Tag Archives: Atlantic Coast Pipeline

Pipeline Approaches Approval, but Foes Still Full of Fight

Ridge removal zones along the ACP route are shown in red based on Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition calculations.

From the perspective of its managing partner, Dominion Transmission, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is looking more and more like a done deal. Dominion has completed more than 65% of the high-performance steel pipe needed to build the roughly 600-mile pipeline, and it has procured almost 85% of the land, materials and services it needs, pipeline executives disclosed today.

Pipeline officials also say they are nearing the end of a two-year regulatory process. In December, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) issued a favorable draft Environmental Impact Statement. The final EIS is expected by June 30th.

“We have every reason to believe the favorable draft EIS and — ultimately — the final EIS will provide a strong foundation for final approval of the project later this summer or in the early fall,” stated Diane Leopold, CEO of Dominion Energy, the pipeline’s managing partner, in a press conference this morning.

But foes of the pipeline have raised an issue they hope will derail ACP’s plans. The pipeline will cross 38 miles of mountains in Virginia and West Virginia that would require 10 feet or more of their ridge tops to be removed — up to 60 feet in places, they claim. Comparing the pipeline construction to the coal industry’s practice of mountaintop removal, Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, said in a dueling press conference today that the pipeline would cause “irrevocable harm” to the region’s environment.

Creating flat space on steep mountaintops to provide room for trench digging and construction activity would require removal of an estimated 247,000 dump-truck loads of excess rock and soil, asserted Dan Shaffer, spatial analyst with the Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition. Finding somewhere to place the massive volume of this “overburden” even temporarily without causing runoff into rivers and streams will be a huge challenge, he said, And, even though ACP would be required to restore ridge lines to their “approximate original contour,” breaking up the rock causes the volume to swell, creating a large amount of spoil that must be permanently disposed somewhere.

Pipeline foes raised these concerns about “mountaintop removal” with FERC in comments submitted during the draft impact statement. The draft document “failed to address this important issue,” noted Ben Luckett, an attorney with the Appalachian Mountain Advocates. He contends that the pipeline requires a new draft EIS and a new public comment period.

Even if FERC declines to re-open the draft process, anti-pipeline forces plan to raise the issue in state “401 certification” water-quality reviews. In Virginia the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has promised to allow extensive public input. Given the potential for massive runoff, erosion and sedimentation, said Luckett, “states cannot reasonably make a determination that the pipeline won’t lead to violations of clean water standards.”

Dominion spokesman Aaron Ruby strenuously objected to the comparison of pipeline construction with coal-mining mountaintop removal, which “conjures up images of mountains that have been completely flattened. … We’re not removing the tops of mountains. That is total misinformation.”

Building pipelines in rugged mountain terrain “is not new to us,” said Leslie Hartz, vice president-pipeline construction for Dominion Energy. Only “small clearings” will be required for construction purposes on ridge lines. Contractors will restore the terrain with native material to its original contours, as required by FERC. There may be a “small amount” of spoil left over, but ACP has identified ways to employ it usefully for other purposes.

In describing the construction process, Hartz said the project would be broken into 17 “spreads,” or construction units, each of which will be built simultaneously in linear fashion. Mountainous terrain would have shorter lengths, perhaps 15 to 20 miles. Some blasting would be required to remove rock, she said. Material left over after the mountain contours are restored will be used to re-establish habitats and create protective barriers to restrict access to right of way.

Pipeline foes question whether ACP fully comprehends the challenges it faces. The Friends of Nelson, contracted with Blackburn Consulting Services LLC to walk the route along Roberts Mountain. The soil there is thin, and construction will require extensive blasting to remove enough bedrock to dig pipeline trenches eight feet deep. Some slopes along the route are precipitous, as much as 65°. (Forty degrees qualifies for a black diamond ski slope.) Creating 125-foot wide rights of way would require removing enormous amounts of rock.

States an issue brief released by the pipeline opponents:

Numerous engineers who have looked at this issue have asked the obvious question: What does Dominion plan to do with the tremendous amount of overburden? Dump it into surrounding valleys as companies do with mountaintop removal for coal? Truck it off the mountains with massive dump trucks? And take the massive amounts of rock and soil to what location?

While ACP has vowed to restore the mountains to their approximate original contour in line with FERC requirements, foes say there is a qualifier. ACP will restore the mountain ridges to the extent practicable “taking into consideration cost, existing technology, and logistics in light of the overall purpose of the ACP.”

Ruby retorted that ACP understands the challenges far better than the pipeline foes. For starters, he said, there is no need to flatten a 125-foot-wide area on the ridge line, he said. The company will carve out just enough space to excavate the trench, which will be “significantly narrower” than 125 feet.

