How Concerns of Water and Habitat Have Empowered Grassroots Organizations to Push Back Against the Mountain Valley Pipeline
Introduction and Methods
The Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) is a natural gas pipeline project spanning over 300 miles from northwestern West Virginia to southern Virginia, with an extension reaching into North Carolina. Community opposition has organized in alliance with several environmentalist organizations against what they recognize as the pipeline's various ecological, environmental, climate, property, and social impacts. Given the widespread strategies being mobilized in regulation efforts against the MVP, our group was primarily focused on the impacts of the candy darter as an endangered species that will be affected by the pipeline's construction.
Central to our research goals was understanding community concerns regarding the Mountain Valley Pipeline, and how those concerns were or were not being reflected in the political mobilization of the candy darter. Keeping these goals in mind, we found it most fruitful to conduct interviews with those living in the affected communities and involved in advocacy against the pipeline. The interviews were conducted via Zoom calls. This mode of communication allowed us to speak with people from a wide geographical area throughout West Virginia and Virginia. Additionally, for all but one interview, multiple team members were present on each Zoom call interview, allowing various perspectives to contribute, propose questions, and interpret information. Each of the interviews were semi-structured in nature. We were aiming to acquire specific knowledge pertinent to our research questions while maintaining a natural discussion. Fortunately, there was a national Zoom rally against the MVP on April 7th, 2022. Several team members registered to attend the “We Believe We Will Win: A Rally to Stop the MVP!” By employing participant and ‘traditional’ observation methods while attending the rally, we learned of concerns about the pipeline and strategies used to fight against it. Both interviews and observations provided our group with a more intimate understanding of communities' and environmentalist groups' concerns. However, it was also integral to our central research goals to supplement that knowledge with a firm grasp of the legal aspects related to regulation efforts against the MVP. To accomplish this, we analyzed endangered species classification papers, permits filed or requested, and documents detailing legal disputes between the MVP and various groups. This combination of document analysis, semi-structured interviews, and observation during the rally yielded a wealth of information that was extremely valuable to our ultimate research project.
Contextualizing Flagship Species and Multispecies Ethnography
Historically, activist groups have utilized species (especially those that are endangered) to support their ideologies and spread awareness about particular concerns/issues. These applications manifest themselves in various manners such as through charismatic megafauna or flagship species. Charismatic megafauna denote relatively large species that possess significant symbolic value and popularity, functioning as effective tools used by environmental activists for garnering public support. Common charismatic megafauna include elephants, blue whales, Bengal tigers, and giant pandas. Due to their popularity and strong emotional impact, charismatic megafauna are often mobilized as flagship species. Flagship species are species elected to generate support for biodiversity conservation in a specific region/social context. To be maximally effective, these species must be popular, function as symbols/icons, and prompt people to provide funding/support.
Grassroots Organizations Rally and Mobilize Against the MVP
On April 7th, 2022 at 7pm, POWHR (Protect Our Water, Heritage, and Rights) hosted a national Zoom rally entitled "We Believe We Will Win: A Rally to Stop the MVP!" Speakers ranged from indigenous women concerned about broad, ecological impacts of the pipeline to long-time community organizers rejecting infrastructure that alters the landscape of their neighborhoods. Regardless, one thing was clear: everybody involved is confident in the inevitable victory over the MVP. During the hour-long event, panelists discussed actions that have been realized to halt construction of the pipeline and ongoing efforts in collaboration with other grassroots organizations such as the West Virginia Rivers Coalition (WVRC). However, a topic that was noticeably absent from the rally discussion was the candy darter. There were vague allusions to anxieties about biodiversity, but mentions of specific endangered/threated species (and permitting processes) were lacking. From a research standpoint, this was interesting and prompted us to further question how central the candy darter is to ongoing activism against the pipeline.
