by Jonathan Sokolow
On Sunday, July 5, Dominion Energy announced that it was abandoning its plan to build the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Rejoicing does not even begin to capture the joy felt by those of us who have been deeply involved in this David-vs.-Goliath battle for environmental justice and a sane energy policy.
This victory was made possible by every frontline community, every ally, every crusading lawyer, every legislator, every organization, every activist that made the decision to fight this corporate boondoggle – and to stick with it for six long years of pitched battles, some victorious, many not.
Ordinary people signed petitions, went to rallies and wrote letters to the editor. When the Virginia State Water Control Board held meetings, thousands of people filed comments. Their voices were ignored – or so it seemed.
When the Virginia Air Pollution Control Board convened to consider a permit for a massive ACP compressor station in the middle of the historic African American community of Union Hill, thousands more filed comments – not by accident but because they were organized. And then they showed up at meetings – again and again and again. Dominion was forced to deny reality, insisting that Union Hill was not an African American community. A door-to-door survey proved not only was the community more than 80% African American, but that more than 60% were direct descendants of the enslaved people who worked the plantation that was present on the site.
A mass movement, national in scope, was created based on a simple idea: We all breathe air. We all drink water. #WeAreAllUnionHill. Rev. William Barber II and former Vice President Al Gore lent their support in a big way, coming to Union Hill for a huge rally in February 2019. Another large rally was held in Richmond, featuring Rev Barber’s son, William Barber III and Karenna Gore, daughter of the Vice President.
The Governor of Virginia, always happy to do Dominion’s bidding, was forced to rig the Air Board vote to ensure that the permit would be approved. That just made matters worse – for Dominion. Prominent civil rights organizations, including the NAACP and the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, took up the cause of Union Hill – and by extension the fight to stop the ACP. Briefs were filed in the federal courts, including by 28 members of the Virginia General Assembly.
In January, Dominion’s effort to build the Union Hill compressor station ended in failure when the federal court threw out the permit. The environmental racism of the whole undertaking was now exposed for all to see. And yet Dominion arrogantly continued, vowing to get a new permit from the Department of Environmental Quality.
It turned out that Dominion was all bark and no bite.
The movement – and it was every bit of that, an organized MOVEMENT – took on not just Dominion and its corporate partner in crime, Duke Energy, but also the political establishment in Virginia, which for far too long has done Dominion’s dirty work.
We were told you can’t fight the power.
We were told we could not win.
We were told the pipeline was inevitable.
In fact, many people were under the impression that the pipeline was already built. Such was the power of Dominion’s megaphone. Like all tyrants, Dominion benefitted from keeping people uninformed and misinformed.
Or so they thought.
In the end, Dominion announced its defeat in the mother of all weekend news dumps. It was a Sunday. July 5. During a three-day weekend. In the middle of summer.
Dominion’s cowardly “you win” moment was a pathetic attempt to save itself some embarrassment – and to cushion the hit it would take in the stock market. On both counts, it was an epic failure.
As I have pondered the meaning of this great victory for social justice in Virginia, I keep coming back to the words of Frederick Douglass. In 1857, less than four years before the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter, Douglass gave a speech that has been a North Star for every righteous struggle since. Every last word applies to the now successful fight to stop the Atlantic Coast Pipeline:
Let me give you a word of the philosophy of reform. The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle. The conflict has been exciting, agitating, all-absorbing, and for the time being, putting all other tumults to silence. It must do this or it does nothing. If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.
This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress…. Men may not get all they pay for in this world, but they must certainly pay for all they get. If we ever get free from the oppressions and wrongs heaped upon us, we must pay for their removal.
So the next time you see injustice in your community and someone tells you there’s no use fighting, tell them how Dominion was taken down against all odds.
The next time a politician tells you there’s nothing they can do about “it,” remind them of what happened on July 5, 2020.
A great place to start would be to take action today, right now, to stop the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP). Sign this petition, then post it on social media and ask all of your friends to sign.
Because as bad as the ACP was, MVP in many ways is even worse. The federal courts have thrown out multiple federal permits. The Commonwealth of Virginia sued MVP for more than 300 violations of Virginia law, fined the company more than $2 million and is in the process of assessing more fines for additional violations.
And when you speak up to stop the MVP, don’t be surprised if someone says you can’t fight the power. Or you read an article that says you can’t win. Or an editorial that says the pipeline is inevitable, it’s a done deal.
We’ve been here before.
We all breathe air.
We all drink water.