Ben Cunningham grew up in Nelson County and has fallen more in love with his home every day. When Dominion Energy announced the Atlantic Coast Pipeline Project, a 600-mile long natural gas pipeline, would run through part of Nelson County, Cunningham knew he had to combine his love of Nelson and his interest in geography to help his home.
Cunningham graduated from Mary Washington University in Fredericksburg in 2016 with a degree in geography and a minor in Spanish.
Cunningham got involved with Friends of Nelson, a nonprofit group that describes itself as being dedicated to protecting property rights, property value, rural heritage, and the environment for all citizens in Nelson County, while still in school.
“I started getting involved with the movement other folks had kindled. I went to events and rallies for Friends of Nelson; they were [the]first of their kind to organize. I got my schooling involved,” Cunningham said.
Directly after college, Cunningham became involved with Friends of Buckingham because he saw a need.
“I saw they had fewer resources and were in danger of the compressor station,” Cunningham said. The compressor station in Buckingham County is one of three along the proposed ACP route according to Dominion Energy’s website. Dominion Energy said compressor stations are needed to maintain pressure and allow the gas to flow naturally through the pipeline.
After that, Cunningham served on the board of Friends of Nelson from 2016 to 2017 and now works for the Alleghany-Blue Ridge Alliance as the Virginia Field Coordinator for the Compliance Surveillance Initiative (CSI) program. Cunningham also is an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) drone coordinator.
Now, Cunningham contracts for Friends of Nelson to help them use the CSI system.
The CSI computer system allows residents to track and monitor the construction and progress of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline on their own. It was first developed primarily by Daniel Shaffer in Staunton in 2016 and has evolved over time to properly and accurately track the ACP said Shafer. Although no construction has begun in Virginia yet, Dominion Energy has received easements to over 80 percent of the land needed for the construction and has begun cutting down trees in certain areas of Nelson County.
Shaffer has been working with Cunningham since he was in college and hired as an intern at Alleghany-Blue Ridge Alliance.
“I met Ben through a referral from initial work through Friends of Nelson. He was looking for an internship. He came on as an intern while in school and showed aptitude and was interested in getting involved with the efforts over all,” Shaffer said.
Cunningham was hired full time by the Alleghany-Blue Ridge Alliance in 2016, Shaffer estimates, and has been great to work with since.
“Working with Ben is great. He has incredible enthusiasm. He’s really good at connecting with people and connecting people together for a common goal,” Shaffer said.
As part of his most recent work to fight the pipeline, Cunningham holds training classes for residents so they can learn about the CSI program.
“It’s an organizing tool for local volunteers to track the pipeline. It’s also an analysis and monitoring tool,” Cunningham said.
Since March, Cunningham has held over a dozen trainings all over Nelson and the surrounding counties as well as in West Virginia. Cunningham wrote the user guide to the CSI program himself but credits Shaffer with actually creating the program.
Cunningham said it’s important to have this system of tracking and monitoring so residents can keep an eye on the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality in order to make sure the job they are supposed to do gets done and to monitor and document Dominion Energy to make sure they aren’t doing anything they aren’t supposed to be doing.
“The CSI program is a way of getting evidence-based data,” Cunningham said.
Trainings depend on the needs of the residents and vary greatly from session to session. Cunningham said sometimes the training session is general and focuses on how to use the website. Other training sessions are more specific and include how to become a drone user or how to monitor water quality to know the difference between water that has been affected by the pipeline project and water that has not.
At a Dec. 6 training session in Nelson County Memorial Library in Lovingston, more than 10 residents showed up. The session was focused solely on how to navigate through the CSI website.
Cunningham showed the residents how to get onto the website, how to look up specific locations in Nelson County where the pipeline is set to go through, and how to use different aspects of the website.
“Our intention is not to control how you use this. Use it at your discretion,” Cunningham told the group.
Shaffer said the CSI mapping system can be used for any project requiring mapping and tracking, but Allegheny-Blue Ridge Alliance’s use is specifically for the ACP.
Ernie Reed, Central District representative on the Nelson County Board of Supervisors, attended the meeting to learn how to do his due diligence as a private citizen against the pipeline.
“Groups around the country are looking at this program,” Reed said.
With the training, residents can take pictures of anything they see regarding the pipeline project. Documentation includes photos of trees being cut down, possibly polluted water, or possible construction in areas where there shouldn’t be any. They can also mark locations online where they believe something unprecedented is happening and they want Cunningham to check it out in person.
Cunningham was all smiles and full of patience as he took the skills he learned in college and applied them to teaching others just as eager to defend Nelson County.
Cunningham said part of his job also includes setting up a lot of data management intake forms so residents can properly submit photos and other documentation of potential issues they have seen in their area.
“He just has great enthusiasm and infectious energy. Ben’s personality brings something unique,” Shaffer said.
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