The Program Director of the WVRC, Autumn Crowe, was a panelist at the rally and was someone we had the privilege to interview the following day. Since she holds a high-level position within the organization, Ms. Crowe was and continues to be privy to the outcry of affected communities. She confirmed that - in her experience - people were primarily concerned about water quality and how construction would affect local streams and rivers. The MVP was proposed in 2014, but construction did not commence until 2018. In the same year, the candy darter's endangered species status was under review. Part of the review process entails determining the exact location of remaining populations, so it was temporarily unknown which water systems the candy darter inhabited. During this period, Ms. Crowe and the WVRC received inquiries from community members desperate to know if the streams on their land could possibly host the fish, and if the darter's presence could divert the pipeline away from their land or stop construction entirely. According to this information, it is clear that on-the-ground community members - even prior to the petitioning of legal action on the candy darter's behalf, were aware of the potential, regulatory power that an endangered species could harness.
Above: Map by Jimmy Davidson
Above: The New River rapids near the small town of Narrows, VA, Giles County, Jllackey, Own Work, August 2018.
Also featured as the banner photo at the top of the page.
Organizations like the WVRC rely on community engagement to further their goals. A key contributor to their success is the "Citizens Monitor" Program. Originating in 2012-13 as an effort to document violations made by gas drilling rigs, the program now constitutes reporting detrimental construction practices of the MVP. The WVRC trained over 1,000 individuals to properly identify and document soil slippage, water contamination, and other infractions that could facilitate a review of MVP permits. Although legal battles are being waged at the state and federal levels, the core evidence and support for these efforts stems from everyday, concerned citizens empowered by the WVRC.
Above: MVP Timeline graphic by Adia Kolb
This timeline details the progression of the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) from its conceptualization in 2014, through numerous permitting and legal battles, to its current state as an unfinished project.
During our investigation, we operated under the theme of "science and regulation." Therefore, to fully understand if the candy darter adheres to the flagship species model, we first needed to uncover which avenues of regulation are available and employed by environmentalists. As highlighted in the ethnography, Up to Heaven and Down to Hell: Fracking, Freedom, and Community in an American Town by Colin Jerolmack, there are processes that gas companies must complete prior to starting a project and applying for permits that require them to: conduct risk assessment studies, inform affected communities of their plans and any potential risks, allow for feedback from concerned community members, and conduct additional risk assessment studies if requested. Despite the provision for community input, it is not commonly accompanied by plan modifications nor mitigation of risk on the part of gas companies. Since people lack the authority to regulate companies on a local level, they seek out grassroots organizations like the West Virginia Rivers Coalition to petition regulatory action at the state and federal levels. However, these actions require more than just logical concerns; those against the MVP must effectively detail any violations of state or federal law and provide evidence.
The MVP has been cited for violations against the Clean Water, Appalachian Trail Protection, Natural Stream Preservation, and Endangered Species Acts, but the burden of proof has proved overwhelming. However, the designation of the candy darter as an endangered species in November 2018 gave the anti-MVP advocates a viable, legal avenue to pursue. The Fish and Wildlife Service initially identified five species as potentially affected by the MVP: the Virginia spiraea, the Roanoke logperch, the candy darter, the Indiana bat, and the Northern long-eared bat. Ultimately, the agency found that it was unlikely for the MVP to endanger any of these species on September 4, 2020. However, a myriad of environmentalist organizations including the WVRC, petitioned for the review of potential impacts on the Roanoke logperch, candy darter, and Indiana bat. The petitioners describe the MVP’s potentially negative impacts on the candy darter, primarily citing the habitat destruction that would result from the pipeline’s construction. Given the detrimental ecological impacts that the candy darter would experience, it is fundamental that the Fish and Wildlife Service accurately and effectively encapsulates the potential risk posed by the pipeline to ensure the darter’s survival and to further their regulatory agenda of concerns regarding the MVP.
