Survivors of Hurricane Matthew and indigenous communities in North Carolina are fighting to stop a pipeline they see as America’s next climate crisis.
Adrienne Kennedy used to live in South Lumberton, North Carolina, just off Martin Luther King Jr. Drive where Family Dollar and Dollar General flanked abandoned stores and homes that’d seen better days.
Adrienne took pride in homeschooling her boys and caring for an autistic cousin. For income she cleaned out foreclosed houses.
Poor, rural and flat, in the southeastern corner of North Carolina, Robeson County offered little opportunity. In 2014, the New York Times called it one of America’s 75 hardest places to live. While the rest of America recovered slowly from the Great Recession, Robeson was on the losing end of brain drain and a new economy with few living-wage jobs for people without college educations. As a 41-year-old, African-American, single mother of three, Adrienne was already playing a losing hand in rural America.
And that was before it rained.
"She braved water at her waist to find higher ground in a part of the world where there was none."
Hurricane Matthew struck the Carolinas in October of 2016 as a Category 1 storm. But low-lying counties like Robeson flooded unexpectedly. North Carolina declared a State of Emergency while twenty inches fell into the river flowing through South Lumberton.
Her neighborhood evacuated, but Kennedy stayed to check on her grandmother Hazel and women from church who couldn’t manage to escape.
“We started knocking on doors and telling people to shut off their power and get their pills,” says Kennedy, who braved water at her waist to find higher ground in a part of the world where there was none .
Rescuers came. FEMA put her in a Best Western until they stopped paying for the hotel room. “I thought I was going to go back to my house and live like a nomad,” says Kennedy who struggled to locate friends and loved ones until they could get back on Facebook.
Back in South Lumberton, home was not an option. There was mold in her house, and memories became piles of debris along the street.
The family ended up sleeping in the disaster relief center downtown, and Kennedy volunteered in the relief effort because that was her life. Hurricane Matthew killed 26 in North Carolina and caused nearly $5 billion in damages in the state.
The elementary school never reopened, Adrienne’s oldest son Marcus lost his job at the Smithfield plant for missing work during the hurricane, and the Kennedys ended up moving to Fayetteville some thirty miles away.
Adrienne and her family now consider themselves climate refugees, and she’s taken an interest in what she sees as the next crisis facing Robeson: the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.
The end of the line
The Atlantic Coast Pipeline is a 600-mile natural gas pipeline that would run from the mountains of West Virginia into the Piedmont of Virginia and down to the southern end of the Tar Heel State.
Announced in West Virginia in September of 2014, the pipeline would be a $5.1 billion project: a 42-inch diameter pipeline buried beneath the earth, below rivers, streams, farmland, and forests. It would bring 1.44 billion cubic feet of natural gas to North Carolina per day. Once constructed, the pipeline would enter North Carolina in Northampton County before crossing into Halifax, Wilson, Nash, Johnston, Sampson, Cumberland, and finally Robeson, eight of the poorest counties in the state.
“The northern part is the Black Belt where folks are descended from slaves,” says Nick Wood, a lawyer and community organizer who’s helping Eco Robeson and other organizations oppose the pipeline in Eastern North Carolina. “On the southern end you’ve got a large indigenous population as well as a growing Latino population.” The middle part of the path includes everyone: white, Black, brown, and mostly poor.
“Thirteen percent of those living within a mile of the pipeline in North Carolina are Native American,” says Ryan Emanuel, an associate professor in the Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources at North Carolina State University and a member of the North Carolina Commission of Indian Affairs' environmental justice committee.
The proposed pipeline runs through three of eight tribes recognized by the State of North Carolina: The Haliwa-Saponi, the Coharie and the Lumbee. Emanuel himself is Lumbee. His parents grew up in Robeson and he spent weekends and childhood summers with aunts and uncles there playing in streams and listening to stories.
