courage,” the woman said. “I suffer from asthma, and it’s bad enough with the two compressor stations already in Chatham. I don’t believe I would be able to breathe at all, with a third.” The hearing was about the proposed Lambert Compressor Station that MVP planned to install as part of its Southgate Extension. This would carry fracked methane gas from the fracking fields of West Virginia across Virginia into North Carolina—right to the doorstep of my own home, along the Haw River in Mebane.

I am an enrolled member of the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation, with American Indian, Irish, and African blood in my veins. I was a Department of Defense intelligence analyst and a military wife. I first became aware of the effects of pollution through witnessing my own daughter’s struggles with asthma and auto-immune illnesses that the doctors told us were a direct result of where we had raised her—places like Fort Bragg housing complexes that were literally built on the trash laid down to solidify the swamp.

I recently learned the word otiwate, Lakota for “the place where your mother broke water.” I never understood why I had such a calling to return home. No matter where I was, I would have to come home annually to visit my family. Five years ago, I moved back permanently. I left a decent government job, a wonderful house, and big-city convenience, to raise my children with the values ​​my grandparents instilled in me. Returning to rural North Carolina, I became a councilwoman for my tribe, and this is how I found out about the MVP Southgate which threatens to run through many of our sacred burial sites—which the company describes as “piles of rock.”

In my own testimony before the Virginia Air Pollution Board last month, I called these pipeline permits a modern “Doctrine of Discovery” (the rationale for the European colonization of the Americas.) “We must be done dying for the benefit of industries,” I told the board. Referring to the two gas compressor stations that had been polluting Chatham’s air for 50 years, imposed on the community, as I put it, “during a time when intimidation tactics by the Klan would often stifle Black and Indigenous people, often making them accept whatever nasty environmental pollution was to happen,” I added: “No more. I am not taking this anymore. I refuse. Slow lynchings are devastating our Black, Brown, Indigenous, communities of color, and rural white farming communities.”

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