A portrait of David Sligh

Mud in the Water: Inside Charlottesville’s Battle Against Big Oil

Photo: David Sligh

Why Virginia’s long-raging anti-pipeline battle fills David Sligh with hope.

With long hair, a big beard, and a friendly grin, David Sligh looks every bit the hippie environmentalist. Occasionally, you’ll even find him acting the part, speaking at protests or waxing poetic about the beauty of nature. But don’t let the gentle demeanor fool you: As the conservation director for Charlottesville-based nonprofit Wild Virginia, Sligh is one of the shrewdest environmental lawyers in the state. And in the 40 years he’s spent fighting for public lands, he’s never seen a battle quite like this one.

The conflict in question started in 2014 when a handful of energy developers and investors decided to build a natural gas pipeline across Virginia. Dubbed the Mountain Valley Pipeline, it would start in West Virginia and end in North Carolina, traversing nearly 1,000 streams, rivers, and wetlands in the process. Despite protests from locals and environmental groups, construction began several years later. The results weren’t pretty. In some areas, swaths of forest have been clear-cut. In others, whole hillsides have been destroyed, leaving vast scars on the land. Mud and sediment from dig sites, Sligh notes, have been dumped on local landowners’ crops or pastures.

“You might say, ‘Oh, it’s just a little bit of dirt,’” Sligh adds, “but I saw one small stream—a habitat stream for an endangered fish—and they covered that stream for 3,600 feet in mud up to seven inches deep. And that wasn’t a unique occurrence.”

For Sligh, this is personal. 

“My family has lived in the mountains of Virginia for as far back as we can trace. I grew up as a Boy Scout, hiking and camping in all these places my grandparents and parents were from,” he says. “So I have a pretty deep connection here. The Mountain Valley Pipeline is attempting to assault a lot of the places I care most about in the world.”

But instead of looking at the churned up hillsides or buried streams and feeling despair, Sligh says this fight leaves him more hopeful than many in his long career. He sat down with Public Lands to explain why.

PUBLIC LANDS: First, give us a little background. What makes this particular area of Virginia worth protecting?

DAVID SLIGH: The Southern Appalachians are a real hotspot for biodiversity. We have remaining populations of all kinds of species that are found nowhere else in the world, from plants to birds to aquatic life. The eastern brook trout, which is the only trout species native to the East, used to be pretty widespread. Now, these are some of the last strongholds of its remaining populations.

These forests are also some of the largest intact, somewhat connected natural areas in the eastern United States. We get beautiful, clean water and pristine streams because we take care of the watersheds here, and a lot of communities rely on them. So this land is a resource we’ve really got to hang onto.

But, to play devil’s advocate, we have to get our natural gas from somewhere, right?

Well, there are other gas pipelines—like the huge one that runs from the Gulf all the way to New York. It can pump gas back and forth wherever it’s needed. We’ve proven that another pipeline isn’t necessary, especially since the markets have changed since the pipeline was first proposed in 2014.

At the same time, we shouldn’t be putting infrastructure in the ground that is going to bind us to these sources of energy for another 30 or 40 or 50 years. We are in the midst of a transition to cleaner sources of energy. We get to decide how quickly we want to make that transition.

A portrait of David Sligh Photo: David Sligh

So, what’s the status of the pipeline right now?

In the last two weeks [of Feb. ‘22], we won two court cases: one against the forest service and one against the Bureau of Land Management. [Both of those essentially denied or delayed building permits.] So there are still a few permits the company needs that they don’t have. This means that even though they keep talking about having 90 or 92 percent of this thing in the ground, they’re still far behind being able to finish it because they still have hundreds of water bodies to cross—and these are some of the most challenging areas to build in and the areas with the most potential for serious damage.

So that’s one of the things I tell people: Yes, they’ve done a lot of damage, but some of the most amazing, beautiful, and important areas are still out there. We have a huge amount left to save. And we’re going to fight for every inch of it.

What about the community’s reaction to this pipeline inspires you?

Since 2014, the people of Virginia have not let up. People have not gone away. They continue to fight despite what at times seems like insurmountable odds. I think this is a story about why every voice matters. I’ve never seen a fight, especially in Virginia, where people have been so constant and persevering.

And it works. You may have read about the Atlantic Coast Pipeline [a 600-mile natural-gas line that Virginians fought for six years before developers relented and canceled the project in 2020]. We beat that one. That was a fight against some of the hugest energy companies there are in this country, and they realized we weren’t going to go away, and they gave up. I think there’s a real chance the backers of Mountain Valley are going to come to the same conclusion.

In the meantime, it sounds hard to watch your home range getting destroyed like this. What else helps you stay hopeful?

I could be discouraged, but I concentrate on what I can do to influence the outcome. My outlook is that I’m privileged. I have the chance to get up every day and fight for what I care about and what I believe in. The vast majority of people in this world have to think about where they’re going to live and what they’re going to eat. I get to wake up and fight for what I care about.

For those who haven’t explored this area of Virginia, what are some good spots to get a sense for this place and why it’s worth saving?

In Roanoke County there’s the Bottom Creek Gorge, which is a Nature Conservancy preserve where the stream tumbles off the Blue Ridge on the east side and goes over these ledges that step down the valley. I think this area holds a fair number of the fish species in the whole state. It’s just one of these little treasures we have scattered throughout these mountains

Then there’s Craig Creek, a tributary near the headwaters for the James River, and it’s one of my favorite places in the world. There’s some designated wilderness here, and downstream you’ll find endangered mussels that need good, clean water. This is one of the little narrow valleys the pipeline proposes to cut through.

Go farther west, and right snug up against the West Virginia line there’s a little stream called Stony Creek that flows out of the national forest. It’s so characteristic of what we used to have in these mountains and what we need to hang onto.

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