Native Americans have been living on the land around Robeson since the Ice Age and still constitute the county’s largest ethnic group. “The Lumbee weren’t nomadic, they stayed in one place,” says Donna Chavis, a tribe member and cofounder of Lumberton’s Center for Community Action.
From farms to factories to unemployment, the economy of the Lumbee shifted through the centuries. But the tribe stayed with the land and supported the people. “I never knew I was poor because our community filled in the gaps,” says Chavis, who grew up with the toilet outside until she was 17.
Robeson was once a destination for manufacturing jobs that left northern towns. It offered factory owners cheap labor with no unions. A Converse plant here was one of the last to make tennis shoes in the United States.
But even that is gone. There’s always cheaper labor somewhere. “We used to say we’re the last stop before you leave the country,” says Chavis.
As a former social worker, Chavis understands the allure of a pipeline when nobody else seems to want to build anything in Robeson.
“The economic benefits of the pipeline are undeniable,” according to the website of the North Carolina Chamber of Commerce, which says the Atlantic Coast Pipeline would bring 17,240 jobs in construction and $680 million in new economic activity.
Critics say only 18 of those pipeline jobs are permanent. And this is a common debate over the economic benefits of pipelines: many of them are short-term, ending when the construction process is over. But in July, mayors from six communities along the pipeline’s path penned an open letter saying the pipeline would “breathe new life into our region’s economy.”
Robeson is divided. Despite significant Lumbee opposition to the pipeline, county commissioners and development leaders are in favor.
The local opposition is joined by the Sierra Club, Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, Clean Water for North Carolina, Frack Free NC, and the Alliance to Protect our People and the Places We Live.
Atlantic Coast Pipeline, LLC is a joint venture of Virginia’s Dominion Resources, North Carolina’s Duke Energy and Piedmont Natural Gas and Georgia’s Southern Company Gas. According to pipeline spokesperson Aaron Ruby of Dominion Energy, the pipeline’s intention is to meet demand for natural gas in North Carolina, especially in the eastern part of the state.
“There is not enough natural gas infrastructure in eastern North Carolina to support major economic development,” says Ruby, who also points to population growth in North Carolina driving demand.
Piedmont Natural Gas does currently distribute natural gas from the Transcontinental Pipeline to Eastern North Carolina. “But they’re fully tapped,” says Ruby.
According to the Southern Environmental Law Center, the need for the pipeline is overstated.
“The demand these companies show is contracts with their subsidiary utilities,” says Gudrun Thompson, a senior attorney at the center. “Utility developers have contracted for the vast bulk of the capacity. Something like 93 percent.”
Robeson needs jobs. But the pipeline also poses a perceived risk to the drinking water and the environment of the Lumbee, which they’ve depended on for centuries. “There’s a sense of David versus Goliath,” says Emanuel of his fellow Lumbee who are caught in the path. “Some are frustrated, other are resigned.”
In late September several pipeline opponents gathered along the Lumber River in Robeson, not for protest, but to reconnect with the water they’re fighting to protect.
Billed as “Rivers Run Through Us,” the event welcomed activists and Lumbee Indians for a day of kayaking and storytelling. Adrienne Kennedy’s eight- and nine-year-old sons Messiah and Meikei took canoeing lessons beneath the Spanish moss in the same Lumber River that flooded their home, Chavis welcomed guests from the Sierra Club, and Marvin Winstead enjoyed the Saturday weather in his aviators.
A farmer and former high school guidance counselor, Winstead’s 70 acres in Nash County sit directly in the pipeline’s path. He says he got a letter in 2014, informing him whether he liked it or not, the surveyors were coming.
Winstead was made an offer for an easement for the pipeline to run through his property. But he’s concerned about lost property value and the environmental risk to his farm, and he’s joined the opposition.
African-American church goers, white clergy, tribal members, and college students have demonstrated in recent months, marching from the North Carolina-Virginia border to the end of the line in Robeson.
