BENT MOUNTAIN, Virginia – Much has been written about the climate bill signed by President Biden yesterday and the compromise that Congressional Democrats reached with Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia to win his vote by accelerating a stalled gas pipeline project.
But nothing has been said about Fred Vest, who owned a farm directly in the path of the Mountain Valley Pipeline.
Vest, 75, was a Vietnam veteran. After he returned from the war in 1971, he was hospitalized for depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. But what healed his mind and turned his life around, according to his daughter, was the peace and solace of escaping into the pristine Appalachian forests of Bent Mountain, south of Roanoke, Virginia.
Vest bought 88 acres on the mountain in 1972 and moved into a 1930’s-era farmhouse with a wide porch next to a pond surrounded by woods. “He considered this his sanctuary, his piece of heaven,” said his daughter, Aimee Hamm.
All that changed about eight years ago. Mountain Valley Pipeline LLC, a Pennsylvania-based company, filed a federal lawsuit against Vest and 300 neighbors to “quick take” their land and obtain easements to build a 303-mile long, 42-inch natural gas pipeline from the shale fields of West Virginia to a connector pipe in Southeastern Virginia.
Vest refused to accept a $55,000 payment for access to his land. At one point, he even called the police on surveyors who walked onto this land without permission. The police served arrest warrants on the four surveyors, who had to appear in court. But the local judge dismissed the charges, saying they were working in good faith. In retaliation, the pipeline company slapped Vest with a $25,000 lawsuit.
Vest and a handful of neighbors remained holdouts, defending Bent Mountain with everything they had. But in the end, a federal judge granted Mountain Valley Pipeline LLC permission to use almost five acres on Vest’s farm. Workers clear cut all the trees from a forested ridge above his home in 2018. Then heavy earthmoving equipment rumbled in. The trauma and stress reminded Vest of the violence of war, his daughter recalled.
“He felt totally invaded, like he was going back to Vietnam,” Hamm said. “He said the Mountain Valley Pipeline was the equivalent of that war all over again. But this time, he had his hands tied behind his back, and he felt totally helpless. That’s when he suffered his first stroke.”
After being hospitalized for the stroke, Vest returned home to truck traffic and blasting at a construction site on his property. During a shattering month in July 2021, workers repeatedly detonated explosives to blast through rock on the ridge above his home and flatten a route for the pipeline. Vest suffered a second stroke and died on Sept. 25, 2021. “The windows of his home shook from all the blasting," his daughter said. “Dad had to witness his farm being destroyed, and he never got his day in court. That’s what’s tragic.”
For a while, the pipeline also seemingly died, or at least suffered injuries that stopped its march.
A coalition of environmental groups, including Appalachian Voices, Wild Virginia, Preserve Bent Mountain, and the Sierra Club, filed several lawsuits to challenge approvals of the company’s federal Clean Water Act permits to cross rivers and streams, as well as over other environmental issues. The path of the pipeline and related projects crosses streams, rivers, and other water bodies in 1,146 places across three states and would disrupt almost 28 acres of wetlands during construction, and destroy almost nine acres permanently, according to an examination of public records by Oil & Gas Watch.
The courts ruled in favor of the environmental groups, including by halting wetlands permits issued by the Army Corps of Engineers. The courts also stopped approvals under the Endangered Species Act and authorizations to cross the Thomas Jefferson National Forest. As a result, for much of the last year, large segments of pipe have been lying idle on abandoned construction sites on Bent Mountain.
“The continued legal and regulatory challenges have resulted in a very low probability of pipeline completion,” a major partner in the Mountain Valley Pipeline, NextEra Energy, said in its annual 10-K report to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission on Dec. 31,2021.
Then, political negotiations in Washington D.C. breathed a second life into the dead pipeline.
Senator Manchin, whose state produced 2.7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in 2021, has received $59,350 in campaign contributions from NextEra Energy over the last five years, as well as $886,917 from the oil and gas industry more broadly, according to campaign contribution records compiled by OpenSecrets.org.
Manchin is a critical swing vote in a divided Senate. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer was eager to win Manchin’s vote on the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, which features historic measures to fight climate change. As part of negotiations to get Manchin’s vote, Manchin convinced Schumer and Senate Democrats to also agree to favorably consider separate legislation as part of a side deal, according to a memo released by Manchin’s office.
The Manchin memo says that Democrats must: “Complete the Mountain Valley Pipeline. Require the relevant agencies to take all necessary actions to permit the construction and operation of the Mountain Valley Pipeline.”
How does the family of Fred Vest feel about the pipeline's resurrection?
“We have felt betrayed from the get-go,” his daughter, Aimee Hamm, said. “There is no one here who is representing us. The politicians don’t care. Unless you have lived it, you don’t realize the negative impact that eminent domain laws can have on your life.”
Also in the Manchin memo are provisions saying that Democratic leaders in Congress have agreed to consider legislation – not yet introduced -- that would speed environmental permitting and reviews of other pipelines and major development projects across the U.S.
