To Stop the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a Young Activist Spends 36 Hours Inside it

Two seniors also locked themselves to a derelict car to block workers. The actions marked the end of an escalated week of pipeline opposition, including nine arrests.

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After 36 hours inside the Mountain Valley Pipeline, the activist was charged with four misdemeanors and released on a $3,500 bail.
After 36 hours inside the Mountain Valley Pipeline, the activist was charged with four misdemeanors and released on a $3,500 bail. Credit: Appalachians Against Pipelines

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Last week, a 22-year-old activist spent nearly 36 hours inside the Mountain Valley Pipeline in Virginia, halting construction on a section of the pipeline for two days.

The activist—who asked to remain anonymous due to fear of harassment and legal repercussions—had climbed inside the pipeline to protest and delay its construction, part of a broader movement of opposition to the controversial natural gas pipeline system, which will stretch from West Virginia to Virginia. 

After exiting the pipeline on Friday, March 8, at around 4:35 p.m., the activist was charged with four misdemeanors and released on a $3,500 bail. 

“This project is worth fighting until the end,” the activist said. “Winning looks so much bigger than just stopping this pipeline…It’s a win because, whether or not this pipeline ever has gas running through it, the legacy of resistance in Appalachia still lives.”

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The arrest marked the end of a jam-packed week at the Mountain Valley Pipeline. On March 4, two other pipeline resistors—aged 81 and 63—locked themselves to a broken down vehicle on Poor Mountain in Roanoke County, Virginia,  for more than nine hours. The same day, seven others were arrested on the other side of the mountain for entering a construction site, and were held in jail for between two and five days before being allowed to post bail and be released. 

On March 11, two more activists locked themselves to a drill for more than 8 hours on Poor Mountain, equipped with banners that read “We won’t be complicit and we won’t back down,” and “Land Back, from Turtle Island to Palestine.” 

Construction on the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which first applied for approval with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in 2015, began in 2018. Funding for the pipeline was fast-tracked through a debt deal last year, in a compromise between President Joe Biden and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) that angered large swaths of the climate movement. The pipeline runs through critical forest ecosystems and has faced staunch and sustained opposition from environmentalists, Indigenous communities and activists since it was proposed. It’s also been the subject of continued legal, regulatory and safety concerns, including for its potential to pollute drinking water and the high risk of its pipes corroding.

Among their concerns, opponents of the pipeline cite leak and explosion risks, water contamination, forest loss and land disturbance. According to the advocacy organizations Oil Change International and the Bold Alliance, it will also be responsible for an estimated 90 million metric tons of annual greenhouse gas emissions, equivalent to 26 average U.S. coal plants.

The company’s response to the opposition of the pipeline has included multiple lawsuits against protesters. In one lawsuit, Mountain Valley Pipeline LLC sued 41 individuals as well as Appalachians Against Pipelines and Rising Tide North America—the latter of which was recently dropped from the lawsuit—for more than $4 million in damages, claiming that they are “unwilling to accept the fact that the project has been approved.”

Critics have called the company’s lawsuits SLAPPs, or Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, intended to dissuade public criticism, partly by tying up opposition with expensive and time consuming legal roadblocks.

“They just want to wear people out,” said Nadia Ahmad, an associate professor of law at Barry University in Florida whose research relates to pipeline protests. “They think these lawsuits are going to be a way to send a message…that nobody else should try and fight.”

Rising Tide North America stated, “When fossil fuel companies feel threatened, they try to attack our basic right to protest,” after the group was removed from the lawsuit. “That’s what MVP is doing—and unfortunately, dozens of individuals and additional organizations remain in their crosshairs.”

Virginia State Police Sergeant O.J. Lilly, whose jurisdiction includes Giles County, where the activist occupied the pipeline and was arrested, said that the pipeline protests in his jurisdiction are “not anything out of hand.”

“They have the right to exercise their freedom of speech,” Lilly said of the protesters.