They’re worried about the effect of the pipeline on wildlife, endangered species, and their local water supply. According to NC Policy Watch the pipeline would upend 419 acres of wetland, over a hundred acres permanently. Construction means blasting, drilling and trenching, the removal of trees and pine scrub and swamps and stream banks.
The pipeline goes under major rivers and the water source of hundreds of thousands of people. In North Carolina, Rocky Mount and Wilson’s water intake is within five miles downstream of the proposed pipeline.
The risk to water sources is one of many reasons why construction hasn’t started yet.
In July the pipeline received a favorable environmental impact statement from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and a final decision from FERC is due by October 19. However, under the Clean Water Act, individual states are responsible for certifying whether projects meet their standards.
Without state certification, the pipeline can’t go forward. After an application for approval by Atlantic Coast Pipeline, LLC in May, North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality held public hearings in Fayetteville and Rocky Mount, asked for additional documentation regarding the crossing of waterways, plans for restoring streams and the cumulative impact and has until the end of November to approve or deny water quality certification.
“If we’re concerned about the climate there’s nothing more important than stopping this pipeline,” says Wood.
The pipeline also needs air quality permitting for a proposed compressor station in Northampton County, a process which is in a period of public comment.
There’s reason to hope for environmentalists and Lumbee natives trying to stop the pipeline. West Virginia’s Department of Environmental Protection is reevaluating its own certification following a lawsuit buy Appalachian Mountain Advocates.
According to Ruby “the route is dictated by the needs of the customer” and once the route was chosen “we’ve made more than 300 adjustments over the last three years to avoid environmentally sensitive areas and to address individual landowners concerns.”
“We’ve adjusted to avoid wetlands, wildlife habitats, historic and cultural sites, and public and private drinking sources,” says Ruby, who still expects construction to begin this year once permitting is completed.
The choice for North Carolina
Outside of the effects on local communities from pipeline construction, many also feel the global climate is at stake. The Atlantic Coast Pipeline would transport natural gas from hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which proponents say is a cleaner alternative to coal-fired power plants. But when it does get into the air, methane gas from hydraulic fracking is likelier to trap heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide from burning coal.
According to Oil Change International, the estimated annual amount of methane leakage from the Atlantic Coast Pipeline from processing, transportation and storage would be 3.8 percent of production, equivalent to nearly 68 million metric tons of carbon dioxide a year, or 20 coal plants.
“If we’re concerned about the climate there’s nothing more important than stopping this pipeline,” says Wood. “If we can stop this pipeline they have to change course.”
Or it’s only the beginning. In September, Dan Weekly, the General Manager of pipeline operations at Dominion, told an energy conference that “everybody knows” the pipeline won’t stop in Robeson. “We could bring almost a billion cubic feet a day into South Carolina,” he told the audience.
But Ruby says there are no plans for expansion beyond the end of the line in Robeson.
Opponents of the pipeline are skeptical of taking energy companies at their word.
For now, the fight is in towns like Lumberton, where memories of Hurricane Matthew are still fresh. “It comes down to educating people about the choices,” says Adrienne Kennedy.
Climate change has already disrupted her life, and not just because of being displaced by Matthew.
Her mother lived in Long Beach, New York when Hurricane Sandy made landfall in 2012. Sand from the bay blew up to the door and shut her inside, and there were two feet of water in the house when the Coast Guard arrived.
Adrienne’s mother was never well again after that. She noticed her mother’s cough a couple months after the storm.
Within weeks, her mother was on a respirator. “They showed me pictures of what healthy lungs look like and what her lungs looked like,” says Adrienne, whose mom never smoked. “Her lungs were black and purple.”
Her mom died in April of 2013. Adrienne recently attended the funeral of her grandmother’s best friend in South Lumberton who died the same way as her mother: complications from pneumonia. Adrienne blames the mold.
Correction: A previous version of this story wrongly attributed a quotation to Greg Buppert, an attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center. That quote has been removed.