Home Energy and Environment Thoughts on the Pipelines…and How to Disagree Respectfully

Thoughts on the Pipelines…and How to Disagree Respectfully

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By Carrie Pruett

Last month, the Virginia State Water Control Board (“the Water Board”) met to consider permits for two fracked-gas pipelines that would cross the Commonwealth. The Board chose to certify that the Mountain Valley Pipeline (“MVP”) would not violate Virginia’s water quality standards, while approving the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (“ACP”), subject to conditions which have the potential to delay the permits by 3 to 4 months. One Water Board member, curiously, split his vote, favoring approval of MVP but not ACP.

On January 4, 2018, the Richmond Times-Dispatch published a rather extraordinary letter from Mr. Wayland. (The paper dubbed him “Correspondent of the Day,” though it did not clearly identify him as a member of the Water Board.) Mr. Wayland did not take the opportunity to explain the rationale for his vote, but he did state that he was “personally sympathetic to several concerns about the pipelines.” He acknowledged that  opponents of the permits were “effective in leading the Water Board to adopt additional safeguards for aquatic resources,” presumably a reference to the conditions placed on ACP approval.  

However, the letter did not focus on the substance of the hearings, but on what Mr. Wayland called “schoolyard behavior” from attendees. As a person who has been active in the anti-pipeline movement, I agree that specific behaviors Wayland describes — trespassing on Board Members’ property, shouting implied threats — are unacceptable, while others — cursing, interrupting, and disruption of hearings — may be counterproductive.

Yet Mr. Wayland’s description implies that this behavior was typical of the attendees, going so far as to blame a culture of “political attack ads” and “social media” for what he views as unprecedented bad behavior.

I was not able to attend the December hearings, but I attended an ACP hearing in Farmville last summer and noted only one significant disruption, which was quickly resolved. I wondered what could account for a change in the atmosphere of the hearings, and so I asked Jessica Sims, a concerned citizen who took her own time to attend all four hearing days in December, to describe her experience.

Ms. Sims wrote:

Public participants were met with significant police presence in the parking lot and for those arriving ahead of the start time to secure a speaker slot, a wait outside the building. The public instructions for the events stated only those who had submitted public comments during the summer’s DEQ comment period would be allowed to speak and that we would be heard from in the order in which we signed up at the hearing. This format was not recognized once the first day of each hearing began. Speakers were made to state on their sign-up sheet if they were “for” or “against” the project and the DEQ alternated speakers, allowing those who had not waited in line to obtain early speaking slots.

The format of the proceedings set the tone and response from the audience. A large number of state and county police officers paced the meeting room, stared down at the audience from a second story balcony and peeked from behind doorways at those in attendance, many of whom had traveled hours from their homes in Western Virginia to attend. DEQ staffers were unable to explain who had requested the significant police presence. Private security agents for the applicants lined the seating area, directing significant attention to audience members. Private security agents took pictures of audience members and their vehicles.

This description corroborates Sharon Ponton’s contemporaneous account, published in December on Blue Virginia. Ms. Ponton noted that, during the MVP hearing, students were reprimanded for the “disruptive behavior” of snapping their fingers in solidarity with anti-pipeline speakers. This is a method of showing support that many groups have adopted precisely because it is less disruptive than cheering or applause.  Ms. Ponton also noted that one anti-pipeline speaker was escorted from the room simply for exceeding her three-minute time slot — a common infraction at every public meeting I’ve ever attended, and one usually remedied, at worst, by cutting the microphone off and summoning the next speaker.

Also in his letter, Mr. Wayland notes that the behaviors he condemns are “not substitutes for facts and evidence. This gives the impression that opponents of the permit, overall, did not produce factual testimony.

Ms. Sims’ account tells a different story:

In her presentations to the Board, Melanie Davenport of DEQ  admitted to a two year long series of meetings between pipeline applicants and DEQ Director David Paylor to secure “approval” for the MVP and ACP. She also indicated a mitigation plan had been discussed. The impression given by her presentation was that the DEQ had been working to support the projects, regardless of the 20,000+ comments against them, the significant problems with both submitted plans and the lack of reviewed and approved erosion, sediment and stormwater control plans.  Rather than providing significant critical analysis of the ability to provide “reasonable assurance” waterways in Virginia would not be affected, it appears DEQ was working to help the pipeline companies “get to yes.”

