- Interview by
- Nick Murray
The Mountain Valley Pipeline, if completed, will span 303 miles and measure forty-two inches in width. It’s designed to transport fracked gas from the vicinity of Clarksburg, West Virginia, traversing the Allegheny and Blue Ridge Mountains, to southern Virginia. There, it is slated to connect to the Transcontinental Gas Pipeline, which extends from south of Corpus Christi, Texas, to the waters just off the coast of Jacob Riis Park in Queens, New York.
The potential consequences would be catastrophic. Environmental groups estimate that the pipeline would add over eighty-nine million metric tons of greenhouse gas to the atmosphere every year, the equivalent of twenty-four coal plants or nineteen million cars. It would cross one thousand bodies of water, often through remote and difficult terrain, heightening the risk of accidents and forest fires. Furthermore, gas transmitted through the pipeline would end up at several US military facilities, including the Pentagon and the Radford Ammunition Plant.
The Biden administration cleared many of the legal and regulatory hurdles the pipeline faced in order to win Senator Joe Manchin’s support for the Inflation Reduction Act. In June, the Fiscal Responsibility Act, which raised the debt ceiling, aimed to prevent judicial review of federal permits issued for the project, seemingly ensuring its completion. However, construction has once again lagged, with activists working tirelessly to thwart the pipeline’s realization.
Released on Friday, a new compilation called STOP MVP brings together forty artists from Virginia, West Virginia, and North Carolina who stand in solidarity with that fight. Many of the artists have directly felt the impact, residing or working within miles of the pipeline’s blast zone. Dog Scream, a noise duo from Christiansburg, describe driving past the destruction as a “near-daily heartbreak.” All the record sales will go to the Appalachian Legal Defense Fund, an organization paying legal expenses for people arrested while protesting. These have been adding up. A month ago, a grandfather who locked himself to a drill was held in jail with bail set at $35,000.
Jacobin spoke with the three people behind STOP MVP: Warren Parker, the owner of WarHen Records; Joshua Vana, the director of environmental justice organization ARTivism Virginia; and Daniel Bachman, a Virginia-based musician whose own work engages with climate change and environmental collapse. They joined a call from their respective homes along the Blue Ridge Mountains, just north of the pipeline’s path.
Giant Frack Gas Fireballs on the Interstate
How is the Mountain Valley Pipeline affecting the lives of people in the communities where it’s being built?
Well it’s in a lot of people’s backyards, and that’s more than a figurative description. Many landowners — about 450 landowners through Virginia and West Virginia — had their land forcibly taken through eminent domain for this pipeline, even though it’s being constructed by a private company.
Folks on Four Corners Farm in Franklin County had their pasture turned into a lake, because once you disturb the ground like this, it completely eliminates all of the stability and integrity of the landscape. Construction right of way is constantly dumping sediment into the headwater streams that feed our drinking-water sources. There have been small landslides on the route where equipment has flipped over. Last weekend there was a construction worker on the route, on Poor Mountain, who was hit by a boulder. Basically, everything that we said in advance about was going to happen — when we talked to federal and state regulators about the permitting process — has happened.
What resistance strategies are people using to fight back?
The coalition fighting the project is a really good example of a usage of a diversity of tactics. The direct-action campaign — most visible to the public eye — has included tree sits in several different places, lockdowns to construction equipment and welding or boring equipment, and blockades at boring sites or locations where they’re trying to fell trees.
There are also still some legal battles going on in the courts regarding landowner issues and the taking of land through eminent domain. But the passage of the Fiscal Responsibility Act did a lot to neutralize the tools that the coalition has found very useful in the past, such as proving that the project runs roughshod over all over the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, and, in some instances, the Clean Air Act. Over the last nine to ten years, it’s been a disheartening experience watching various state and federal agencies consistently approving one permit after another for this project. I know a lot of the folks that fought Keystone XL could attest to the same thing. I think they fought for twelve years before it was canceled.
Right now, the coalition is really trying to hammer home the pipe safety issues. A lot of this pipe — these eighty-foot sections of enamel-coated steel — have been sitting out on the mountain for five years or four years in sections all across the route. That raises a number of safety issues. The coalition is working on getting the attention of PHMSA, the Pipeline Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. They’re supposed to have inspection processes for this. A lot of that pipe really just shouldn’t be used at all at this point, due to its exposure to all sorts of weather conditions: rain, snow, and particularly UV light, which degrades that enamel coating.
