On March 23 and 24, police extracted and arrested the last two activists engaged in the Yellow Finch tree sit, which lasted for 932 days. The trees were in the path of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a 303-mile fracked gas pipeline that is being constructed from mountainous West Virginia through southwestern Virginia. Opposition by landowners whose property was taken by eminent domain and by climate activists has been fierce. Fracking for methane – so-called natural gas, is almost 100 percent methane. The fossil fuel drilling method releases gas at the wellhead, from pipelines and by the final user. Methane is 100 times more harmful to the climate than carbon dioxide over a 10-year period, which is the timeframe climate scientists have given to avoid irreversible climate disaster.
After the two tree-sitters, Acre and Wren, were removed, the trees were cut down. The activists were held without bail, even though the pair are accused only of misdemeanors.
Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Crystal Mello, a 40-something mother and grandmother who spent three days at the Yellow Finch tree-sit in 2019, helping with many others, to delay construction of the pipeline, which is now two years past its completion date and $1.5 billion over budget. She lives near the pipeline route in Montgomery County in southwest Virginia, a bucolic landscape that has been scarred by pipeline construction. Here she describes the struggle to stop the Mountain Valley pipeline, or MVP, and where things stand now.
CRYSTAL MELLO: There was a professor from Virginia Tech – Emily Satterwhite – who locked down to an excavator, and she shut it down for 14 hours. She was from Blacksburg, and I’m like, oh my gosh, so now we got professors locking down to things. So, me and a friend would ride around and take pictures of the sites – GPS, time-stamped and all that – pictures of violations. So we had gone up Yellow Finch, just to check it out before the tree-sitters were even there. And then we left, and then just days later, all over the news, is like tree-sits at Yellow Finch. I thought, oh my gosh, it’s finally in my neighborhood. Yes!
I called John McClouchen with DEQ in Richmond and said, “Hey buddy, what’s going on?” ‘cause I had called him a few times and he was telling me what they were doing with the site. “Yeah, they hit some water. They’re going to stabilize the area. They’re going to de-water it and put the pipeline in and throw the dirt back on it and it’s going to go back to its equilibrium.” We laugh about this. This small spot of water ended up being a pond; we now call it Cove Hollow Pond. I’m like, John, they’re dewatering it every other day. The water’s still filling up. The destabilization’s not working. So what they’ve done in two years they have torn up these mountains.
MELINDA TUHUS: Crystal Mello, why did you decide to sit in a tree?
CRYSTAL MELLO: Because some folks did a blockade in West Virginia and were charged with terrorist charges. That’s so extreme compared to what they’re doing to our neighborhood. In that moment I felt like, you know, they think it’s just the younger generation that cares – and I call them kids because I’m older and have kids their age, so no disrespect, they are fully adults. But, you know, they’re getting terrorist charges. Terrorist charges. It’s going to take a whole bunch of people to stop this pipeline, ya know, and it has to be all of us. That’s what made me do it, is because I feel like I’m an everyday person, and I’m definitely not a terrorist.
MELINDA TUHUS: So you spent three days in a tree. What was it like for you up there?
CRYSTAL MELLO: It was beautiful. There was a super moon that weekend. I felt like the trees were giving me high fives. And watching a butterfly fly from above it instead of looking up at a butterfly, actually looking down on the butterfly, it made me realize how connected and how little we all are in this whole big scheme of things, it just put things in a little better perspective for me in life in general.
MELINDA TUHUS: The MVP is way beyond its original timeframe and budget, and they still don’t have all their permits in place, do they?
CRYSTAL MELLO: They are missing the permit to cross streams and wetlands. They lost the Nationwide 12 permit, so now they are required to get individual state permits for 181 streams and wetlands. Some of the permits will now have to be approved by the Army Corps of Engineers. So, they’re saying this is going to be complete by the end of this year – there’s just no way. And they’re also putting in the news that it’s 92 percent done, and it’s not 92 percent done at all. According to FERC (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) their compliance reports show in terms of linear project completion, they’re only 52 percent to final restoration.
MELINDA TUHUS: You’ve said you don’t have faith that the Biden administration will help you stop the pipeline, which makes sense since he’s a supporter of gas fracking. What about grassroots support?
CRYSTAL MELLO: All I hear is, It’s gonna come in anyway, I don’t know why you’re still fighting that thing, because it’s gonna come in anyway. It’s a reality that so many people like me live in all the time. You know? “It’s gonna come in anyway. We have no power. We have no voice.” And so this has been a great thing. If anything, this tree sit – this meeting of folks – has taught me is that there is fight out there. It keeps your spark alive, and then you help keep someone else’s spark alive. It’s so heartwarming for people to come from other places to help with this. I’ve had good conversations with amazing people and with this I’ve learned about other pipelines in other places and other peoples’ struggles. So, yeah, that’s been great. I’ve met some wonderful people.
For more info, visit Appalachians Against Pipelines’ Facebook page at facebook.com/