Battling the Great Black Snake
Singer/activist Michael Younger mixes revolution and rock & roll
These two simple questions — sung by Nashville musician and environmental activist Mike Younger on the song “What Kind of World” from his new release, the rootsy and insightful Little Folks Like You and Me — strike deeply for those who care about the environment in which we live, and reveal a lamenting heart which Younger wears on his sleeve. There is also tucked within the lyrics, perhaps even between the lines, an acknowledgement of the pitched battle in which he finds himself. His foe, the mythological black snake of Native American prophecies, comes to do harm to their peoples and land.
By standing ground locally against the construction of one of the largest natural gas compressors in the country, and by helping to organize and deliver Middle Tennessee support for those who fought construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock, N.D., Younger sounds a real alarm on behalf of the greater Nashville community, and beyond.
Of course, humankind and the snake are often at odds. The relationship runs deep within our collective psyche — from the days when the Judeo-Christian serpent walked upright, offering a certain fruit to the susceptible, to the asp in Cleopatra’s chamber, to the American colonial defiance of “Don’t Tread on Me,” and beyond, the bond holds a special place of dread in our world. Yet, spiritually, the snake’s presence is often subjugated, or denied, even as it lies on the path ahead.
Many Native American tribes, including the Sioux Nation, equate the Dakota Access Pipeline to the great black snake of a generations-old prophecy, and hold that it must be defeated in order to prevent destruction of the land and its people. The notorious pipeline is now operating and set to move more than 500,000 gallons of crude oil every day from the oil fields of North Dakota to Illinois, crossing the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s traditional lands near its reservation and sacred water source of the Missouri River. Though now operating, a federal judge has recently ordered more review of the pipeline’s environmental impact on the lands, potentially halting operation.
By making the connection between the fight at Standing Rock in North Dakota against Energy Transfer Partners, and the effort to stop the construction of the natural gas compressor in the Joelton area by energy giant Kinder Morgan, Younger is attempting to harness and galvanize a grassroots sense that all society is negatively affected by the aggression of the oil and gas industry.
He lives near the Kinder Morgan site, just north of downtown Nashville, which will also feel the effects of the toxic emissions from the natural gas compressor. “In the spring of 2015, Kinder Morgan notified a handful of residents in the vicinity of Whites Creek Pike and Greenbrier Lane, out in a rural community, that it was going to be the site of one of the largest natural gas compressors in the country,” Younger says during breakfast recently at The Family Wash. “We have a series of seven interstate pipelines that travel from the Pennsylvania and West Virginia shelf down to Texas and the Gulf Coast where they process. These pipelines join others passing through Tennessee on their way to Texas. The additional gas capacity that they are trying to produce is for export, not for domestic use, which makes their use of eminent domain even more dubious.
“Kinder Morgan notified the community that it was coming, and there was nothing the community could really do about it. We had 30 days to respond with comments to the federal regulators.”
Though always a champion for the environment, that was the beginning of Younger’s journey to a greater understanding — and his fight against the black snake. He began to embrace his community in a way he had not before, and to connect the dots. Common ground can be an interesting space.
“Joelton is really an impressive community,” Younger says. “It’s a rural, conservative, Christian community and not really too keen on environmental activism [as a general rule] — and sort of a lower-income, working class community. But the people recognized the threat this poses. We had joined the ranks, and become another vulnerable population in the path of fossil fuel — sort of the same way as with Standing Rock and numerous other communities across the country.
“I met a longtime local resident, J.H. Armstrong, when we started to organize as a community,” he continues. “We began to look at what we could do on the legal side and came to the agreement that the state of the existing pipelines passing through Tennessee are exposed in creek beds and ravines and are in terrible, corroded conditions. They were put in the ground originally between the mid- 1940s and the mid-1960s, and we believed they couldn’t possibly meet regulatory standards today. As a strategic channel, we photographed and documented the most egregious sites in the vicinity to show why a compressor station wouldn’t be a good idea in the area.”
To prove the infrastructure was being poorly maintained, Armstrong and Younger conducted the field study, meant to buttress legal challenges that began to unfold at the state and federal levels. Tragically, Armstrong was killed in a car accident before the release of the study’s findings, and Younger submitted that report in November 2015.
“I submitted the report to the authorities at the federal, state, and the local levels, Younger says. “It took me 3 1/2 months to get federal regulators to come from the Pipeline [And] Hazardous Materials Safety Administration in Atlanta — the pipeline regulator under the U.S. Department of Transportation. It took them that long to take me seriously enough to dispatch agents.
