Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

Prewritten narratives, airport microgrids, & the Mississippi Delta Chinese

Ask almost anyone, and they’ll probably tell you that the major oil and gas pipelines proposed to crisscross the South were underground long before they were announced. Historically, states in this region almost always choose business over community health or environmental concerns—especially when it comes to the deeply-rooted fossil fuel industry. Before most of the permits were finalized and plans landed on the desks of federal regulators, pipeline developers had already laid the groundwork by finding support from lawmakers and locals, gathering land rights, and digging trenches. 

Whatever outcome the general public expects, the protests—in the courts and on the streets—continue. Within the last several months, environmental groups have sued pipeline companies over Clean Water Act violations, and state environmental regulators have waffled on their decisions to issue permits. Protesters have slowed down construction: inWest Virginia, two people are still sitting up in a tree to stop tree-cutting in a national forest near the Appalachian Trail, and last year, people climbed in a pipe to halt pipeline work in northern Florida; landowners from all over the region have been fighting to protect their rights; diverse groups of stakeholders, from crawfishermen to radical environmental activists, have come together to speak at hearings and rally together.

Despite the mounting evidence showing the pipeline boom is dangerous and rushed, few lawmakers on either side of the aisle have made moves to stop or slow construction. Most recently, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, is under fire after his administration approved an environmental permit for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline the same day it was announced the companies behind it would pay the state $58 million. Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, also a Democrat, has been criticized for largely staying out of the pipeline debate.

Court cases have pushed back developers’ timelines, although the rulings are overturned almost as quickly as they come up. A Louisiana judge blocked a section of the Bayou Bridge Pipeline that would cut through the Atchafalaya Basin in Louisiana, but a higher court lifted the ban less than a week later. Last week, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission reinstated permits for the Sabal Trail Pipeline, which will cut through northern Florida and Georgia, as well as the larger Southeast Market Pipelines Project. Last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that FERC failed to review climate impacts before approving the project. As E&E News reported, FERC found Sabal Trail would cause a 3.6 to 9.9 percent increase over Florida’s 2015 emissions, “but the agency has declined to determine whether that increase should be deemed ‘significant,’ arguing there’s no widely accepted definition of what levels are considered significant.”

Only twice in the past three decades has FERC rejected a pipeline. The U.S. oil industry has experienced a 86 percent surge in production since 2008, according to a Revealinvestigation, and the natural gas industry is fueling the current pipeline boom. They’re assisted by an industry-friendly Congress and the Trump administration, which has been swiftly deregulating the industry and boosting drilling and mining efforts.

These minor updates in the pipeline saga haven’t garnered much attention. The typical environmental activist protest story has been told; much of the buzz about what whiplash decisions and permit approvals mean for landowners, low-income communities, and ecosystems tapered out a while ago.

Even with the federal and state rulings, local communities are still ironing out all the details, and there are plenty of perspectives we haven’t heard much about. Many people are excited and encouraged by the pipelines—they will bring temporary jobs, relief for families, or a morale boost in rural towns. Others are exhausted as they continue to try to stop companies from digging in their backyards. How are neighborhood meetings, dinner conversations, and PTA conferences playing out as these projects progress? How are relationships and community initiatives being changed or challenged? These are the stories that will unfold in the months and years ahead—and they’re often the ones we already have written, the ones we think we know the ending to. More than likely, though, the answers will surprise us.

Stories worth your time

Martin County, Kentucky loses most of its water before it even reaches faucets, mostly because of leaky, aging pipes and tanks. The state just approved a 28 percent rate hike for this low-income Appalachian county’s water district to help it climb out of $800,000 in debt, but the problems are much bigger than that. For Scalawag Magazine, I wrote about Martin County’s long history of water quality issues and spoke to some of the people attempting to hold the state and officials accountable. “People don’t trust the water, they don’t trust the people managing it,” said Nina McCoy, a retired biology teacher who started the Martin County Concerned Citizens group. “They don’t even know why anymore, it has gone on for so long.”

This “audiovisual narrative” by Andrew Kung and Emanuel Hahn is about Chinese Americans who grew up in the Mississippi Delta. The producer spoke to 16 people about the racism they’ve faced over the years and how they’ve built their families and homes in the Deep South.

Yes! Magazine has a series of photographs of African American communities in Appalachia interspersed with quotes and facts from news stories over the years to show how stereotypical our views of the region often are and how we’ve largely omitted the experiences of black Appalachians.

Rolling Stone wrote about how lax environmental regulations have allowed China to outsource pork production to the U.S., specifically in North Carolina.

News flying under the radar

Curious about how climate change is increasing the risk of malaria, Lyme disease, or Zika in your area? Plug in your zip code on the Revelator’s interactive map and find out potential risks in your community.

Chattanooga, Tennessee is installing a solar-plus-storage microgrid at its airport in a project with Oak Ridge National Laboratory. The city has been a hub for smart grid technology testing.

The Interior Department did surprise inspections of dozens of offshore oil and gas drilling sites in the Gulf of Mexico and found serious problems, with some that could be life-threatening for workers.

Jupiter is a Silicon Valley startup that gathers and analyzes climate change data in hopes that land buyers will pay for it instead of relying on studies and outdated government flood maps. The company is running pilot projects in South Florida and South Carolina.