Dominion, environmentalists, and pipeline hypocrisy

Joel Salatin 1By Joel Salatin
Owner, Polyface Farm
Guest Post

This is acute for people in our locality, but has broad applications for similar tensions around the country. Dominion (sounds ominous, no?) is a large energy development company in Virginia (Old Dominion) proposing to install a 42-inch high pressure gas line from West Virginia fracking fields down to North Carolina and out to Yorktown (a major seaport).

Initially, the proposed route went through Polyface Farm but has now been changed to a couple miles north. The route is in flux as things develop. I’ve gone to a couple of public meetings, been interviewed by the media for my take on the proposal, and generally tried to gather as much information as I can on the project.

It’s a $4 billion multi-year deal. All around our area folks are planting “No Pipeline” signs. Polyface has not joined in the mob antagonism and here is why. To allay fears that we’ve joined the mega-power mongers, Dominion has acted arrogantly and opaquely–like a big bully–throughout this process. We still don’t know how deep the pipe will be, what permitted activities and vegetative cover in the right-of-way will be, or if landowners will be paid a dime for granting the easement. It would have been easy–and neighborly–for Dominion to have printed a clear bullet-point broadside to let folks know their intentions. That Dominion still contends that none of this gas will be exported is both laughable and considered by thinking people to be a lie. Dominion is certainly guilty of plenty in this tension. I am no friend of Dominion or the way it has handled this situation.

Virginia’s Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe has unconditionally endorsed the entire project and pledged full financial and legal help to make sure it proceeds. In September, a rally at the county government center drew a broad range of bipartisan diatribes against this evil encroachment on our community, with many of our neighbors chanting and vituperating about the power company. I can certainly understand why farmers would not want this pipeline crossing their property. I agree that it’s terribly disruptive, certainly unsightly during the building process, and simply complicates life.

Let’s look at the henny-penny environmentalist concerns first. The Shenandoah Valley is in a karst geology, which means we have lots of caves and limestone holes like swiss cheese. The concern is that sink holes will collapse, break the line, and explode. While it’s true that sink holes do occur, they are extremely rare. In fact, only a handful of people in the entire region have ever seen a sink hole. So not only would a sink hole have to occur, it would need to be completely surprising (pipeline monitoring watches for these things) and would need to be right where the pipeline is. To hear the environmentalists wail, you’d expect several dozen pipeline explosions every year throughout the U.S., which is literally laced with these lines–more than 100,000 miles of them.

It’s childish and stupid to yell “explosion.” Ain’t gonna happen. At Polyface, we don’t want to be aligned with unscientific rants. Well, if it won’t explode, it’ll at least leak and pollute our pristine Valley, say the naysayers. Does anyone really think Dominion wants valuable gas to leak? The Valley already has 2,500 miles of gas lines underlying our region–where is it leaking? It isn’t.

I find it fascinating that many of the people leading the charge on this pollution frenzy routinely douse their land with chemical fertilizers, herbicides that run into the aquifers, build factory chicken houses and feedlots that run pathogen-laden toxic manure into the aquifers, and continuously graze their pastures or plow hillsides for corn, causing erosion and despoiling the ecology. Where is the outrage on these procedures? Hmmmmmm?

And do these people buy food at Wal-Mart, eat at McDonald’s and otherwise patronize a food and farming system that destroys the environment? Goodness, the New Jersey-sized dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico occurred and is on-going not because of a BP oil well spill, but because we as a culture continue to dismiss the environmental pillaging of the Mississippi drainage basin. We even subsidize farmers to make sure it continues. This is outrageous. I hope none of these people are buying food produced from the ecological rape of that region.

By the way, our Shenandoah Valley is not a pristine place by any means. Since the Europeans conquered the area, we’ve depleted the topsoil by anywhere from 3-8 feet, depending on location and expert witness. We have not been good stewards of this bountiful place. The rape is ongoing, as seen every day in overgrazed fields and new gullies criss-crossing crop fields. Aquifers and rivers are unusable due to agricultural runoff, either from manure or chemicals applied to the land. We should be repenting in sackcloth and ashes for our past deeds, not standing hypocritically pointing fingers at big energy.

The next big concern has to do with property rights. How dare Dominion come across property, even using eminent domain to force easements, when the landowner doesn’t want them? Here’s my question to these folks: Where were you when the county planning commission decided it was illegal for me to make a chair from a tree on my property and sell it to a neighbor because such activity is deemed manufacturing and therefore incompatible with agricultural zoning?

Where were you when the county building commission decided it was illegal for me to build a house on my own property, with my own lumber, with fewer than 900 square feet? What if I don’t want a big house and only want to live in a tiny house? By what authority does anyone have the right to tell me how big I must build my house? Where were you?

Where were you when the county ran the model rocket launchers off our neighbor’s farm, officially pontificating that such activity was “recreation,” and farms are not places for recreation. Where were you environmentalists when these and many other basic and foundational property rights, for a person to exercise his stewardship as he sees fit, were summarily taken away?

More often than not, you were sitting in the gallery cheering that these acts preserve our area from an integrated economy–you love segregation. You don’t want mixed use, diversified, people-centric farms. You like farms being colonial serfs for an elite urban banking and manufacturing cartel. That’s how you earn enough money to give to environmental causes. It’s disingenuous to cry “property rights” when you environmentalists have worked tirelessly over the last 40 years to deny owners their pursuit of happiness on their own dominion.

