What I learned in the PATH fight

On Aug. 24, just over four years after I first heard the phrase “Potomac Appalachian Transmission Highline,” or PATH, for short, the project was canceled because it wasn’t needed – the very argument that more than a thousand people in three states had been making since the beginning.

I’m not going to go through the lengthy saga of the fight, though there are a lot of interesting stories. More important, I learned a great deal about how a grassroots movement can take on established interests, whether corporate or political, and succeed. Here are what I consider some of the most important lessons learned.

Always start with the facts! When PATH first was presented to citizens at “town hall meetings” hosted by the power companies in August 2008, we showed up at every one. We went in with lists of questions, and used each meeting to ask new ones. None of us knew anything about transmission lines, or energy policies, or how to participate at the West Virginia Public Service Commission, but we learned. We talked to experts. We read congressional testimony. We shared what we learned with as many people as possible, some of whom suggested more research. It changed the fight; the power companies couldn’t just label their opponents as NIMBYs.

Reach out to as many people as possible. Many big projects cut across different jurisdictions. In PATH’s case, that was 14 West Virginia counties, two counties in Virginia, and in Frederick County, Maryland. We worked closely with citizens’ groups throughout that entire region. We went to each other’s hearings and spoke out; we tracked the application process in all three states; we shared information and ideas about next steps. In other words, we made a lot of noise with a unified voice. Here in Jefferson County, we built two groups of supporters — landowners who would be directly affected, and concerned citizens who listened to our arguments and looked at our facts and decided they agreed with us. We tried to keep all of them involved every step of the way.

Tangential victories are important. We asked our state legislators to introduce a bill requiring utility companies to send letters to landowners before the companies file an application with the PSC to build long distance transmission lines, and requiring that all affected parties be given the opportunity to participate in the agency’s process. We asked all our supporters throughout much of the state to call and email their delegations, and the bill passed easily and was signed into law. So the PATH fight has at least one enduring legal legacy; there won’t be as many landowners who feel ambushed in the future.

It may be intimidating to take on big companies, but they’re not all powerful. A lot of citizens dismissed our grassroots fight early on. They often said something like, “Why are you bothering? You know the companies will get their way.” The outcome of the PATH case proves this isn’t true. We often said to the doubters that we knew our chances were slim, but that if we didn’t try, our chances would be zero!

You’ve got to have fun! This has been a long, hard slog that involved hundreds of hours of time and thousands of dollars to lawyers and experts, while trying to keep up the morale of dozens of volunteers. So we did everything we could to make it fun! We had floats in Christmas parades; we took a booth at the Jefferson County Fair two years in a row; we invited folks to clean out their garages and donate things to our yard sales. We took road trips – I sure know my way to Charleston now, but groups of us went to Baltimore, Richmond, Wilmington, and numerous other places where we thought our presence would make a difference. We had parties when something positive happened, and we celebrated on our blog. We made friends.

There are way too many people to thank; I know I’d accidentally leave someone out, but I would like to say just how amazing everyone has been. They believe as I do, that nothing is inevitable if you stand up for yourselves.

 

— Patience Wait writes from Shepherdstown.

 

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