Gov. Northam

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam

Pipeline opponents gathered outside Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s office last week for an entire day to show the public they aren’t interested in violence but are interested in their voices being heard.

The event, called “Stop the Pipelines 24-hour Vigil for Justice” was held in front of Gov. Northam’s office in Richmond from March 27 to March 28 to protest the Mountain Valley Pipeline, LLC and the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, LLC.

Sharon Ponton, who works for the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League — a regional, community-based, nonprofit environmental organization — and lives in Nelson County, decided to organize a peaceful demonstration after she was upset by a public meeting with the Virginia State Water Control Board on March 1 in Chesterfield County.

“After the State Water Control Board meeting, I felt like the public was being ignored,” Ponton said.

Ponton attended the meeting with what she estimated to be about 100 other grassroots activists and landowners, including Nelson resident Sue Rucker. Rucker said when they arrived at the meeting they were met with around 41 Virginia State Police trooper vehicles as well as two SWAT team vehicles.

“They are either afraid of the people’s power or they want to intimidate us,” Ponton said.

Rucker said during the meeting, which was held to discuss if a water quality certification issued in December 2017 guaranteeing reasonable assurance water quality would be protected from the MVP could be revoked, there was no public hearing. In an email on April 1, Ponton said the meeting was supposed to be a public hearing, but instead the State Water Control Board held a closed session.

“Instead of holding a hearing, however, the [State Water Control Board] went into “executive session” for [four] hours, then came out and said after listening to legal advice from the [attorney general’s] office, they couldn’t revoke the permit and voted to abandon the revocation process,” Ponton said in an email on April 1.

After the meeting, Rucker and Ponton wanted to do something that would last longer and give pipeline opponents a chance to speak, as well as show the public they aren’t violent and the state troopers and SWAT teams weren’t necessary.

Rucker credits Ponton with spearheading the event.

“A prayerful, spiritual vigil is what I thought was appropriate to show we aren’t interested in hurting anyone, but we want to be respected and listened to,” Ponton said.

Together with individuals from groups like the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, the Virginia Pipeline Resistance, Friends of Nelson, Friends of Augusta, and many more, Ponton and Rucker estimate that between 50 and 60 people showed up in Richmond to protest the pipelines. Two more individuals from Nelson County, Frank McManus and Deborah Kushner, attended the vigil as well.

“A group of allies in Richmond that protest every week helped us organize,” Ponton said.

Ponton said litanies were read, prayers were said, and chants were sung. Four different packets were passed out covering the affect the pipelines have on different parts of the environment and the problems with the compressor station in Buckingham.

“Some landowners spoke, too,” Ponton said.

Over all, Ponton thought the 24-hour vigil went well despite some hostility from people who passed the group.

“People in Richmond cursed at us,” McManus said.

McManus said that was one reason it was important for him to be at the vigil: to try to open dialogue between people who are against the pipelines and people who aren’t

“It’s about more than property rights. We are facing a much bigger problem,” McManus said.

Rucker and Kushner said they attended the vigil and have been fighting the pipelines for years for a number of reasons, including the environmental racism issue they feel is at the heart of the both pipeline paths.

“The Governor is trying to make amends for missteps, but is doing everything he can to avoid environmental racism in Union Hill — the site of the proposed compressor station,” Kushner said. “He says he wants to do reconciliation tour, but he is just turning blind eye to the most egregious environmental racism.”

Union Hill is a historically black community and the site of Dominion Energy’s proposed natural-gas compressor station, which would serve the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline, LLC.The four Nelson residents said they thought, overall, the event was positive.

“We feel a tiny bit of hope,” Rucker said.

After the group had endured the cold, Ponton said they submitted the packets to the governor’s mansion hoping he, as well as Attorney General Mark Herring, would read everything and a dialogue would open between state officials and pipeline opponents.

“The vigil was very successful,” Ponton said.

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Erin Conway covers Nelson County. Reach her at (434) 385-5524 or econway@newsadvance.com.

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