The intensity of law enforcement’s response to opposition has varied greatly along the pipeline. Some demonstrators have been threatened with domestic terrorism charges, and multiple pipeline opponents have been charged with felonies, including felony kidnapping, allegedly for holding up a work vehicle that a worker was inside. On March 4, several protesters said that police drew guns while chasing them. And currently, West Virginia is considering a bill that would make trespassing on or blockading critical infrastructure, including energy projects, a threat of terrorism.

On March 5, Appalachians Against Pipelines wrote on its Facebook page that the movement is “outraged” by the police’s “aggressive” approach toward pipeline protesters.

“Too many land and water defenders have been held on inflated bail or outright denied bail, and charges have increased across the board in criminal and civil court, with many people receiving felonies for defending land and water,” the group wrote. “We refuse to be intimidated!”

Activists gather at a construction site for the Mountain Valley Pipeline. Credit: Appalachians Against Pipelines
Activists gather at a construction site for the Mountain Valley Pipeline. Credit: Appalachians Against Pipelines

In an emailed statement, Mountain Valley Pipeline doubled down on its opposition to the protesters’ actions, and said that “stringent security protocols” forbid unauthorized persons to access right-of-way during construction.

“We strongly condemn these protesters’ blatant disregard for safety and the rule of law, and, regardless of their view of the project, these unlawful and dangerous activities must end,” the company wrote. “The illegal and reckless behaviors exhibited by certain protesters have served only to create unnecessary safety risks for themselves, project crew members, first responders, and our community members…As we have consistently stated, the safe construction and operation of the MVP project remains our top priority and ensuring public safety is paramount.”

Despite growing risks and retaliation, opposition to the pipeline has not subsided. 

Stopping Pipeline Work from the Inside

“I’m feeling really good, in high spirits for sure,” said the activist inside the pipeline, after more than 30 hours. “My body is a little bit mad at me for hanging inside a pipe.”

They had descended about 100 feet into a steeply slanted section of the pipeline on Peters Mountain in Giles County, at 5 a.m. Thursday equipped with food, layers of clothing, a respirator and a headlamp, they said. In the darkness of the pipe, they’d strapped themself into a rig of lines in the pipe that prevented them from sliding too far down it.

In videos posted on the Appalachians Against Pipelines Instagram account, they used headlamp light to show the setup inside the 42-inch diameter pipe. A banner above the pipe read “Fuck You MVP” in lettering decorated with flames. 

“Everything echoes in here, from my breathing, to the young cops jabbering at the base of the pipe for hours...”  Credit: Appalachians Against Pipelines
“Everything echoes in here, from my breathing, to the young cops jabbering at the base of the pipe for hours…” Credit: Appalachians Against Pipelines

They said they fell asleep for a couple of hours before waking to the sounds of workers and security officers shouting from outside. Law enforcement seemed perplexed by the person inside the pipe, they said.

Later, the activist could hear construction equipment, welding and voices outside. They could see the opening of the pipeline in the distance, and the faces of police officers who asked them repeatedly to exit the pipe. Police sent a small tracking robot with a camera up the pipe three times. 

While in the pipe, they wrote down their feelings.

“Everything echoes in here, from my breathing, to the young cops jabbering at the base of the pipe for hours, to the helicopter buzzing above and to the people beating on the pipe around me,” they wrote. “The hardest part of today was when someone started wailing on the outside of the pipe near where I was—I have never heard or felt something so loud in my life, and it was completely terrifying.”

By the time they left the pipeline and were arrested on Friday evening, the action had stalled construction at the site for two days, Lilly said. 

The action adds to a long list of creative disruptions over the past six years. Protesters have blocked roads, locked themselves to vehicles and construction equipment and lodged themselves in trees, sometimes for months at a time, to prevent construction. 

A local to the area, the activist said they’d been watching opposition to the pipeline, both through legal pathways and disruptions to construction, for the past six years and felt that traditionally accepted tactics weren’t working.

“I want people to understand that when they feel abandoned by the processes that we’re given for making change … to not feel like there are no other options,” they said. “You just have to be creative and invent them, because they’re not things that we’re taught because they’re not things that we’re supposed to do.”

