Maury Johnson stands next to the well on his Monroe County farm. Up until recently, the cinder-block well provided all the water for his house. But now, the groundwater is filled with sediment and Johnson is planning to fill the well with water from a nearby stream that’s less likely to fill up with dirt.
“So what I gotta do, I gotta flush. I gotta pump. I’ll probably pump water for two hours,” he said of his plans for the upcoming weekend.
Johnson, 62, has lived on this farm almost his entire life, and still has big hopes for his land: He wants to attract the rusty patched bumble bee this season, and is growing a bounty of pumpkins, corn, and squash. But not being able to use his main source of water, something feels off.
He traces his problems back to the moment in 2015 when representatives of the Mountain Valley Pipeline approached him to lay a natural gas pipeline across his land in exchange for a flat rate. Johnson held out for several years, but knowing the company was likely to gain access to his land through eminent domain, he felt he had little choice.
“How do you take a payment for putting a scar across a family member?” he asked.
After that, Johnson’s water filled with sediment he believes is from the pipeline’s disruption, which made the water too dirty to drink, cook or bathe in. Eventually he gave up and turned the pump off, and since then he’s had to either buy water from the grocery store or haul it from a spring 40 minutes away.
Now, Johnson dedicates the vast majority of his time documenting the pipeline’s land and water violations across Greenbrier, Summers and Monroe counties. For years, he and other pipeline opponents have stalled the project, which is planned to stretch 303 miles across West Virginia and into Virginia. Though construction is nearly complete, not counting the land restoration the company has to do, the pipeline is four years overdue and the cost has ballooned from $3.5 billion to $6.6 billion. This is largely because repeatedly, rulings from the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals have found that key aspects of the pipeline — its impact on water, endangered species, and national forests— don’t comply with the law.
A few weeks ago, the completion of the Mountain Valley Pipeline looked like an increasingly distant possibility. Then Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., stepped in. In exchange for supporting the Democrats’ most recent climate and economy bill, Manchin got Democratic leaders’ support for a host of permitting changes. Among them was a directive for Congress to “require the relevant agencies to take all necessary actions to permit the construction and operation of the Mountain Valley Pipeline”, and to move all new legislation regarding the pipeline to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, the pipeline’s preferred venue.
Now, Johnson and other pipeline opponents in southeastern West Virginia are continuing to fight a project that Manchin is compelling Congress to greenlight.
In Summers County, Mark Jarrell is sitting in his living room on his 90-acre property. His house is the only structure on the expanse of land.
“The fact is, I own this freakin’ place. Don’t I have any say so?” he asks, his voice echoing off of the metal-lined cathedral ceilings above him.
Jarrell spent much of his adult life in Florida, but can trace his family’s history in West Virginia back to the Revolutionary War. He bought his property in the hopes that other family members would return and build their own houses on it. Some of them had plans to do exactly that, but abandoned them after the pipeline was built down the middle of Jarrell’s land, starting at a spot he was saving for someone else: the knob at the top of the hill overlooking the Greenbrier River.
“You work your entire life to save up for something, you have plans and dreams and you start in. Somebody shows up and just throws a monkey wrench in it,” he said.
Jarrell remembers the day he woke up in the spring of 2018 and heard construction trucks on his property. Notably, he had not yet reached a settlement with the company. He soon settled with the company out of fear that if he didn’t, the pipeline would happen anyway and he’d be left without compensation.
Now, there are 17 piles of rotting logs on Jarrell’s property — former trees that Mountain Valley Pipeline cut down during construction. He can’t remove the logs, because he can’t drive a vehicle over the rectangular land masses the company built in numerous places on his field to prevent erosion. In addition to the pipeline itself, it’s another way that his land doesn’t really feel like his.
Unlike Johnson, Jarrell hasn’t quite allowed the pipeline battle to consume his life. But he, like a number of residents near the route, fear that the pipeline will explode somewhere, like Trans-Canada’s Midstream pipeline did in Marshall County in 2018 and a NiSource natural gas pipeline did in Kanawha County in 2012, among other pipeline explosions in the state over the past decade.
