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From a Calling to a Career

photo: Colleen Redman, www.looseleafnotes.com

The Mountain Valley Natural Gas Pipeline that’s being proposed to run through South Western Virginia made a U-Turn when it came to Floyd County. Last fall, the gas companies changed the original route, bypassing the rural county. Company officials have said the protest movement that sprang up in Floyd had nothing to do with their decision, but others believe it made a difference. 

One of them is Mara Robbins, who founded the Preserve Floyd Movement last summer to fight the pipeline. Now, she’s been hired by an Environmental group to continue that work throughout the region.

"What happened for me was when the route changed a lot of the members of Preserve Floyd were able to back off and breathe a sigh of relief but as the director of the organization my job amped up."

Mara Robbins says that’s why her new job with the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League couldn’t have come at a better time. It means she can continue her fight against all three new natural gas pipelines proposed to cut through Virginia.  And she says it helps dispel the idea that opposition to them is what ‘s called a NIMBY protest for ‘Not In My Back Yard.’

"None of us want to push it into anyone else’s backyard. It’s one big backyard and we don’t want it in anyone’s back yard."

What started as a calling is becoming a career for Robbins.  She says she’s always been an active citizen. In the 80s she was involved in the anti-nuclear movement. And that was the same time that my father was the coordinator of the original citizens for Floyd County.

Robbins recalls watching her father’s activism and his disappointment when his group lost the fight against the power line that brings electricity from West Virginia to North Carolina. She says it’s   a big part of what’s behind her commitment to continue her own work.

"I watched a part of him die when they went up. It made a big impression on me when I was a teenager, but the other thing that I noted was the way the community came together around that issue and that’s what I observed when this pipeline tried to come thru was a similar initiative that was ultimately successful and what’s wonderful is that there are a number of people other than myself who are taking an active role in the surrounding communities."

Credit www.looseleafnotes.com

Robbins doesn’t buy the potential, cited by the gas companies, for what she calls jobs and taps.  That is, that gas from the pipeline could be tapped by local communities, or that there would be lasting local jobs in its wake.

"It’s highly specialized work. There might be some temporary labor required, say construction equipment, that sort of thing, but it’s not going to be long lasting. They often bring in workers from out of state and obviously, you want someone building a pipeline who is trained to build a pipeline and that’s not likely to happen say in Giles or Franklin County are there going to be experienced pipe line technician there? Probably not."

Robbins also doesn’t buy the idea that citizens ‘protests don’t make a difference. In her new role as community organizer for the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, she aims to prove it.  Her own property in Floyd was never on the proposed route for the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which has since been changed. 

She was never visited by surveyors, but neighbors and friends were. And while some of them did not object to the pipeline, Robbins says she was moved by the people who did and still do.

“We’re looking at a democratic society that has become a capitalist society and people are tired of corporations making decisions about their lives and their rights and their land. So it’s an issue of environmental justice but it is also an issue of democracy and participating in whatever avenues of democracy that we can and being willing to take a stand.”

Proponents of the natural gas pipelines being proposed to traverse Virginia are pointing to the benefits of this domestic natural resource.

They say lack of access to gas has kept companies from locating in areas without it, dampening opportunity for economic growth in the region. 

Next Era Energy and EQT, the joint venture that seeks to build the Mountain Valley Pipeline, has been holding open house meetings with the public.  Spokesperson Natalie Cox has told reporters that she hopes people will keep in mind that there are more than 300 miles of natural gas pipelines already in the U.S.

The Mountain Valley Pipeline is still in the pre-filing stage.  If approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory commission, it could be operational by 2018.


Robbie Harris is based in Blacksburg, covering the New River Valley and southwestern Virginia.
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