Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Elder activists use 'gray superpower' to fight completion of Mountain Valley Pipeline

Third Act members greet Deborah Kushner and Donna Shaunesey after their release from jail
Courtesy Third Act Virginia
Third Act members greet Deborah Kushner and Donna Shaunesey (front row from left) after the pair's Monday release from the Montgomery County Detention Center in Maryland.

Deborah Kushner and 12 other protesters were arrested last July for stopping traffic for an hour and a half when they staged a sit-in on the Capital Beltway highway in Maryland. They were calling on President Joe Biden to immediately declare a climate emergency. 

“We have this clout, not only with our money and our power and our energy, but we have what I call ‘gray superpower,’ and we will not be dismissed as elders,” said Kushner, a retired mental health worker who lives in Staunton.  

As a leader of Third Act Virginia, which is part of a national climate justice organization, Kushner is fighting to halt further construction of the 303-mile Mountain Valley Pipeline that would carry fracked natural gas through Virginia and West Virginia. She marches in protests and meets with legislators to advocate for replacing fossil fuel with clean energy. 

“We are trying to awaken people to the urgency of this climate catastrophe,” Kushner told VPM News. “Our leaders are doing nothing. And this is global. Thirteen of us took action because we had to. It’s truly on each of us to take collective and individual action where and when we can because nothing will happen without regular everyday people stopping what they are doing to awaken to this nightmare happening all around us.” 

In August, Kushner and fellow activists attended a much different kind of gathering — a “Circle of Protection” in a park in southwest Virginia with a view of the Mountain Valley Pipeline. The group listened to bluegrass music, shared food and fellowship, and strategized about saving the planet and stopping pipeline construction.

Russell Chisholm, co-chairperson of the environmental advocacy coalition Protect Our Water, Heritage, Rights participated in the circle.  

“The Mountain Valley Pipeline has effectively carved a 300-mile sacrifice zone across the landscape from northern West Virginia, down to where the mainline project would end in southern Virginia,” Chisholm said. 

Mountain Valley Pipeline LLC., the organization overseeing the project, said it’s acting with care to ensure the safety of communities along the project’s route. 

Chisholm disagrees. He and Kushner have worked together on environmental issues for about a decade, including on MVP.

“I think Deborah has really helped raise the visibility of the MVP fight,” Chisholm said. “Third Act is a natural extension of that. They make good partners for climate and environmental justice organizers everywhere.”  

For Kushner, Third Act’s work has become her life mission.

“Third Act stands for justice,” she said “It’s Bill McKibben’s latest environmental organization for elder activists. I’m 67 and a half. I retired five years ago, as early as I possibly could, because although I loved my job, I felt there was so much more I needed to do for the planet.”  

Kushner and Third Act members regularly protest across Virginia and in Washington, D.C., where the pipeline battle continues in Congress. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) introduced a permitting reform bill this summer that would require federal agencies to approve continued construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline. Manchin used the pipeline as a bargaining chip to secure his support of President Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act.   

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) opposed Manchin’s bill and remains concerned about the 100 miles of the pipeline that run through Virginia, including through a national forest and several waterways. On Sept. 27, Manchin’s measure was removed from the president’s spending package, but the senator is still advocating for the pipeline.  

As the political fight continues in Washington, Kushner and her Third Act colleagues continue their grassroots fight. She and the 12 other people arrested last summer served a four-day jail sentence in Montgomery County, Maryland. They were released this past weekend. 

On Monday, elder activists and others shut down the same Capital Beltway site in Maryland. Seven were arrested.

Kushner was not at that protest but said she hopes to be at the next one: “We are fighting for our planet’s survival. It takes all of us, young and old. The fossil fuel industry puts profits over people. We need to honor the air, water, land and our living planet. We will use our gray superpower to protect our lives and the lives of future generations.”

Related Articles
  1. In Cumberland, how will a planned landfill impact a historic Black school?
  2. Biden’s federal action dispels ‘taboo’ around marijuana
  3. What does the future look like for energy production and job opportunities in southwest Virginia?
Related Stories