Further, he said, the company has “one of the most protective programs ever used by the industry, specifically designed to provide enhanced protection of soil erosion. We have site-specific plans for every steep slope we encounter, based on the unique conditions and characteristics of each slope.” These plans take into account the soil type and depth, the grade of the slope, the depth of the bedrock, the width of the ridge line and the types of vegetative cover.

ACP also disputed the Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition estimate of construction impact.

In explaining how he calculated miles of ridge-line impacted and thickness of overburden to be removed, Shaffer said that he was forced to rely upon publicly available information. He used the centerline depicted on Dominion Project Facility Maps submitted to FERC (here & here), generated a 125-foot Right of Way from that and overlaid them with topographical and elevation data. He estimated the thickness of the mountain that would be removed by creating transects across the Right of Way at periodic intervals and sampled the elevation value along each transect. The methods, he conceded, were “fairly simple.” While acknowledging some room for error, Shaffer said there was no escaping the conclusion that the impact would be significant.

The assumption that ACP will cut away a full 125 feet is wrong, Ruby said. Without the assumption, the rest of the analysis falls apart.

A Brain-Frying Foray into the Regulatory Maze

OK, folks, it is time to plunge into the arcana of environmental regulation. The subject matter might prove of interest if you’ve been tracking the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) and Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) controversies, especially if you’re deeply immersed enough to be familiar with the dust-up over seemingly contradictory press releases issued by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) on April 6 and April 7, and the Freedom of Information Act request that ensued. If these matters have escaped your notice, however, be forewarned. We cannot guarantee that your eyeballs won’t glaze over, turn to stone, and drop out of your skull sockets.

On April 6, the DEQ issued a press release which was widely reported in the Virginia media — to wit, that the department had “notified ACP and MVP that in addition to utilizing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers nationwide permit 12 for wetland and stream crossings, DEQ will be requiring individual 401 water quality certifications for each project.”

That sentence is incomprehensible unless you know what “nationwide permit 12” means, what “401 water quality certification” means, and what the difference is between a “nationwide” permit and an “individual” permit.

At issue are hundreds of wetland and stream crossings along the proposed routes of the two pipelines. Environmentalists are concerned that rugged slopes and karst geology of the mountains in Virginia and West Virginia will make it impossible to dig pipeline trenches without creating erosion and releasing sediment into rivers, streams and wetlands. The pipeline companies say they are equipped to handle the challenging conditions.

As part of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission-led regulatory review of interstate pipeline projects, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers must grant a “401 certification,” which states that a project meets the requirements of Section 401 of the Clean Water Act. The DEQ, the agency in charge of state water-quality regulation, has the option of accepting the Corps of Engineers 401 certification or getting more deeply involved. In this instance, given the magnitude of the pipeline projects, DEQ decided that it, too, had to grant 401 certification, meaning that the projects must abide by Virginia water-protection regulations. (See the Update below.)

By mentioning “Permit 12” in its press release, DEQ was alluding to a particular category of projects that include “energy generation facilities, living shorelines, aids to navigation, dredging, utility line activities, aquatic habitat restoration, and removal of low-head dams.” The ACP and MVP are both covered under the rubric of utility line activities.

The big news in the press release was DEQ’s shift from “general” permits to “individual” permits. To obtain a general permit, a pipeline company must demonstrate that it meets a basic checklist of requirements. “All you have to do is turn in your checklist,” explains DEQ spokesman Bill Hayden. By contrast, the “individual” permit required by DEQ entails going beyond the checklist. Among other requirements, DEQ will hold public hearings for each project and provide extended periods for public input.

Groups opposed to the pipelines hailed this news as a positive development. The reaction of the pipeline companies was along the lines of, meh, this wasn’t what we were looking for, but we can live with it.

The next day, DEQ issued another press release. This one stated that DEQ “has provided water quality certification for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers 2017 Nationwide Permits.” More specifically:

DEQ found that there is a reasonable assurance that the activities permitted under the Corps’ Nationwide Permit program, including the Norfolk District Corps’ Regional Conditions, will be conducted in a manner that will not violate applicable water quality standards, provided permittees comply with all applicable Section 401 conditions.

The coincidence in timing between the two press releases created the impression that they were connected. People in the environmental community wondered if the communique represented a rollback, or partial rollback, of what DEQ had stated the previous day. At the very least, wrote Rick Webb, project coordinator for the Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition, DEQ had “muddied the waters.”

“We do not agree that the Corps’ NWP  12 (nationwide 12 permit) is appropriate for either the ACP or MVP and have made that argument to the [Corps of Engineers,” says David Sligh, regulatory system investigator with the DPMC.

In order to gain insight into the basis for DEQ action, DPMC filed a Freedom of Information Act request. DEQ responded that it would require a seven-day extension beyond the normal five days it had to respond. The anti-pipeline people replied that DEQ should be able to respond more quickly and did not accept its reasons justifying the delay. On April 12, DPMC delivered a petition for injunctive relief, demanding the DEQ meet the legal requirement of five-day delivery. In an widely distributed email, Webb took issue with DEQ’s inability to deliver the documents on the grounds of “the complex nature” of the request, and accused the department of “changing its story.”