Back in August, there was an explosion on a Columbia gas line [in Shenandoah County, Virginia], operated by owned by TC Energy, and you know what? It was because of degraded pipe. There was this giant fireball in the sky, a few hundred feet from the interstate, where people are driving by on the 81 and feeling the heat and the pressure of a gigantic frack gas fireball. No amount of engineering, no amount of monitoring can make this project safe.
Music for the Climate Emergency
Where did the idea for the compilation come from?
Over the summer, I reached out to Daniel, just kind of on a whim — and as a longtime admirer of his music — and asked if he had any interest in collaborating on a release. Aware of his climate activism, I suggested the project could direct funds to an environmental organization. What I was originally thinking would be just a standard Daniel Bachman record ended up being a forty-song, forty-artist double CD that includes musicians from West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina.
The record features a wide range of artists and styles. What was your vision for bringing in artists and expanding the project?
I really have to give Daniel a lot of credit here. He spearheaded so much of this.
In the spring, the Magic Tuber String Band, whose track “Undone in Sorrow” is on the comp, organized a “Stop Cop City compilation to fundraise for the people affected by the RICO charges. That was a huge inspiration.
I reached out to friends in Richmond. I also reached out to established artists like Yasmin Williams, because the Shenandoah area is really important to her people. I reached out to a friend with an art studio in the New River Valley area, located in the path of the construction. It was a lot like doing folklore work — tracking down research leads and identifying those supportive with positive energy for the project.
It was the easiest thing to put together I’ve ever worked on, really. It almost assembled itself. Warren and I hope it serves as a document showcasing various phases of the movement. The material spans the early tree-sit days to the present, covering everything as best we could.
When you listen to these forty tracks, what through lines do you hear? What thematic or musical threads emerge?
I think the obvious one is the regional connection — everybody is from somewhere close to where this is happening. And one thing that I find particularly exciting about this release is that it can’t be pigeonholed as just kind of “Appalachian folk music” or something like that. There’s a really broad spectrum of music.
There are songs that could be construed as or labeled as protest music. And there are also instrumental tracks on there. There are pipeline-specific tracks on there. There are tracks that aren’t necessarily affiliated with any type of specific protest, or anything like that, but perhaps evoke some sort of imagery or message that is relevant to our cause. It’s really one of the most remarkable things that I’ve been a part of since starting the label eleven years ago. A lot of the time, I find myself at a lack for words when thinking about it.
In this region — the upper part of North Carolina, Virginia, what used to be the frontier of West Virginia — American traditional music has deep roots, but has also always pushed the bounds of its conventions.
The Carter Family — and some of the string band music that was happening one hundred years ago — was absolutely modern, groundbreaking music. I really feel that this compilation is similar. Take the Dog Scream people in the Christiansburg area, connected with Newport Community Center — they abstract the region’s tradition, bringing it into a modern emotional context. It’s not people playing dress up and trying to play old-time music. This is people from this area contributing to the traditions, enriching a lineage of protest music. Each contributor brought that spirit to the compilation.
What I was hoping for was to come up with a thing that pumped people up, you know? Like, what would you want to hear if you were at the construction site with a boom box? Every time I listen to that Høly River “Spirit Rot” track I am like, “Damn, this is what it’s all about!” The people that were playing fiddle and banjo tunes in Matewan were doing the same thing. It’s just all about lifting people up and helping bring courage and spirit through music and everything.
That breadth and expanse of different styles and different takes — I see it falling right in line with a coalition that is still growing and being built, with people coming from different socioeconomic backgrounds and different geographies.
Daniel mentioned Matewan, and that was a multiracial fight. Over the years, the story has been glossed over and whitewashed to make it seem like the only people in Appalachia are white people. In contrast to that version of history, you hear in all of these songs paintings of a new landscape, of a better future. A future of solidarity. A vision that doesn’t include the suppression and subjugation of communities to the needs of commerce. I think that’s the most beautiful thing about it.
When the Roses Come Again
Daniel, you just also released a solo album, When the Roses Come Again. How are these two projects are related for you?