Affected Species Gallery
The candy darter is a species of darter fish that is only native to the New River system in West Virginia and Virginia. More accurately, these fish are almost entirely contained within the upper portions of the Gauley River and the Greenbrier River. Growing to a mere size of approximately 3-4 inches, this particular fish is not only notable for its rarity, but also for its distinct and beautiful coloring; one gentleman even regarded it as the "Christmas fish" in his youth for precisely that reason. Candy darters require clean, small-sized gravel to lay their eggs. Consequently, they are sensitive to changing sediment levels in their habitat, and they cannot survive in murky waters.
Here, we feature multiple species not only to highlight the biodiversity of the area, but to emphasize the simple fact that the candy darter represents other species potentially impacted by the MVP. There is an intense burden of proof required when petitioning to stop an infrastructure project on the behalf of an endangered species. In this case, it must be demonstrated that the candy darter's survival hinges on whether or not the MVP cuts through their habitat as currently planned.
Above: Affected Species Digital Illustrations Gallery by Chloe den Uijl
The Candy Darter
There is more involvement in mobilizing an endangered species against an infrastructure project than simply labelling and protesting. Organizations must invest time, money, and energy in proving that the species will be detrimentally and directly affected by a project. In turn, the candy darter (and any species in a similar position) exerts its agency on not only organizations attempting to prove harmful ecological impact, but also the gas companies trying to provide evidence in opposition. Both parties' actions are directly influenced by the fish without it "lifting a fin."
Candy Darter, FWS, T. Travis Brown, National Parks Service
From a multispecies ethnography perspective, there exist several contact zones where the line between nature and culture blurs in regard to the candy darter and the environmentalists in opposition of the MVP. One intersection is the influence of action the fish exerts on environmentalist organizations and gas companies in the scientific risk assessment studies require to supplement claims from either party. It is necessary to analyze the basis for this intersection. In essence, the candy darter and anti-MVP organizations form a partnership due to their coinciding concerns. Autumn Crowe, Program Director at the WVRC, states that people were, by far, the most concerned about their water. Whether it be in relation to water quality or the general degradation of waterways. Affected human and fish communities are both concerned about water and both would be affected in parallel ways if the water became contaminated with sediment runoff. From a placemaking standpoint, Appalachian identity is closely tied to the landscape. As for the candy darter, landscape is more than identity; it is survival. Both groups' identities would be fundamentally altered if the water was negatively impacted. This alignment blurs the culture/nature divide perpetuated in Western society, simultaneously establishing the opportunity for an alliance against the MVP.
The ideological basis for partnership between the environmentalists and candy darters rests in the water. As for how this relationship functions, it conforms to the charismatic megafauna or flagship species model that other activist groups have employed against infrastructure projects. To be maximally effective as a regulatory strategy, these species must be popular, exist as symbols/icons, and prompt people to provide funding/support. The West Virginia Rivers Coalition details multiple ways that one can donate to the organization's causes, but their website also features a shop section, containing merchandise that highlights the candy darter. The website notes that “a portion of all sales goes back to our clean water advocacy.” These findings are evident of the candy darter’s behavior as a flagship species because other species are threatened by the Mountain Valley Pipeline, yet this fish serves as their representative and has the potential to generate funding for the protection of all affected species and their habitats.
On a broader platform, the National Park Service website features a page that details the current condition of the candy darter and provides information about the species: its habitat, distribution, role in the ecosystem, and the threats to its survival. This page does not have ties to fundraising nor monetary gain; however, one section calls for viewers to “become a candy darter advocate by learning more about this colorful species and telling [their] friends.” This functions as an effective method for circulating information and increasing awareness about relevant biodiversity interests any effective flagship species ought to do. Groups that employ a flagship species to generate support for biodiversity in a specific regional/social context have historically found success in furthering their environmental agendas. If their cause is propagated, then the species' habitat and livelihood is hopefully protected. In this way, the relationship between environmentalists and flagship species - between groups like the WVRC and the candy darter - is reciprocal.