Stoneville Mayor Ricky Craddock oversees an Oct. 2 vote on resolution opposing a Mountain Valley Pipeline extension near the town. Credit: Elizabeth Ouzts / Energy News Network

The tiny hamlet of Stoneville is the latest local government to pass a resolution opposing a Mountain Valley Pipeline extension.

The town council in Stoneville, North Carolina, passed a resolution against the proposed extension of the Mountain Valley Pipeline on Tuesday, becoming the second local government in the state to oppose the interstate natural gas project.

The closely divided vote came after public testimony and the delivery of about 65 signatures from residents of this 1,000-person hamlet, a tobacco town turned tourist destination just south of the Virginia border.

“We have some very educated citizens who’ve done a lot of research and have spoken before this board about the possible, potential negative effects of this pipeline,”said council member Jerry Smith, who introduced the resolution. “I think we should listen to our citizens.”

The pipeline is now routed 15 miles east of the town, which has no formal authority over the project. But citizens argued Stoneville should stand up for the nearby Dan River and, in so doing, help start a wave of opposition in Rockingham County, where no other municipality has taken action.

“We’re the north star,” said Steven Pulliam, a Stoneville auto technician who volunteers with the group Good Stewards of Rockingham County. “We’re the top of this county. People are looking for a leader, and somebody needs to step up.”

‘These are not folks who are treehuggers’

The Mountain Valley Pipeline extension, called MVP Southgate, would add 72 miles to a gas pipeline originally slated to transport fossil gas from West Virginia to Virginia. Running through Rockingham and Alamance counties to serve residential and commercial gas customers, it would skirt the Haw River, cross the Dan River, and impact dozens of their tributaries.

While the larger Mountain Valley Pipeline is under construction, Southgate is still in its early stages. Its out-of-state backers expect to file a formal request to build with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission by the end of the year and hope to be in operation by 2020.

Southgate has faced intense opposition in Alamance County especially, where landowners along the proposed route say the pipeline company has intimidated and misled them, charges the company has denied. Critics bristle at the prospect of the pipeline company using eminent domain to force easement sales. The concerns helped prompt Alamance County commissioners to pass a unanimous resolution denouncing Southgate last month.

Like Alamance, Stoneville is no liberal enclave. President Donald Trump won the surrounding precinct by a whopping 42 percent, 12 points higher than his margin of victory in the county overall.

But other dynamics here are different. Stoneville property owners won’t be directly impacted under the current proposed route, and no affected landowners appealed in person to town councilors on Tuesday. Instead, citizens said opposition to the pipeline would be consistent with the town’s embrace of eco-tourism. The town promotes its two rivers, the Mayo and the Dan, along with its general pastoral vibe, to help entice tourists and new residents.

“It’s my gut sense that the majority of folks in Stoneville are conservative thinkers. These are not folks who are ‘tree huggers,’” said proud town resident Jenny Edwards. “They really understand that economic development and good environmental stewardship go hand in hand.”

Edwards and other pipeline foes said that was true of the surrounding county as a whole, which boasts a paddler’s guide to its four rivers – the Dan, the Haw, the Mayo, and the Smith – and more than 20 biking, hiking and walking trails.

“County tourism helps every town in Rockingham County,” said Pulliam. “The more pristine and unadulterated our waterways the more likely we are to keep and grow our tourism.”

Pulliam pointed out the pipeline could put another blemish on an area still recovering from the 2014 coal ash spill that coated 70 miles of the Dan River in toxic sludge.“We still combat coal ash issues,” he said.

Anti-pipeline sign in Alamance County, North Carolina.

Potential to set off chain of events?

Most of all, Pulliam and other citizens said they hoped the town’s action will prompt others in Rockingham to follow suit.

“We’re really happy about it, this is the first in our county,” said Pulliam. “I think this will set a chain of events off.”

The biggest link in the chain, Rockingham County, may be hard to secure, since the chair of the board doesn’t support a resolution, according to both Pulliam and another Rockingham County commissioner, Keith Mabe.

“I am just one of five commissioners and I cannot bring the resolution up for a vote,” Mabe said by email. “I can only support [Pulliam’s] group and was very pleased that Stoneville choose to support the opposition to the pipeline.”

Even the 3-2 vote in Stoneville may foreshadow difficulty ahead in getting other resolutions passed. The deciding vote came from councilor and mayor pro-tem, Lori Armstrong, whose unexcused absence automatically counted as a ‘yes,’ along with that of Smith and councilor Henry “Camp” Thornton. Councilors Johnny Farmer and Chuck Hundley voted against it, and since there was no tie, Mayor Ricky Craddock did not vote.

Farmer voiced his opposition at length, complaining that the measure caught him by surprise and wouldn’t influence the final outcome in any case.

“We can pass a resolution to say no to it, but it’s going to come down to the federal government,” Farmer said.

What may matter most is to the degree to which Alamance, Stoneville, and others can help galvanize landowners to force the pipeline company to use eminent domain for the right to cross their property. The feds’ only pipeline rejection in recent memory was based in part on plans to use eminent domain with more than 630 property owners.

The Stoneville vote came the same day a federal court of appeals dealt a blow to the larger, 300-mile leg of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, vacating the project’s permit to cross waterways in West Virginia and potentially halting construction along the entire route.

It wasn’t the first time the larger pipeline has faltered over environmental concerns, and it reinforced opponents’ contention that its extension into North Carolina would do more harm than good.

“It’s kind of saying ‘I’d like to build a garage on your house that I’m halfway through,’” said Pulliam. “I don’t think I’d trust the contractor at this point.”

And while the federal court’s ruling represents a bigger headache for the pipeline company than a small town’s eight-line resolution, advocates fighting the entire project said the latter definitely makes a difference.

“In and of itself, that isn’t going to stop the pipeline,” said Derek Teaney, senior attorney for Appalachian Mountain Advocates, “but it’s important for local communities as they are looking for ways to resist and make their voices heard.”

Based in Raleigh, North Carolina, Elizabeth has covered the state’s clean energy transition for the Energy News Network since 2016. She has also produced features for Environmental Health News and SEJournal, the news magazine of the Society of Environmental Journalists. A former communications director for the nonprofit Environment America, Elizabeth brings over two decades of environmental and energy policy experience to her reporting.