I grew up like many other people in this area, unaware of the deeper meaning of Virginia. I’ve been trying to peel back the layers of this stuff for a long time. How I’ve come to understand Virginia — and how it relates to the Mountain Valley Pipeline — is that this place has long been home to the sort of extractive capitalist tactics that we’re now seeing in the Middle Appalachian region with Mountain Valley Pipeline. When the colonists and settlers came here in the sixteenth century, Jamestown served the interests of the wealthiest folks in England. Jamestown was established by the Virginia Company of London, a joint-stock company, with partial control by the king of England. The colonists came here and tried their hands at sassafras and pine pitch and tar, and they couldn’t squeeze a profit at anything. Then they found tobacco.
Tobacco is really an apt comparison to oil because not only does it harm the Earth, it also degrades the human body when used irresponsibly — and I’m not talking about anything in a ceremonial context or anything with American Indian nations. But monocropping tobacco, especially without considering soil conservation, is completely irresponsible. In 150 years of monocropping tobacco, we destroyed a lot of the richest farmland around here.
Squeezing profit out of the land has deep roots in Virginia. From 1607 to 2023, little has changed. The region remains ground zero for this practice, displaying a consistent pattern of brutality and utter disregard for both human and nonhuman life.
How does this all relate to the direction your music has taken toward a more electronic and amelodic sound?
I want to encourage other artists to resist the pull of nostalgia and cultural pressures that push us to backward rather than forward. My own family has a history in string band music, and we were anthracite coal miners. My dad’s on this comp singing “The Coal Tattoo.” I included him because my great grandpa had a “coal tattoo” — he was in a mine explosion.
The folks that I based my new record on were a string band from the Allegheny Mountains. They played their own music in the nineteenth century. They weren’t just playing, you know, “John Brown’s Body” — they were writing their own compositions, performing them, touring them, and all that.
The invention and creolization of various music forms has always been part of the history in this area. I’m just trying to encourage people to embrace the new, while keeping a foothold in traditions and the techniques.
This Album Kills Pipelines
Where does the campaign against the pipeline go from here?
The narrative that Mountain Valley and their PR person, Natalie Cox, have continued to sell to the public and sell to the investors, for seemingly years now, is that this project is 94 percent completed. This is a lie, and it doesn’t line up with their own reports to FERC, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which is the lead agency on the project.
When construction resumed, the completion figure was 55.8 percent, and much of the most difficult work is yet to be done. We’re talking about extremely steep mountain slopes in West Virginia and Virginia — very tight hollers where they have to bore under a stream, digging these big holes on either side to basically drain the waterway and bore under it.
They’re trying to get this done as fast as possible, before the winter comes. They’re not going to be able to do that because they’ve never really been able to complete what they said they were going to complete. They always run into problems. They’ll have a frack out or a blow out when they’re trying to bore under a stream. They might hit a spring that everybody told them was there and they ignored, as in Cove Hollow, Virginia, near Elliston.
On the corporate side of things, I understand that there’s an ongoing investigation into Equitrans Midstream’s claims about in-service dates. This aligns with allegations of investor fraud, a term we’ve consistently used to describe the repeated deception about when the project’s going to be done.
The reality is that this project needs to be stopped before an ounce of gas is ever pushed through it, because there will be a disaster. We’re looking at a short-scale disaster in the making. And we’re looking at a long-term ecological catastrophe. If ever operational, the pipeline would be the equivalent of putting nineteen million cars on the road, in terms of greenhouse gases.
Anyone interested in learning more about the Mountain Valley Pipeline or are looking for ways to contribute to the fight against it can go to StopMVP.org. There they can get connected with any number of organizations, local and regional, who are working on fighting this project.
One area where a lot of help is needed is monitoring the construction of the pipeline. The POWHR (Protect Our Water, Heritage, Rights) coalition has a project called the Mountain Valley Watch to monitor the construction right of way or to document sediment being flooded into a stream — things like this that are not only clear violations of several laws but also are directly affecting people’s lives. And we need folks to contribute to the Appalachian Legal Defense Fund so that they can provide some support to people who are putting their bodies on the line. Those people are some of the bravest among us, but they are also just regular folks who decided that this is wrong and that they were going to do something about it.