Why don’t you environmentalists crusade for real property rights? Where a person can put a solarium on their home for passive solar gain and winter food production without tripling the costs with government-approved permits? How about encouraging ponds for landscape hydration and reduced flooding, even micro-hydro generation, instead of engendering the notion that holding raindrops closer to where they fall is hoarding and a nuisance? Why don’t you ask for legislative relief from the food police who criminalize cottage food industries and make it illegal for a farmer with a cow to sell a glass of raw milk to a consenting adult neighbor who desperately wants integrity nutrition rather than orthodox depleted nutrients from the supermarket? I can think of many more important and philosophically consistent issues to support than being against a pipeline.

This tension became extremely apparent at one of the first big public meetings where the five speakers routinely decried the desecration of the George Washington National Forest with a pipeline. A later meeting reiterated this notion, the despicable plan to cross the Blue Ridge Parkway and Appalachian Trail with a pipeline. Unspeakably disrespectful of sacred spots. Amazing that they are far more concerned about the pipeline running through government property than private property.

I say, run it through the commons–that’s not being used anyway. Run it along the interstate — the right-of-way already exists. I’m jumping up and down asking for it to run through these areas that are wasted, full of diseased and dying trees, essentially an expensive playground that is in fact an ecological disaster because it lacks ecological exercise. That these environmentalists get up on their hind legs much faster when the pipeline goes through the public lands than through private lands belies a prejudice against private property rights, regardless of the fact that they use the phrase when necessary to garner conservatives to their corner.

Well, the opponents say, if you don’t oppose the pipeline, then you’re in favor of fracking, and fracking destroys ground water. That may be, but right now, fracking is already happening. The gas is being transported by train and truck. Doesn’t it make more sense to transport it by pipeline? The environmentalists shut down coal, pushing the energy companies to frack. Now that they’re fracking, the same people are crying foul. Are these folks refusing to turn on their lights, start their cars, fertilize their lawns, or buy food in plastic wrap? If we could get as excited, as a culture, about being FOR something as we are about being AGAINST something, we probably wouldn’t even need the fracking. But that would require thinking eclectically and holistically.

How about a Food Emancipation Proclamation to let anyone anywhere sell their food to neighbors without the food police getting in between the transaction? How about only building structures with solariums on the south side? How about converting all plumbing so that potable water doesn’t get wasted in toilets? How about algae sewage treatment systems? How about living roofs to eliminate air conditioning? How about composting toilets? How about edible landscaping? How about cisterns to catch all roof water and eliminate municipal water systems? How about grass finished beef? How about dropping per capita consumption of poultry by half? How about running pigs in the forest — parks, national forests — fattening them on acorns? How about biomass energy production, from wood gasification to steam engines?

If we could be as proactive toward eliminating petroleum energy as we are against a not-in-my-backyard approach to the energy dependency we’ve created, we could get out of this morass much quicker. I’d rather put my energy into solutions rather than continuing with convenient life and attacking the source of my convenience.

The issue is really not global warming, coal, fracking, or Middle Eastern oil dependency. The real issue is we’ve got to deal with this petroleum energy addiction, and until we do, each of us will have all these inconsistencies in our lives — like opposing a gas line while flipping on our electric lights and going for a cold one in the refrigerator. Like it or not, we’ve created a monster, and the monster is us. Let’s quit feeding the monster.

The simplistic notion that opposing the pipeline proves that we are earth-loving community-minded public-spirited property-protecting citizens is ridiculous as long as we grow food, eat food, and live like none of this matters. This is called intellectual schizophrenia. Here at Polyface, we take stewardship and the inconvenience of change seriously; therefore, we will not join the frenzied mob with anti-pipeline signs. We’d rather engage in thoughtful conversations about broad-based solutions.

At T&E Meats in Harrisonburg, we’ve just upgraded our old fuel oil boiler to a modern gas-fired boiler. The old one was the size of an automobile. The new one is the size of a suitcase. We’re saving $3,000 a month in fuel bills and emitting far less exhaust. It’s hard to argue with that. Would we rather not burn any petroleum-based fuel? Yes. But until then, we need to stay in business and be as frugal and environmentally sensitive as possible.

We realize that not displaying a sign at our farm entrance may be interpreted as being in favor of the pipeline. Nothing could be further from the truth. Dominion has not acted in good faith during this process. However, putting in the sign would imply that we share the same views as the antis, and we do not. So here we sit, betwixt the proverbial rock and a hard place. Obviously our quietness so far is creating a stir — phone calls asking for our position are coming in. We must respond. It’s not easy to ponder, but that’s what we’ve labored to do.

Now I’m going to go work on solutions. Thanks for listening.

Joel Salatin lives on the 550-acre Polyface Farm in western Augusta County with wife Teresa, a handful of interns, son Daniel and his wife and children just up the lane, and a gaggle of animals. The self-titled “lunatic farmer” has gained worldwide recognition for sustainable agriculture and organic enviro-friendly farming, authored numerous books and articles, been the subject of pure-food movies, and interviewed by newspaper and television including the New York Times, National Geographic, and ABC News. In addition to farming, Joel travels worldwide on speaking engagements to share the knowledge learned from his Shenandoah Valley farm.


See also Special Issue: writers, guests discuss Atlantic Coast Pipeline:

Previous articles on the pipeline:


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2 thoughts on “Dominion, environmentalists, and pipeline hypocrisy

  1. […] And that, in a nutshell, is Joel. You never know what side he will land on including the current Dominion Virginia Power pipeline debacle going on in Augusta County. While most of the tree-hugger types are anti-pipeline, Joel says bring it on, as he wrote in a post on this blog in November (see Dominion, environmentalists, and pipeline hypocrisy). […]

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