A pipeline runs through Southern news deserts

The proposed path of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline snakes 600 miles through West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina. Construction of the 42-inch-wide natural gas pipeline was halted in December 2018; later this month, the Supreme Court will hear arguments over a key permit that it would need to start up again. 

If the pipeline is built, then one of its three planned compressor stations—massive facilities that help compress and transport natural gas—will be located in Northampton County, North Carolina, a swampy, rural region where the vast majority of residents are black. The county is already home to industrial hog farms, a wood-pellet plant, and large landfills—other industrial projects that have enormous effects on the surrounding land and its residents. 

Northampton is also one of six counties in North Carolina without a newspaper, according to a University of North Carolina report on expanding news deserts. The number of newspapers in the state has declined by 22 percent since 2004. Pipeline updates—concerning permits, protests, hearings, lawsuits, and risks—are not consistently  covered in state newspapers or newspapers in neighboring counties, if they’re covered at all. 

All three states crossed by the Atlantic Coast Pipeline have a dearth of local newspapers, according to the UNC report. West Virginia has three counties without a newspaper; Virginia has seven. In about half of the 25 counties along the Atlantic Coast Pipeline route, print news comprises a single weekly paper; several weekly or daily papers cover more than one county. 

The counties along the route are some of the most rural and economically depressed parts of the US, in a region that is historically reliant on extractive fossil fuels. In North Carolina, seven of the eight counties the proposed pipeline would run through are predominantly black. 

These places lack consistent, informative local coverage of energy, justice, and the environment because of the declining number and resources of print news outlets, shifting the balance of news sources toward expanding corporate media monopolies. The areas are also overlooked by national media, which mostly parachute in to cover major updates or catastrophes or if they need a tie-in to President Trump’s policies—a dynamic that can perpetuate inaccurate stereotypes about these places. 

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The absence leaves ample space for powerful campaigns by Duke and Dominion, the pipeline’s developers and buyers of its natural gas, as well as industry-aligned lobbyists and politicians, to shape the pipeline narrative. Another result is misinformation and confusion about the status of a massive energy project that affects tens of thousands of people, several endangered species, and a variety of fragile ecosystems. The number of permanent jobs the pipeline is estimated to create varies, depending on whom you speak with. In some cases, property owners have been caught unaware of their rights or legal options when Dominion came knocking to claim eminent domain

When the pipeline was first proposed in 2014, local news outlets—particularly public radio and newspapers of record—diligently reported on it. (Several, including West Virginia Public Broadcasting, the Charleston Gazette-Mail, and Virginia Mercury, still do.) But in the ensuing years, as Dominion applied for permits and held public hearings, consistent, comprehensive coverage has mostly faded. 

In 2017, NPR and the Center for Public Integrity co-published a story investigating the pipeline boom in Appalachia and the lack of federal regulations surrounding it. But there’s been no updated version since, no return visit to see what stage the projects are in now. The only relatively consistent reporting from national media has come from paywalled publications like E&E News, and from journalists such as the Washington Post’s Greg Schneider, who has followed plans for a compressor station in Union Hill, Virginia, a community settled by freed slaves after the Civil War. (Union Hill is in Buckingham County, which has no local newspaper.) Meanwhile, the efforts of residents of Northampton County to stop their compressor station have been ignored. As for the third compressor station, proposed in Jane Lew, West Virginia, there’s been virtually no national media attention at all. 

In-depth reporting has been left to those local reporters for whom time and capacity are already in short supply. Occasionally, collaboration jumpstarts important local reporting: In 2018, a collaborative investigation by the Charleston Gazette-Mail and ProPublica revealed that West Virginia and federal regulatory agencies expedited the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, as well as the controversial Mountain Valley Pipeline, which is slated to run 303 miles from northwestern West Virginia to southern Virginia and is mostly in the ground. (Mountain Valley Pipeline construction was halted last year.)

But the majority of local stories by public radio stations, television stations, and papers have only enough space to focus on protests by anti-pipeline activists, arrests, and major lawsuits. Meanwhile, over the past six years, there have been hundreds of route changes, thousands of public comments, and dozens of lawsuits by landowners and environmental groups. 

 

Residents of Buckingham County attend a February 2019 town hall meeting about a proposed compressor station in Union Hill, Virginia, for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. AP Photo/Steve Helber

 

COVERING THE ATLANTIC COAST PIPELINE can be overwhelming, says Mason Adams, an independent journalist based in southwest Virginia who, for the past several years, has covered pipelines in Appalachia for local and national outlets. The ACP, he says, is complicated: it’s not a single spot on the map, and proceedings have stretched on for years. Local reporters need more training to handle FOIAs, federal agencies, major companies, and court reporting. “Smaller papers can’t set aside an entire body to cover this, much less over five to six years,” says Adams. 

