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The Atlantic Coast Pipeline Battle Is About People, Not Precedent

The rural, Native, Black, and Latinx communities protesting the controversial pipeline deserve clean, safe places to call home.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Decision day at the Supreme Court on Monday brought joy and justice for the LGBT community. But it also handed severe setbacks to others—specifically, the Appalachian and Southern communities who happen to live along the 600-mile planned route of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

In late 2018, the Fourth Circuit Court found that the Forest Service had broken federal law by approving the pipeline’s route through National Park Service lands in the George Washington National Forest—the latest route has the pipeline crossing the Appalachian Trail 34 times. Monday, the Supreme Court overturned that with its own 7–2 ruling; Justice Clarence Thomas authored the opinion in United States Forest Service vs. Cowpasture River Association, with only Justices Sonya Sotomayor and Elena Kagan dissenting. Without diving too deep into the weeds, the court’s reasoning was that the Mineral Leasing Act allows the Forest Service to issue permits on pipelines that cross through national forest land.

As North Carolina State associate professor and Lumbee Tribe member Dr. Ryan Emanuel pointed out on social media three weeks ago, the Supreme Court’s ruling is not a total victory for Dominion Energy and its partners in the ACP venture. The high court’s ruling will now trigger a case in the D.C. Circuit Court. That case looks at the “Kafkaesque” process, in one judge’s words, by which federal permits are obtained by energy companies. There’s also the matter of getting approval for the pipeline to cross Blue Mountain Parkway, and approval for construction of the compressor station in Union Hill, whose environmental justice review was sharply condemned by the Fourth Circuit Court in January. The project has also been countered by HB 167, a Virginia state law passed in April that is designed to prevent energy companies from forcing customers to pay for unnecessary gas pipelines. This legislation is particularly interesting in light of recent reports that the region in Virginia that the ACP is planned for already boasts a 35 percent energy surplus, one that S&P Global predicts will grow to 60 percent within the next seven years.

The fight, in short, is far from over. But as analysis of the legal ramifications takes over, it’s crucial to remember that this is not only about setting precedent for whether the pipelines enabling global warming should be allowed to cross under national forests or heavily used trails (they shouldn’t): As the battle over the ACP continues, the nation ought to take a moment of self-reflection and ask itself why everybody with a modicum of power—judges; federal regulators; energy companies; and local, state, and federal politicians on both sides of the aisle—continues to enable a pipeline model that targets communities of color, tribal nations, and rural towns with pinpoint precision.

Lyndsey Gilpin laid out in a must-read feature for Grist last December how the Atlantic Coast Pipeline meticulously cuts through rural communities in West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina, where regulations are less stringent than in more affluent urban or suburban communities. Union Hill, Virginia, where a compressor station was planned, was founded by freed slaves following the Civil War; Robeson County in North Carolina is home to the state’s largest Native community in the Lumbee Tribe. Pipelines are just one piece of a broader pattern in which the United States repeatedly places toxic pig farms, dumps, and other polluting sites in marginalized communities. According to a 2013 study by the University of North Carolina, while a quarter of all North Carolinians live within a mile of an Environmental Protection Agency–registered polluter, “41% of residents of Latino clusters and 44% of residents of African American clusters live within a mile of such pollution sources.”

The main public relations approach Dominion and Duke Energy have employed to obscure this pattern is the same one employed by every other natural gas or oil pipeline backer: promising temporary construction jobs for impoverished communities to make the project seem like an economically viable and necessary undertaking. What the energy companies typically fail to include in their sales pitches is that many of these jobs require specialty training that leads energy companies to bring in outside labor, leaving only a few dozen permanent positions remaining for the affected local economies. But even were this widely known, it wouldn’t help the fact that these communities have also been systematically marginalized in the political processes through which such decisions are made. North Carolina is just now beginning to unwind the damage done by a decade of Republican supermajority dominance in the state legislature, which resulted in electoral maps that did everything possible to diminish the strength of the Black vote.

Pipeline companies like Dominion and their main ACP partner, Duke Energy, have also tried to curb resistance before community members have an opportunity to decide democratically what is truly best for the place they call home. This was particularly clear last January, when NC Policy Watch’s Lisa Sorg reported that Dominion offered the four tribes along ACP’s route—in North Carolina, the Haliwa-Saponi and the Lumbee; in Virginia, the Monacan Indian Nation and Rappahannock Indian Tribe—a $1 million payoff per tribe if they would sign a document to declare their support for the project.

Take a visit to the official ACP website, and all you’ll find on the pipeline’s communications with Native communities is the FAQ line that, “communication with Federally and State/Commonwealth recognized American Indian tribes that may be impacted by ACP has been ongoing through the life of the project”—a funny way to say that input from these communities has been repeatedly rejected. Even if they remain divided by the offer on the table, many tribal citizens and other communities have raised their objections to the project and its attempt to exploit a struggling economy. Lumbee Tribal Chairman Harvey Goodwin Jr. has stood tall against the ACP, as have the residents of Union Hill.

The Cowpasture decision is part of a much larger network of court cases and community battles. That fight isn’t about legal precedent or overstated energy needs or lies about economic impact. It’s about determining whether yet another natural gas pipeline should be shoved through historically marginalized communities and whether it would actually be good for the people who live in them. The answer, as health study after health study and fuel disaster after fuel disaster has shown, is a resounding no.