“In May of 2016, Cliff Hadley, J.H. Armstrong’s son-in-law, and I took the agents into the backcountry to show these terrible conditions we had reported — obvious corrosion and exposed welds in creek beds, advanced external corrosion. These are the same pipelines that are being counted on for increased capacity. They were flabbergasted . . . and they spoke of the authority to fine companies retroactively.
“I was hoping they were going to step in and do something, but instead, nothing. It was a bit of a peek behind the curtain.”
Younger was frustrated by the failure of Federal Energy Regulatory Commission or PHMSA to move forward and felt like the bureaucracy fostered inaction. Investigation was always “in the works,” and he believes a landscape of close industry relationships at federal and state levels creates a permissive regulatory environment, keeping much real work in stasis. To Younger and the entire community, which was well acquainted with the pipeline problems, the influence of the oil and gas industry was overwhelming.
He, and others supporting the fight, turned back to the local government and the question of air pollution in a quest for any remaining options. The Southern Environmental Law Center’s Ann Davis represented the community and mounted a legal challenge regarding the air quality impact. The Metro Council petitioned the Tennessee Air Pollution Control Board to enforce local zoning considerations and block the necessary permits required by Kinder Morgan.
Kinder Morgan had maintained that it would contain emission levels from the compressor at 9 parts-per-million (ppm), a level below the 25 ppm that removes any grounds for challenge at the federal level. Still, the city hoped the local zoning laws would hold sway. The company filed two federal lawsuits against the city of Nashville for withholding those permits, and the state board voted 10-2 in March in favor of Kinder Morgan.
“Local government here was great,” Younger says. “City councilmen passed ordinances and did not bend to the pressure from the industry. The council looked at clean air standards. Since federal regulators seemed to have no appetite to protect the public interest, the next step was to go to the state level. The city tried to implement the ordinances of containment of emissions, and the enforcement of industrial projects only being allowed to build in industrial zones.
“Nothing radical — this is policy in places like Mississippi where they don’t have a reputation of support for this kind of thing — even they have these policies in place,” he says. “We went before the air pollution control board, asking the state to adopt our two metro ordinances [into the State Implementation Program]. They [the board] refused. There were several of them on the board with open ties to industry, and they did not recuse themselves. Then, Kinder Morgan’s people in our statehouse introduced and passed legislation under Republican leadership to permanently strip Tennessee communities of any local control over air quality standards tied to the Federal Clean Air Act and local zoning. Whose interests were they protecting? Certainly not the public interest.
“Some board members had conflict of interest, and rode the vote to be pro-industry. [Gov. Bill] Haslam appoints those people. It’s wrong that pro-industry people are sitting on the boards that control our air quality.”
Following that vote and a 45-day EPA review, the Metro Nashville Health Department approved the permits, and Kinder Morgan is now clear to begin construction on one of the largest fracked-gas compressor stations in the country (60,000 horsepower), soon to be followed by another, slightly smaller compressor station in Cane Ridge.
“The mayor (Megan Barry) and her administration had to green-light the project at the 9-ppm levels to avoid getting hit really hard by those lawsuits,” Younger says. “The problem with the emission levels, though, is that there is no one looking over their shoulder to make sure they hit the mark, at the local, state, or federal level.
“We know the impact it will have on the city of Nashville — the downtown area as well as outlying areas,” he continues. “Scientific studies have made the comparison of roughly 18,000 cars sitting stationary with the engines running 24 hours a day. Add that to the state of the Nashville air quality index, in which we are always on the cusp of standard compliance, and you can see what this will do.” Younger, and others, intend to continue to fight, though the path of meaningful resistance is very narrow. He clearly believes it to be a moral obligation, one partly borne of his personal experience at Standing Rock in the fall of last year.
“It was an honor to deliver my community’s support for Standing Rock,” he says. “I wasn’t sure they would make the connection between what we were facing here and what they were facing there, but they did. The farmers and residents of Joelton and North Nashville and really, Middle Tennessee, were so generous with their support of Standing Rock. We made a donation of seven live hogs and hitched a livestock trailer to a cargo truck. The truck was packed to the rafters with dry goods, canned goods, fuel, tents, blankets. I was very proud of that.
“I made that delivery with Mack Wilson, who’s the head of the Davidson County Council of Community Clubs. We stayed in camp for 10 days.”