DEQ staff explained that the records could not be obtained immediately because the staff who held them were out of the office. DEQ and DPMC eventually reached an agreement for the records to be furnished by April 25.

The irony is that the second press release, though addressing the same regulatory process, DEQ contends, was unconnected to the previous day’s announcement. The department had completed a routine, five-year review to see if Nationwide 12 permits were consistent with Virginia water-quality regulations. The review concluded that they were, and DEQ issued the press release to say so. The timing — one day after the first press release — was coincidental, Hayden tells Bacon’s Rebellion. The complexity of the regulatory process contributed to the confusion over the announcement’s meaning.

Bacon’s bottom line: Conclusion #1: The regulatory process is insanely complicated. Conclusion #2: DEQ and environmental groups need to develop a better way to communicate with one another than issuing press releases and filing FOIA requests.

Update: David Sligh says my description of how the regulatory process works is wrong. Here’s how he describes it:

“As part of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission-led regulatory review of interstate pipeline projects, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers must grant a Clean Water Act section 404 permit for work done directly adjacent to streams and wetlands. The Corps has a Nationwide Permit that can cover such work related to a broad group of utility line waterbody crossings but the Corps also may conduct reviews and issue individual 404 permits where it deems that option preferable or where a project cannot meet the standards allowing coverage under the NWP. To proceed with a project under either the nationwide or individual 404 permit, the State of Virginia must issue a Clean Water Act section “401 certification,” which states that a project meets the requirements of water quality standards designed to protect state waters. Again, the state may cover a particular project under a blanket 401 certification, that says the whole class of activities covered under the NWP will meet water quality standards, or Virginia may conduct individual 401 reviews, which the state has now announced they will do for each of the major pipelines (the MVP and ACP).”

What’s Next for the Pipeline Controversies?

DEQ will tighten erosion regulations on steep slopes like this for construction of the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline and Mountain Valley Pipeline in Virginia.

Virginia’s DEQ will pay close attention to construction on steep slopes like this for the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline and Mountain Valley Pipeline.

With the announcement last week that Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) would provide closer scrutiny of water-quality standards than legally required, battles over the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and Mountain Valley Pipeline shift from the federal level to the states.

Foes of the natural gas pipelines have failed so far to block the projects in the federal permitting process. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which approves or denies interstate pipeline projects, found in separate draft environmental impact statements that, with appropriate mitigation, the ACP and MVP projects can be reduced to “less than significant levels.” DEQ’s announcement throws environmental and citizen groups a lifeline by giving them another shot at blocking the pipelines.

“We are confident that a full-fledged review of the projects will show that there is no way they can be built and operated without harming water quality, said Mike Tidwell with the Chesapeake Climate Action Network in a press release. “Allowing public input will further highlight the enormous public opposition to the MVP and ACP.”

“It’s a big announcement, and we’re very happy about it,” David Sligh, regulatory system investigator with the Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition (DPMC), told Bacon’s Rebellion. “DEQ cannot issue a certification for the ACP as a whole without accounting for all the water bodies affected. .. It’s a huge chore. … I do not think it’s possible for either ACP or MVP to do what they propose to do and meet water quality standards.”

The ACP and MVP response to the DEQ announcement has been muted. “Throughout this process, we’ve worked with state and federal agencies to ensure the project receives a thorough environmental review with robust public participation,” said ACP spokesman Aaron Ruby. “We stand ready to work cooperatively with DEQ on an efficient review and timely process.”

In the Byzantine regulatory process governing interstate pipelines, FERC relies upon the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (COE) to review water crossings for impact on water quality. DEQ had the options of deferring to the COE, of issuing a general permit that calls for basic protections to be met, or of undertaking its own in-depth review. In choosing the in-depth analysis, DEQ will hold additional public hearings and provide more time for citizens to provide input.

The main issue, according to the DPMC and other activist groups, is that general permits do not adequately address the challenges of massive pipeline projects that cross hundreds of water bodies. Construction, which entails the digging of trenches, is particularly problematic where steep mountain slopes elevate the risk of landslides and erosion that release sediment into rivers and streams, and in sinkhole-ridden karst terrain, where polluted water can travel undetected before surfacing miles away. Steep slopes and karst are characteristic of the mountains of western Virginia where both pipelines would cross.

Sligh told of a colleague who walked a section of the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline route with a local resident and found three or four springs that state and federal agencies were unaware of. It is imperative, he says, that citizens with in-depth local knowledge of the terrain be given a chance to provide input on how the pipelines propose to deal with each specific stream crossing.