If the pipeline ever starts carrying gas, a scenario that’s played in the back of Jarrell’s mind will take on a new life.
“I’m not gonna snap at this age,” he says as he motors his John Deere tractor up his property’s steep slope. “Unless …”
“Unless, for instance, say I ran down to the store when my granddaughter’s here and the explosion happens, she’s burned alive, and I’m not.”
Mountain Valley Pipeline spokesperson Natalie Cox wouldn’t respond directly to Jarrell’s and Johnson’s experiences, but said the project has been subject to meticulous analysis.
“The MVP project, along with all submitted plans and processes, have undergone rigorous review and evaluation for more years, and in many cases, has been subject to a level of scrutiny that is unprecedented for a project of this nature,” she said.
She also referenced a letter the company sent to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality in May of last year, in which the company addressed opponents’ criticism of its erosion control measures.
“Mountain Valley’s erosion and sediment control plans meet all applicable federal and state regulatory requirements as approved by DEQ. To date, and despite constant restatements and repackaging of their arguments, no parties have identified any technical or regulatory flaws in those plans,” it said.
Not everyone who lives along the route is against the Mountain Valley Pipeline. James Kimble owns property in the project’s path in Braxton County.
Kimble says he witnessed first-hand how an energy company can boost a local economy a few years ago when Dominion Energy built the now-canceled Atlantic Coast Pipeline through his primary community in Upshur County, and his friend’s business took off as a result.
“Motels were full, Walmarts were full, grocery stores were full,” he said.
Kimble, whose father spent 40 years working in the natural gas industry, says he doesn’t have any safety concerns about the pipeline, and sees the project as important to the country’s energy independence.
“They have to get it out of here somehow to help other parts of the country,” he said.
As a self-described naturalist, Kimble was pleased with the restoration work that Mountain Valley Pipeline has done over his segment of the pipeline — so pleased that it prompted him to write a letter of support to FERC last month urging the commission to grant the company a four-year extension on its construction permit.
Kimble’s comment was one of nine that Mountain Valley Pipeline assessed were from landowners in support of the project. In total, more than 570 comments were submitted to regulators about the company’s request, most of them in opposition.
Back in Monroe County, Dr. Dana Olson stands in the middle of the road that runs over the base of Peter’s Mountain, his gaze fixed towards his hands as he tries to put words to his thoughts and feelings. The pipeline is being built near his house on the mountain, and behind him is a massive patch on the top of the slope where Mountain Valley Pipeline has cleared the trees for construction.
“Environmental irresponsibility, we see that all around us. The thing that gets me is an ethical thing,” Olson said, while he and Johnson talk about how the pipeline has seemed to strategically time its requests for approval with various political events. Then, of course, there was Olson’s daughter and grandchildren, who used to live next to him on Peters Mountain before moving away because of the pipeline.
“In fact, I was congratulating them yesterday for having moved, because of the Manchin thing. And that they had made a good decision,” he said.
One reason Peters Mountain is special is that it makes a roar, Olson and Johnson explain. The mountain, practically a nonstop ridge for 50 miles, is angled so it acts as a massive woodwind instrument. Some locals say they can predict the weather based on the sounds the mountain makes.
Johnson drives down the mountain and crosses into Virginia. It’s between dusk and dark. He pulls over to the side of the road to give directions to the interstate before heading in the opposite direction. He points out a Mountain Valley Pipeline security truck as it passes, a truck Johnson says has been following him all the way down the mountain.
The road splits, the truck follows Johnson, and it begins to rain.
Correction: A previous version of the story misstated where Maury Johnson lives. It is in Monroe County, West Virginia. Johnson turned the pump to his well off after it filled up with sediment, which he attributes to the disruption caused by the Mountain Valley Pipeline.