Because the Mountain Valley Pipeline project has been stymied by decisions by judges in the Richmond-based U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, Manchin’s deal would seek to force a change to which courts oversee permitting decisions in the case, moving jurisdiction to the D.C. Circuit Court.
Roberta Bondurant is co-chair of an advocacy organization called Protect Our Water Heritage Rights (POWHR), a coalition of 14 local environmental groups that has been fighting the Mountain Valley Pipeline.
“Any legislator who is considering a bill that would erase or cripple environmental permitting requirements needs to think about what damage this will cause for clean air, clean water and human health,” Bondurant said.
Grace Tuttle, Development and Programs Coordinator of POWHR, said: “Here in Appalachia, we refuse to be sacrificed for political gain or used as concessions to the fossil fuel industry in this so-called deal.”
The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 passed the Senate by a vote of 51-50 on Aug. 7, the House by 220 to 207 on Aug. 12, and was signed by President Biden yesterday. The law offers incentives to clean energy with the goal of cutting U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent by 2030. The legislation offers consumers $7,500 tax credits to buy electric cars and provides subsidies for solar panels and wind turbines, along many other provisions, including language intended to lower drug prices and raise taxes on big corporations. The bill also directs the federal government to offer more oil and gas drilling leases in the Gulf of Mexico and allow more drilling on government land in the West.
“For years, many in Washington have promised to address some of the biggest challenges facing our nation, only to fall short,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. “Many have talked about the need to act on climate change… But when previous efforts have fallen short, this Senate majority is on the verge of succeeding.”
Manchin, who has earned millions from the coal industry and represents a fossil-fuel state, was unapologetic that the legislation will encourage more fossil fuel production.
“If you think of what’s in this bill, we’re going to get more energy production,” Manchin said in an interview with MSNBC. “We’re going to produce more oil, we’re going to make more gasoline, so we have more supply to bring the prices down. By building more pipelines, we will bring our energy prices down. Energy has been driving inflation.”
The Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) company said in statement on its website: “MVP is being recognized as a critical infrastructure project that is essential for our nation’s energy security, energy reliability, and ability to effectively transition to a lower-carbon future… Increased use of natural gas has played an important role in our country’s efforts to lower carbon emissions.”
Oil Change International, a nonprofit advocacy organization, estimates that the pipeline would release over 89 million tons of greenhouse gases per year, the equivalent of 19 million passenger vehicles, when downstream and indirect impacts are taken into account.
In terms of the pipeline’s impact on the local environment in Virginia, in 2019, the Mountain Valley Pipeline company agreed to pay a $2.1 million penalty for damage caused by more than 300 water pollution violations of rules meant to curb erosion and sedimentation of rivers and streams, according to a consent decree that ended a lawsuit filed by the Virginia Attorney General’s Office.
Brett Hartl, Director of Government Affairs for the Center for Biological Diversity, said it is hard to tell if the Manchin pipeline side deal will ever become legislation or pass. This is because neither Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, nor House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, nor President Joe Biden – all of whom would have to sign off on the legislation – have made any public statements about what Democrats privately promised to secure Manchin’s vote on the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022.
“Just reading it (the Manchin side deal memo), it looks like large parts of it was written by the fossil fuel industry, and probably by the Mountain Valley Pipeline company itself, because it is directly related to the pipeline’s losses in court,” Hartl said.
David Sligh, Conservation Director of Wild Virginia, said he's skeptical that Democrats in the Senate, House and White House will – in the end-- vote separately to approve Manchin’s pipeline deal. This is because the deal seems designed to leapfrog longstanding administrative review and approval processes for development projects, processes that have been established for a half century in the federal Clean Water Act and other environmental laws.
“It would be pretty extraordinary if they skipped over all these landmark environmental laws for some sweetheart deal,” Sligh said. “It would be outrageous, a betrayal of how the system is designed to work.”
On a recent afternoon, a neighbor of the Vest family, Robin Austin, showed a visitor the pipeline construction site. No trucks or workers were there. Amid the sounds of crickets, segments of 42-inch pipe, as long as rail cars and painted green, lay like pieces of a chopped-up snake in a muddy, rutted strip. Bulldozers had plowed a highway through the rolling farmland.
“This used to be a beautiful pasture,” she said, looking at a 20-foot pile of dirt and its eroding slope. “They blasted and clear cut this whole area, almost like mountaintop removal mining,” she said, shaking her head.
Meanwhile, not far away on the Vest family farm, Aimee Hamm held a picture of her dad, when he was a handsome young man in uniform before the Vietnam War. With tears in her eyes, she glanced at the ridgeline above his home.
“It’s criminal, what they do,” Hamm said. “This privately-owned pipeline company, building privately-owned infrastructure, can come in and just bulldoze its way through your life. My father felt this was the second time the government betrayed him, when they let this happen. The first time was when they drafted him into Vietnam. The second time was when a federal judge approved the taking of his land.”
UPDATES: On May 27, 2023, President Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy agreed to legislation that would expedite construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline as part of a bill to lift the federal debt ceiling, which then passed Congress. But then on July 12, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, in Richmond, halted the pipeline project, triggering an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court from the developer of the project.