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If this river could sue … the Mountain Valley Pipeline gets a ‘Rights of Nature’ hearing

Native American tribunal members
7 Directions of Service
Casey Camp Horinek presided over the Yesah Tribunal last Saturday at the Haw River State Park.

Imagine receiving a subpoena on behalf of a river, forest or swamp. In a world where corporations can sue, why can’t Mother Earth? At least, that’s the premise of a new legal movement called Rights of Nature.

The Dan River and the Mountain Valley Pipeline were the subjects of a different kind of tribunal last weekend. More precisely, the river was the plaintiff and the pipeline was the defendant. The demonstration, organized by environmentalists and community members at the Haw Rivers State Park north of Greensboro, sought to raise awareness of a new legal movement — and highlight the impacts of expanding the use of fossil fuels.

A crowded conference room buzzed in front of a panel of five Indigenous judges from around the country.

“At this time, we would like to call this court to order,” said President of the Yesah Tribunal Casey Camp Horinek, as she banged her gavel to call the court into session.

The ancestral lands of the Yesah tribe include much of the same land where the 300-mile Mountain Valley Pipeline is currently under construction. The pipeline would carry fracked gas from West Virginia through Virginia. That part is largely complete. The proposed extension into central North Carolina is up in the air.

An “Earth prosecutor” called experts and witnesses to the podium to testify.

“It is a way of trying to give voice to community issues that are going on around the Mountain Valley Pipeline,” Camp Horinek said.

The International Rights of Nature Tribunal sanctions these demonstrations as an opportunity to educate the public on a new legal framework.

If this river could sue

“So, if someone were to violate a forest or a river, then that river has the right to sue just like corporations have the right to sue,” said Crystal Cavalier, founder of the environmental nonprofit 7 Directions of Service and a member of the Occaneechi-Saponi Tribe.

Cavalier sitting at a table
7 Directions of Service
Cavalier worked with Democratic Representative Pricey Harrison to file a bill that would grant rights to the Dan River ecosystem.

In April, Rep. Pricey Harrison filed House Bill 923 with the North Carolina General Assembly to grant rights to the Dan River ecosystem, which include rights to “full restoration, recovery, and preservation.” She sponsored a similar bill to grant rights to the Haw River last year.

“If the Rights of Nature, as a river, were to be passed in the state of North Carolina, it would be the first state in the United States that would recognize the rights of the river,” Cavalier said.

The proposed bill recognizes the Dan River and the surrounding land as the ancestral home of the Saura Tribe and the current home of the Saponi Tribe. If passed, the bill would guarantee North Carolina residents a right to a healthy Dan River ecosystem, and North Carolinians could sue on behalf of the ecosystem, listing the Dan River as the plaintiff.

Some local governments across the U.S. have passed rights of nature laws, but state authority supersedes them. In 2022, an environmental activist in Florida sued developers and regulators over a permit to impact waterways for commercial and residential development. A circuit court judge dismissed the case because state law preempted amendments made to the county charter.

Harrison admits it’s unlikely the bill would move in a Republican-controlled legislature, but told WUNC she hoped it might spark conversations about holistic environmental protections.

The trial

The court’s prosecutor, a professor at Coastal Carolina University, called Cavalier to the podium.

“The reason I feel that I am the case presenter or the appropriate person is because this pipeline is coming through our community, and it is affecting our current homelands as well as our ancestral homelands,” Cavalier said.

Twelve other witnesses and experts took the podium during the day-long demonstration north of Greensboro. Their concerns included sedimentation in nearby waterways, habitat loss, and property devaluation. Virginia state regulators recently fined the pipeline $34,000 for impairing waterways and wetlands during construction.

Residents of Pittsylvania County, Virginia, Anderson Jones and his wife testified to problems they’ve experienced near their property during construction of the pipeline.

“It was a disaster,” said Jones. “They put a mound across my farm, almost 600 yards across the farm. You could not use the farm road anymore. They did nothing to correct it with all the complaints we had.”

Crowd of spectators in a mock courtroom
7 Directions of Service
Witnesses included professors from local universities, environmental activists, and community members who live near the pipeline.

Communities near the pipeline are divided over the new fossil fuel infrastructure. Some community members want the new jobs and economic benefits the construction would bring. State and local officials have similarly been split between support and disapproval of the project.

“People are like, it’s bringing economic opportunity,’ but it’s only bringing it for eight months,” Cavalier said.

Duke Energy says it needs the natural gas the pipeline will bring to help it transition from burning coal. In a filing earlier this year, the utility assumed the timely completion of the Mountain Valley Pipeline to supply fracked gas to proposed combustion generators.

Governor Roy Cooper opposed extending the pipeline into North Carolina. He wrote a letter to federal regulators last summer saying that the state’s current emissions targets would render the pipeline obsolete not long after its completion.

If you’re wondering about the defense, organizers invited the pipeline’s legal team, but they didn’t show up. Nor did state regulators from North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia.

Pipeline spokesperson Shawn Day provided WFAE with the following written statement:

“The Mountain Valley Pipeline and MVP Southgate projects are recognized as important energy infrastructure projects that will provide families and businesses across the region with greater access to affordable, reliable and cleaner energy. These projects will play a vital role in promoting energy and economic security while also supporting state and national efforts to reduce carbon emissions associated with electricity generation.

“Mountain Valley is committed to the safe and responsible construction and operation of each project.” 

The tribunal ended after eight hours, as Camp Horinek delivered a verdict on behalf of the judges.

“It is the findings of this tribunal that, number one, Mountain Valley Pipeline is a violation of the Rights of Nature and should be stopped,” said Camp Hornek. “Number two, the Mountain Valley Pipeline Southgate should not be approved.”

The Mountain Valley Pipeline Southgate extension is still awaiting state permits in North Carolina. The company asked federal regulators to extend its deadline to June 2026.

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Zachary Turner is a climate reporter and author of the WFAE Climate News newsletter. He freelanced for radio and digital print, reporting on environmental issues in North Carolina.