Public testimony was overwhelmingly against the projects. Speakers included soil experts, geologists, karst specialists and affected land and business owners along the path. They presented specific, detailed information that highlighted omissions in the DEQ’s review and summary of public comments, deficiencies in the information provided by applicants and thorough, scientific information about the effects land disturbance and tree removal would have on waterways. Topics not addressed by the DEQ, such as the acidity of Virginia’s soil, were included. Land and business owners along the MVP path  discussed their firsthand knowledge of the land, its fragile ecosystems and susceptibility to negative outside impacts.

Mr. Wayland also wants to make sure that people understand the role of the Water Board was “not to vote on whether the pipelines are a good idea,” but simply to vote on those matters under the purview of the Water Board. Curiously, the letter implies that only anti-permit speakers strayed from addressing the topic of the meeting.

In fact, Ms. Sims notes:

No speaker in support of the pipelines cited anecdotal evidence or scientific information that water quality would not be impacted. Instead, supporters consistently spoke off topic, against the instructions of the Water Board, to discuss alleged economic benefits of the projects. These comments came from those financially benefiting from the projects, including speakers from the companies already contracted to work as construction forces and in the case of the ACP hearing, from Dominion shareholders.

On the final day of the MVP hearings after a discussion session not audible to the public — both hearings included problems with the venue’s sound system, making it difficult for the audience to hear presentations and additionally, for Water Board members to hear comments from each other —  the Board voted 5-2 in favor of approving the water permit for the MVP. This left the audience and public to assume no amount of scientific data could move the opinions of the Board Members in favor and seemed to substantiate that the permit decision was pre-determined.

The ACP hearings had an increased police presence. The audience reacted negatively to speakers that were off topic who spoke of the economic benefits the ACP would allegedly bring. That topic was, per the Water Board, not permissible. Ultimately, the Board voted to approve the ACP permits, subject to conditions.

The hearings were consistent with the broader problems with the review process for the MVP and ACP. Public participation in this process was squelched by a limited number of public hearings, small window for public comments and hearings being held in locations difficult to attend. It is currently unclear and unannounced how the public will be able to review and comment on the erosion, sediment and stormwater plans for the ACP. As a public participant in this process, it was discouraging to be met with a large police presence, a format altered upon arrival, procedural confusion from the SWCB and ultimately, approval of both projects.

Given this greater context, it seems odd that Mr. Wayland chose to focus his letter on nebulously described schoolyard behavior and “bullying” from attendees. We all wish for more civility in public discourse, but it is unclear how members of the public who attend a hearing can be guilty of “bullying,” when the  government-sanctioned officials, from police to agency representatives to Water Board members, have all the power in the room.

Yes, overzealous activists who approach a Board member’s personal residence are in the wrong. Yet, what are we to assume that the private security operatives of a wealthy energy company plan to do when they photograph the faces and license plates of citizens exercising their rights? If Mr. Wayland is truly concerned with civility and respect, he should not ignore the power dynamics that were at work during these hearings. This is not an excuse for those who behaved poorly, but it does begin to explain their frustration. The circumstances of the hearings, in which permit opponents were set up as adversaries to state officials, were not calculated to produce a harmonious outcome.

As a citizen who participated in the public comment process, I certainly appreciate Mr. Wayland’s volunteer service on the Water Board. Ms. Sims and I, along with other anti-pipeline activists, personally took the time to write to the Water Board office, thanking Mr. Wayland and the other members who voted against one or both permits. I regret that civil gestures such as these, along with peaceful protests and thoughtful testimony at the hearings, were overshadowed in Mr. Wayland’s mind by the negative behavior of a few.

By the same token, when Mr. Wayland chose to express himself in the newspaper, I wish he had taken the opportunity to acknowledge the complexity of the dynamics and the full spectrum of interaction between the Commonwealth and the public. The Water Board is made up of volunteers taking time out from their schedules, but this is also true of the citizens who attended the hearings. Public participation sometimes gets loud and raucous, but civility and respect do not operate as a one-way street.

The public process regarding these pipelines is not over, and I hope that participants on all sides will consider Mr. Wayland’s words: “Virginians can and should hold ourselves to the standards of dignity and thoughtful discourse that have made our commonwealth great.”