A Challah of Protest

H. Bruce Rinker
H. Bruce Rinker

In Jewish tradition, Challah is a loaf of yeast-risen bread, often braided, blessed and then consumed on Sabbaths and holidays. Every aspect of Challah – from its making to its eating – is replete with wisdom tradition and reminders about our overarching duty to steward Creation.

The burgeoning protests against Dominion Resources and its partners over the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline in Virginia, West Virginia, and North Carolina is a kind of community Challah with righteousness at its core.

The protests, both active and passive forms, demonstrate striking diversity: from liberal Democrats to Tea Party Republicans, youth to elderly, farmers to urbanites, a Southern Baptist minister to swamis from Yogaville, nonprofit staffers to corporate executives, small landowners to cattle ranchers with hundreds of acres of pasture, and businesspeople and entrepreneurs, large and small.

No matter their political persuasions, these protestors are united in a common cause: to prevent the construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline in any of its routes thus far proposed. Such unity is an unequivocal showing of the democratic process, a clear signal that the entire region is unconvinced about the merits of this particular pipeline project. Many citizens do not want it.

Like the interwoven braids of Challah, these protestors are working hand-in-hand through their grassroots campaigns to stop a project certain to impact regional biodiversity, regional ground water and waterways, regional public and private lands, and the livelihoods of citizens near and far.

For what purpose? For the greater public good?

Over and over again, the protestors have asked for credible data to show that Dominion Resource’s threat of eminent domain is for the public good. And, over and over again, they have received glossy reports and magnanimous promises from pipeline representatives about new jobs and tax revenues, all without substance, all with more than a modicum of condescension and presumption, all with the smugness of a Goliath facing his David.

Reasons abound for any levelheaded person to oppose the Atlantic Coast Pipeline project. Let me provide just two.

Point One. Does the Nation really need an additional 550 miles of pipeline?

According to the American Petroleum Institute, America depends on a network of more than 2 million miles of pipelines for petroleum and natural gas to fuel the Nation’s economic engine. That’s enough pipelines to encircle Earth over 80 times!

Where is the clear justification that America needs an additional 550 miles of pipeline – a proposal to slice through sensitive terrain and watersheds, prime farmland in the Shenandoah Valley, and popular public lands such as the Monongahela and George Washington National Forests, the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Great Dismal Swamp Wildlife Refuge – simply to transport natural gas from West Virginia’s Marcellus Shale region mostly into North Carolina?

Point Two. Does the Nation really need an additional 550 miles of pipeline outside of existing rights-of-way for utilities?

Recently, Dominion Virginia Power (a subsidiary of Dominion Resources) conducted a controversial upgrade of above-ground transmission lines through our region. In its legal brief to a citizen’s opposition, the company declared that, “The preference for use of existing rights-of-ways is rooted in Virginia law, and federal and state guidelines.”

Further, in this same document, Dominion Virginia Power pointed to Virginia Codes that state “existing rights-of-way should be given priority as the locations for additions to existing transmission facilities, and the joint use of existing rights-of-way by different kinds of utility services should be considered.”

In a region already crisscrossed with existing rights-of-way for utility transmissions, how many of the proposed 550 miles will co-locate in these corridors? So far as I can tell, maybe a half mile or so in Augusta County, Virginia but, overall, about 12 percent! That means that Dominion Resources intends to take a lot of private properties and lands held in the public trust for its exclusive corporate objectives.

Does the right hand of Dominion Resources know what the left hand is doing?

Dominion Resources is a for-profit corporation invested in fossil fuels and responsible to its stockholders. It has billions of dollars in revenues; and its Board Chairman, President, and Chief Executive Officer (all one man) receives over $11 million annually as part of his “basic compensation,” according to the company’s Rueters profile. It’s all about making money quickly and perpetually, like a hound dog gulping down a t-bone steak (or two) every day.

For such companies, we citizens are the t-bone steak.

Or, to choose a metaphor better aligned with my point, it appears we are nothing more than meters on a wall for the profit schemes of companies like Dominion Resources with their glossy promises, handshakes in the legislative hallways of Richmond, and knowing winks to political benefactors.

In a recent public hearing, one citizen – a small-statured woman who has invested her life savings proudly in a diminutive lot outside Staunton – testified tearfully about the pipeline proposed to slice through the middle of her land. A proponent of the pipeline responded later that he was sorry to hear this, but he also felt that she needed to take it on the chin for the team. I cannot fathom the arrogance and insensitivity of such maddening remarks.

But this has been a work of madness from the start: ever-changing routes; a company unresponsive to citizens whose properties it threatens to take; a proposal contrary to the advice of the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy; public hearings sometimes more theater than truth; pledges aplenty about engineering and safety, all without substantiation; inflated promises about job creation and tax revenues; the right of eminent domain gifted to a private multi-billion-dollar corporation for an interstate project in a Commonwealth where property rights otherwise reign supreme.

No wonder that we have this Challah of protest. Citizens from many walks of life have stepped forward with their deep concerns, woven together in a common cause about stewardship, property rights, and energy. And about a wide-ranging distrust in a utility giant with a less-than-mediocre environmental record.

Through and through, Challah is focused on the sacred. In this protest, we step beyond arguments about economic benefits, ecosystem impacts, and aesthetic values. Ultimately, this project confronts ethics.

Given all we know, and what we’ve heard, is this project an ethical proposal? Is it characterized by wisdom and best conservation practices? Apparently not. The proposed pipeline seems contrary to the best science, the best economics, the best anything we have available to help us judge its merits. We can do better in our quest for energy independence and sustainability.

Let me close with a prayer, slightly modified, offered during the creation of Challah. “May it be Your will, our G-d, that the influence of our Challah will nourish our children with an abundance of Creation guarded by our efforts and with an atonement for our transgressions against Your holy works. Amen.”

A forest ecologist and award-winning science educator, H. Bruce Rinker, Ph.D. is also the executive director of Valley Conservation Council headquartered in Staunton, VA. He may be reached at bruce@valleyconservation.org. The thoughts herein expressed are entirely his own and should not be construed as necessarily representative of the Council.