People stared, and that was the point.
On March 11, about 20 North Carolinians carried signs and banners and turbine-shaped windmills along U.S. 301 from Selma to Smithfield. Mechanics stood outside garages and watched, people on the street asked what it was all about, cars slowed and drivers stared, some honking horns and pumping fists in solidarity.
The activists passed through Johnston County on a route mimicking the Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s North Carolina path, a project they oppose largely for environmental reasons. The pipeline is a project of Duke Energy and Dominion Resources, the two largest energy providers in North Carolina and Virginia. It will bring West Virginia natural gas to Eastern North Carolina.
Greg Yost, one of the organizers of the two-week protest walk from near the North Carolina-Virginia border to Pembroke, said the group started with 60 people on March 4 and had grown and shrunk as geography and time allowed. The final stage was scheduled to wrap up March 18.
“It sort of rises and falls,” Yost said. “We’re in our second week now. I expect the group size to double or triple in this last week.”
On their Saturday trek through Johnston County, the walkers came from around the state – Durham, Raleigh, Charlotte and Asheville but none from Eastern North Carolina or along the pipeline’s proposed route. In the afternoon, Clayton’s Francine Stephenson and a handful of Johnstonians joined the walk; the pipeline will cut through land Stephenson owns near Four Oaks.
With the walk, activists said they hoped to bring awareness to a project that many might never know exists but could hurt neighbors and the farming community Johnston retains as an identity.
“I like walking; that’s the simple and first answer,” said walk organizer Steve Norris said, a retired professor from Warren Wilson College just outside of Asheville. He said he’s been an activist of various causes since the Vietnam War and civil rights movement.
“These are really big, big operations, and when people hear Dominion and Duke are coming to town, people say, ‘No way we can fight something like that,’ ” Norris said. “So some people say that there’s no sense resisting this even if we know it’s a really bad deal. So a walk is a way to challenge that and to let people know that this is not a done deal, that corporations can be challenged; there are ways for people at the grassroots to work together and fight this thing.”
Norris said the group meets with locals along the route, some who walk, some who just tell their stories. He said he hears of retirement homes disrupted, family land disturbed and farmers worrying if their livelihoods will remain once the pipeline is up and running.
“We give them a shot in the arm; they give us a shot in the arm,” Norris said. “Without them, the resistance to the pipeline wouldn’t happen. They’re the grassroots of this struggle; maybe we’re the fertilizer.”
Far from his Asheville home, Norris said he came to this fight because of larger climate-change concerns, feeling that the $5 billion pipeline was a doubling down on fossil fuels when, he said, the country should look elsewhere.
“It breaks my heart to see communities being uprooted by the pipeline, but for me personally, the fight is about climate change,” Norris said. “I have children, I have grandchildren, I have great-grandchildren. I worry about whether the planet will be a place where people can live the way I’ve been able to live the last 70 years.”
Stephenson walked the afternoon leg, driving her Toyota Prius from her Clayton home to meet up with walkers at Holt Lake Bar-B-Que & Seafood south of Smithfield. Until she found out in 2014 that her land was in the pipeline’s path, Stephenson said, she didn’t consider herself an activist or outwardly political. But she said for her, the pipeline fight is personal, changing land she inherited from her father and changing her family’s plans for the future.
“My intention for these two plots, divided as they are (by a highway), was that each of my daughters could inherit one of the pieces and build a retirement home there,” Stephenson said. “That’s important to me because that’s where my father lived, my mother, my grandparents. It just has a lot of history. Our family goes back to the 1700s in this area.”
Stephenson said pipeline representatives offered her between $5,000 and $10,000 for a permanent easement through her 20 acres. She didn’t accept the offer, meaning the courts will likely set the price.
A farmer grows sweet potatoes on some of her land, Stephenson said, and questions remain about how the pipeline might affect the farming operation. She said it’s unclear, for example, whether the trucks used to carry harvested sweet potatoes can cross over the buried pipeline or if a bridge will need to be built.
Among counties in the pipeline’s path, Johnston is likely among the least resistant to the project, Norris said. Stephenson said she doesn’t think many people know about it. She thinks the pipeline is shortsighted, that her land will fall into a permanent easement for an energy source with an eventual expiration date.
“It will be in effect for a few years, and eventually, shell gas will run out in West Virginia and we’ll be stuck with an easement that they own forever,” Stephenson said.
Meeting a need
Power from the sun and wind is part of the future energy picture, but neither combine to satisfy the electrical appetite of the modern age, said Aaron Ruby, a Dominion spokesman. Until that day comes, if it ever does, he argued a natural-gas pipeline is the cleanest, cheapest way to keep the lights on, while representing a far smaller footprint than either wind or solar.
Supplying Virginia and North Carolina with natural gas means moving away from coal-fired power plants, Ruby said. “This cuts carbon emissions in North Carolina in half,” Ruby said. “This project is an essential part of the nation and region’s effort to move towards cleaner-burning resources. This pipelines allows Duke Energy to lower carbon emissions. ... The reality is that renewable energy is not capable of meeting the needs of 24-hour power demands.”
Ruby said farmers would be compensated for lost crops for two seasons while the pipeline is installed and brought online. After that, he said, it would be business as usual, that most farm equipment could drive over the pipeline and that the heavier loads of timber operations would just need extra padding.
“Farmers should see no difference in using the land as they always have,” Ruby said.
While calling the project vital to the region, Four Oaks Mayor Linwood Parker said he’s heard many of the concerns about the pipeline and that he respects the people voicing their opposition. “The unknown sometimes creates these questions,” he said.
Parker pointed to Raleigh and Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia and said if natural gas is dangerous, the grids in those cities should be switched off.
“Natural gas is the cleanest and cheapest energy source we have at the moment,” Parker said, adding the pipeline’s construction will bring temporary jobs and added tax revenue. “That’s not to say in the future there won’t be something better, but at the moment, this is what we have.”
Drew Jackson; 919-603-4943; @jdrewjackson