“Nothing Left To Lose”

Three days before the activist climbed into the pipe, another team of Mountain Valley Pipeline opponents placed a broken-down car across Honeysuckle Road in Roanoke County, Virginia, which they said was the only route for workers to access a construction site for the pipeline. 

Pipeline opponents Karen Bixler, 81, and Andrew Hinz, 63, locked themselves to the vehicle with a contraption that would make them difficult to remove, and about a dozen others unfurled banners that read “Doom to the Mountain Valley Pipeline,” “Water is Life,” and “From the River to the Sea, Gaza to Wounded Knee.” When local law enforcement issued a dispersal order, the rally moved down the road and only Hinz and Bixler remained, the two activists said.

Bixler had driven 14 hours to get to the action from her home in Vermont, where she was previously involved in activism opposing a Vermont Gas System pipeline.

Pipeline opponents Andrew Hinz and Karen Bixler locked themselves to a broken-down car, blocking workers from accessing a construction site for the pipeline. Credit: Appalachians Against Pipelines
Pipeline opponents Andrew Hinz and Karen Bixler locked themselves to a broken-down car, blocking workers from accessing a construction site for the pipeline. Credit: Appalachians Against Pipelines

“I feel like the only thing I have is my body, and if I could put it in the way of stopping anything, that’s what I’m called to do,” Bixler said. “It helps me overcome a feeling of absolute hopelessness.”

But as the hours went by with her arm locked awkwardly to the car, Bixler said she was increasingly uncomfortable and medics began monitoring her rising blood pressure.

The opposition to Mountain Valley Pipeline has attracted an age-diverse base, including older Americans who have been strong proponents of the nation’s climate movement. Some groups, like Third Act and Elders Climate Action, are explicitly focused on mobilizing older activists while others, like Extinction Rebellion, have strong contingencies of movement elders, who sometimes have greater time and resources to engage in civil disobedience. 

Another MVP resistor, 65-year-old Jerome Wagner, is currently serving a two month jail sentence for protesting the pipeline.

Bixler said that elders in the climate movement are motivated by feelings of responsibility for the plight of young people and future generations, set in motion by past climate inaction.

“You get to a point where you really have nothing left to lose,” she said. “We don’t have to worry about, ‘if I go to jail, who is going to take care of my kids, [or] if I’m looking for a job, how’s an arrest going to look on my record?’”

Hinz spent 25 years working as an information technology professional at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which, among other things, reviews applications for natural gas pipelines and regulates liquified natural gas terminals. He didn’t get involved in climate activism until after his retirement, and said that while he worked at FERC, he didn’t fully understand the damage done by methane—the biggest component of natural gas and the second largest contributor to global warming.

“I didn’t realize that I was facilitating rapidly increasing climate change,” he said. “I have a mixture of guilt from having participated in that and anger at having been lied to (by the fossil fuel industry).”

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Now, Hinz organizes with Beyond Extreme Energy, a grassroots network founded in 2014 to advocate for FERC to be replaced with a new government agency focused on a just transition to renewable energy.

After more than seven hours locked to a broken down car, 81-year-old Bixler’s blood pressure was spiking. Medics and police begged her to unlock herself and go to the hospital. 

“I was scared shitless,” she said.

Bixler was locked in for nine hours before she finally released, around 2 p.m. Hinz was extracted by law enforcement at 3:30 p.m and the vehicle blocking the road was removed at 4. Bixler received a summons for one misdemeanor, of obstructing free passage, and was released to the other protesters. Hinz received two misdemeanors, for obstructing free passage and disorderly conduct, and was jailed briefly before being released on bail.

For Hinz, the choice to engage in civil disobedience is a result of desperation. He would rather not get arrested, but watching emissions rise, accelerating climate change as projects like the Mountain Valley Pipeline overcome citizen opposition, he feels like he has no other choice. 

“We’re getting arrested because we’ve tried everything else,” Hinz said. “And we have to try everything, because the future of our biosphere depends on it.”

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