During that time, Younger witnessed what he considered heavy-handed tactics by North Dakota law enforcement and private security firms in breaking up the resistance at the original Sacred Stone Camp, and two supporting camps. “The airplane that was flying over the camp never stopped and was flying very low,” he recalls. “The basic elements of life were restricted. Cell phones and social media were jammed and under surveillance. I was so inspired to see so many diverse people from all across America. I personally didn’t jump the fence to get down to where the pipeline was, but some people who were returning from there were injured and some were gassed, and some had been pepper-sprayed.
“On the day we left, Oct. 27, all hell was breaking loose. People were shouting orders to shut off access to the camp from all directions so the elders, and the women and children, could be spared the brutality of the riot police, armed with tear gas and rubber bullets, bean bag rounds, and shotguns. They were shooting people at pointblank range.
“What I witnessed were women and children and elders linking arms, singing songs, and creating a wall. Armored personnel carriers were pushing them back and armored police were waving batons, and all manner of high-tech ‘war-on-terror’ equipment was being used on American citizens.”
Younger and Wilson made it out with the borrowed truck and trailer intact, and a new appreciation of sacrifice and commitment. Younger had been especially moved by the reception the pair had received at the camp, an experience that allows him to carry the fire today. They were called before the tribal council after they had been in camp a few days, a ritual that was required of all arrivals.
“We spoke through a bullhorn to the entire camp,” Younger says. “We told them we were from Tennessee and the community of Tennessee supported them, and that farmers and residents had contributed supplies, and we stood by them one hundred percent, and acknowledged we were also fighting the black snake. There was a thunderous welcome and applause when we were speaking — they danced and they drummed and applauded. The whole camp erupted around us, and it made my hair stand on end. I felt this tremendous honor to be there on behalf of my community.
“I returned home and relayed that to the people in the community, and I know the people that contributed to the load felt that same pride and honor that I felt at that moment. I tried to convey that — the honor and the gratitude and the feeling of community of connection that was palpable in Standing Rock. It wasn’t just among the people who lived there, but was extended to all the people that had joined them and those who supported them from different places.”
Back home, it wasn’t just a sense of commitment that stuck with Younger when facing the construction of the Kinder Morgan gas compressor. A strategy employed by the opponents of the Dakota Access Pipeline rang true.
“I believe when this type of corruption overplays its hand, it inevitably leads to a backlash,” Younger says. “Our community has embarked on a divestment campaign. We learned from the Standing Rock people. They went to the financial institutions and identified the underpinnings that allow these corporations to go around and bully and corrupt our public institutions. We need to go after the hundreds of millions they get in advance while their pipelines are under construction. We have identified the main institutions that provide the underpinnings for Kinder Morgan, and we are talking to city council members who are going to spearhead this effort.
“The Trump administration may have pulled us out of the Paris Accord, but I believe our mayor’s vision of this city is part of the greening of America and that Nashville doesn’t want to go backwards in terms of pollution and dirty energy. We want to keep moving forward. The conditions are right to create this divestment campaign.”
Younger, of course, has no problem standing — or delivering. No tin soldier, he. And, it is the same sense of purpose that informs his music. Cut from the same socially conscious cloth as Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, or more accurately, as fellow native Canadian Neil Young, Younger believes his environmental activism and music are two parts of the whole.
“You see the overwhelming nature of this,” he says. “It’s so daunting, that as a musician I really felt I could get diverted away and sidetracked from my primary ambition, which is to be a musician and to deliver a message, yes, but to deliver something uplifting and positive to the public sphere.
“Coming from the musical tradition — I tip my hat to Woody Guthrie, John Lennon, and Bob Dylan, and other songwriters who always wrote about the contentious issues of their time. My generation and young artists have shied away from it so not to hurt their career. I have decided I won’t turn my back on my activism because they’ve become one and the same. For artists to bite their tongue and not stand up for something — that idea has become outdated and we don’t have time anymore for that.”
Younger believes there’s no higher calling than to be a voice for those who have lost theirs. His songs are often written for those systematically marginalized in our society. It’s not a put-on.
“On the subject of songwriting there’s the personal and the universal — the collective experience,” he says. “The two types of songs can be broken into the two categories like that. You don’t have to be bashing someone over the head, but I really believe in the bottom of my heart, that if you’re not standing for something, then you stand for nothing.
“Let’s put a little bit of revolution back in our rock & roll. We did it a generation ago and ideas transformed our society. People need to have enough clear perspective on it, and enough courage to be willing. It’s really that simple.”