From 2014 to 2017, Adams tried to publish stories about the Atlantic Coast Pipeline in multiple national outlets. His pitches were repeatedly declined, mostly because the Dakota Access Pipeline protests had already garnered so much press, he says. “I heard a lot of, ‘We have enough pipeline stories.’” Now, he says, the general dearth of coverage means that people are not paying attention, or that they think “it’s a done deal.” This is far from the truth: Dominion Energy needs new permits from several federal agencies, and the Supreme Court will determine this year whether the pipeline will be allowed to pass beneath the Appalachian Trail.

The weekly newspapers serving these counties have published dozens of stories pitting pipeline opponents against economic development officials. Many contain important project updates that readers wouldn’t find anywhere else, but others essentially serve as press releases for Dominion Energy without interrogating claims the company makes about job creation, environmental impacts, and legal challenges. The Record Delta, a weekly that covers Upshur County, West Virginia, recaps county commission meetings about the project with little context. Two years ago, two former Delta employees, including Katie Kuba, started a digital news outlet called My Buckhannon to reach more people online. Kuba works as both an editor and writer, however, and says she hasn’t been able to do as much in-depth reporting as she used to. Instead, she often writes brief updates about Dominion’s project plans—though, she says, “like all companies or organizations, there’s a certain viewpoint they’re arguing for, and you need to talk to environmental organizations and regular people to get the full story.” 

Last year, as part of its “Losing the News” report, PEN America published a case study on Robeson County, North Carolina. Donnie Douglas, editor of The Robesonian—the county’s primary news source—is “unabashedly conservative and pro-business,” writes Jeremy Borden in the report. The Robesonian has published several stories and op-eds on the benefits of the pipeline. Even when Douglas is intrigued by more ambitious stories, he often has to pass. Meanwhile, a local activist has taken on the role of a “quasi-watchdog journalist” in the area, according to the report, writing op-eds and hoping to hear back from reporters for a news story. 

 

Nearly every person I interviewed brought a binder they had filled with environmental assessment pages, public records, news clippings, notes from public hearings, emails and letters from Dominion and Duke representatives, and other documentation. One couple had filled an entire room in their house.

 

Low-income communities, rural communities, and communities of color are put most at risk by oil and gas development. They stand to lose the most, too, from a lack of information. Robeson County is 23 percent black, 31 percent white, and 42 percent American Indian; it is the largest county in the state, which has lost black-owned news outlets and Indigenous news outlets such as the Carolina Indian Voice. Without dedicated news coverage, some residents say, critical stories—about the struggles of Native American communities trying to keep their land, or other energy projects being built in communities of color—fall through the cracks. 

 

BEFORE ATLANTIC COAST PIPELINE construction was halted, I traveled its route to speak to people about how the project has affected their communities. Many were frustrated by the lack of critical pipeline coverage, and without investigative journalists to do this work, they had taken it on themselves. Nearly every person I interviewed brought a binder they had filled with environmental assessment pages, public records, news clippings, notes from public hearings, emails and letters from Dominion and Duke representatives, and other documentation. One couple had filled an entire room in their house. They shared the documents with one another and with nonprofit organizations, or emailed them to reporters. Some people wrote letters to the editor and op-eds to get information out when news stories wouldn’t cover it. The Allegheny-Blue Ridge Alliance, an environmental organization in Virginia, has sent out more than 200 weekly pipeline updates. 

Elizabeth Ouzts, a reporter for Energy News Network, started reporting on the pipeline in 2016, after her editor encouraged her to look into eminent domain lawsuits along the route. The overall lack of coverage, says Ouzts, has led to a “sense among the general public that natural gas is a good thing and not that it is a fossil fuel that is worsening the climate crisis.” This year, she wants to revisit those she spoke to over the last couple of years to update her stories. “There are real people who are still fighting this thing,” she said.

Belinda Joyner, an activist who lives in Northampton County, is one of those people. She says that most people she knows get their news from word of mouth or from Facebook, and sometimes through the Daily Herald, based in neighboring Halifax County. The lack of reporting around the pipeline has made her work as an organizer much harder. “When you’re not aware of things going on in your community, then you have no way of defending your community,” she says. “A lot of things can be done when people aren’t aware of what’s going on around them.”

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Lyndsey Gilpin is the founder and editor of Southerly, an independent media organization about ecology, justice, and culture in the American South. She is a freelance journalist based in her hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, InsideClimate News, High Country News, Outside, The Daily Beast, HuffPost, and more.