StoryCorps in the Valley: Taking On the Atlantic Coast Pipeline

Jun 23, 2021

Sarah Francisco and Nancy Sorrells
Credit StoryCorps

July 5, 2021 marks the first anniversary of Duke Energy and Dominion Energy’s decision to cancel the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. In recognition of that event, we’re sharing a WMRA StoryCorps conversation today between Sarah Francisco and Nancy Sorrells.

Sarah Francisco grew up on a farm south of Staunton and is now an attorney, heading up the Virginia office of the Southern Environmental Law Center. Full disclosure, the Southern Environmental Law Center underwrites programming on WMRA.

Nancy Sorrells is a historian and a former member of the Augusta County Board of Supervisors.

They are both members of the Alliance for the Shenandoah Valley and worked together, alongside many allies, to oppose the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

Their conversation begins with Nancy Sorrells highlighting a key decision in Augusta County that denied the establishment of an Atlantic Coast Pipeline staging area.

Broadcast Transcript:  

NANCY: Well, in January of 2018, Dominion said we're going to set up a pipe yard, an industrial workspace, to start building this pipe and putting it in the ground. And we had consecutive meetings at the Augusta County Board of Zoning Appeals, and we turned out hundreds of people in January, in February, and finally a decision was made in March. And Dominion was told for the first time… for the first time in four years, they were told no. It was so important and I think Dominion was taken aback. And after that, things started shifting. Talk about your big wins in court.

SARAH: A really important win for us, and a big turning point I think, was winning that first court ruling in May of 2018. Five days after oral argument in the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, the court threw out one of the required permits for the pipeline. And it was incredibly moving for me. I mean, I went home to the farm that evening so that I could tell my parents about it in person, you know, and give them the news. And just the fact that justice was being done at long last was incredibly moving. And for me, my work in life is based on the belief that the courts are the ultimate backstop, and the ultimate equalizer. And that at the end of the day, the facts and the law will prevail. And there was a long time in this fight before we were able to have that day in court. We ended up having many days in court. But there was a long time in this fight where it felt like that wouldn't be the case. And the facts and the law did carry the day. And that was proved to be true in the face of a project that often until that moment just looked invincible. But there were a lot of ups and downs. I mean, we weren't able to stop construction right away, even though the pipeline had lost a required permit. There was a brief halt in construction in the summer, and then permits were quickly reissued, and construction started again. And it wasn't until we won another important court ruling in December of 2018 that construction was stopped. We won another case shortly after that that helped solidify and extend that halt in construction. And when I think back on it, you know we didn't know at the time, back in December of 2018, we didn't know that construction would never resume again.

NANCY: And then of course we were at the Supreme Court, which just is amazing to think about. We started from that dining room table and wound up in Supreme Court. Not necessarily something we wanted to do, but something amazing. You want to talk about July 5th of 2020?

SARAH: Sure. You know we'd been at the Supreme Court in the winter. And then as we moved through 2020, and we were in the middle of this, the awful Corona virus pandemic, I had continued to see my mother. I was at her house in Stanton, we were sitting down to a late lunch. And Greg Buppert, my colleague Greg Bupppert, who led the SELC legal team throughout this whole saga, called me with the news that Dominion and Duke had decided to cancel the pipeline. And I was just… I was overwhelmed with gratitude for our clients and for the whole community that just refused to back down. And gratitude for my colleagues. I mean for attorneys who literally did jumping jacks to keep themselves awake while writing briefs all night and over the weekend, it was just overwhelming.

NANCY: It was a small bit of light in the middle of a deadly pandemic. I mean it just, it was amazing. And you know it confirms what we knew, that the arc of history does move toward justice. It's kind of switched us on to now, you know as the Alliance for the Shenandoah Valley, we know that we have a special place and we know what we have to do to make sure it's here for the next generation.

SARAH: When people come together around a sense of place, and a sense of their community, and take a stand and refuse to give up. And are able to combine that with the effect of the law as that equalizer that I was talking about. I think it continues to inspire the folks who've been involved in this effort, but I hope to inspire others.

NANCY: I think it's changed the dynamics of projects like this. And we still have a fight with the Mountain Valley Pipeline to the south of us. Hopefully you know we all need to get behind them. But we know that the power of the people with the law behind them can win.