Pipeline foes have had little luck in either North Carolina or West Virginia, the other two states impacted by the pipelines. The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection has granted a water-quality permit for the 195-mile segment of the Mountain Valley Pipeline that runs through the Mountaineer state. Little opposition to the pipelines has surfaced in North Carolina. That leaves Virginia as the stopgap.

If DEQ sides with the pipelines, the battle still is not necessarily over. In West Virginia, Mountain Valley Advocates, an anti-pipeline group, seeks a hearing with West Virginia regulators to dispute the department’s issuance in March of MVP’s water-quality certification. If that bid fails, environmental groups have the right to sue. But the odds of stopping the pipelines seem to get longer with each passing day.

Fix the Broken Regulatory Process

There must be a better way for federal agencies to review infrastructure mega-projects.

A few days ago, I asked why, after three-and-a-half years, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has yet to give a yea or nay on Dominion Virginia Power’s permit request for the Surry-Skiffes Creek transmission line. The issue I’m raising isn’t what the Army Corps decides but how long it takes to reach a decision. Because of the interminable time spent pondering the permit application, citizens and businesses on the Virginia Peninsula will be at risk of blackouts this year and next, if not longer.

Today, the Richmond Times-Dispatch highlights the frustrations expressed by Diane Leopold, CEO of Dominion Transmission (DT), sister company of Dominion Virginia Power and managing partner of the proposed $5 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP).

“To make these beneficial investments we need certainty from federal agencies. Not a rubber stamp, but a rational path forward with clear processes, reasonable schedules and reasonable decisions,” said Leopold in testimony to the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

The pipeline requires more than 18 major federal permits and authorizations from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the National Parks Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The most visible hang-up at the moment, as judged by Robert Zullo’s article in the T-D, appears to be with the Forest Service.

Dominion says it will use state-of-the-art technology and best practices that will minimize the risk of landslides and erosion on steep mountain slopes. But environmentalists claim that Dominion is under-estimating the landslide risk, and it appears that the Forest Service shares their concerns. Dominion is convinced that it’s right, and its foes are equally persuaded that they’re right. The debate will never be settled by having one side back down.

Why does this have to be so hard?

Instead of a time-consuming bureaucratic battle, why not just specify the desired erosion-and-sediment-control outcomes and require the pipeline to meet them? A reasonable approach would entail careful monitoring of land crossed by the pipeline to detect landslides and other forms of erosion — a cost that ACP would have to absorb. All monitoring data would be made available to the public so government agencies and environmental groups could inspect them to ensure the pipeline was fulfilling its responsibilities. ACP would be required to pay the full cost of restoring mountain slopes and compensate nearby landowners or water authorities for any damages. Perhaps ACP would be required to maintain insurance or post a bond sufficient to guarantee the damages are covered.

There should be one debate over the standards appropriate to steep mountain slopes, and those standards should apply to everyone who wants to build an interstate pipeline in comparable terrain. The purpose of regulation should not be to prescribe how pipelines do their jobs but to ensure that they achieve the desired outcomes. Finally, the review process should not require months and months of review. It should take no more than a week or two to ascertain that the pipeline applicant has the financial wherewithal to live up to its commitments.

Wouldn’t such an arrangement work better for everyone?

FERC Finds Pipeline Impact “Less than Significant”

FERC finds that the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline impact can be readily mitigated.

Pipeline impact: Federal regulators say steep slope construction, like that shown here, should not be a problem.

  • FERC’s pipeline impact study says proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline will have minimal lasting effects on the environment.
  • Dominion claims the study confirms it can build the pipeline while protecting the environment and public safety. 
  • Foes contend the study ducks the question whether the pipeline is a public necessity that justifies the use of eminent domain to acquire rights of way along the route. 

A draft federal assessment has concluded that the environmental impact of the proposed 600-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) would be mostly temporary and largely offset by extensive mitigation measures.

The staff of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission concluded that approval of the project could have “some adverse and significant environmental impacts. ” However, damage to water resources, wildlife habitat, and property values would be reduced to “less-than-significant levels” with the implementation of plans filed by the ACP and additional measures recommended by the staff.

Dominion Resources, managing partner of the pipeline, hailed the document as “another major step forward” in the lengthy federal review process. “While we have to review the draft further,” said Leslie Hartz, vice president-pipeline construction for Dominion Energy, “we believe it confirms that the project can be built in an environmentally responsible way that protects the public safety and natural resources of our region.”

However, the draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIA), released yesterday, is not the last word. FERC expects to publish the final draft in June. That document, FERC spokeswoman Tamara Young-Allen told the Richmond Times-Dispatch, will address a critical issue not touched upon in the draft EIS: whether the project is a public necessity, a designation needed to invoke eminent domain in order to acquire property along the proposed pipeline path.

Foes of the project lost no time in denouncing the study, arguing that its focus was too narrow. As the authors clearly stated, “Alternative energy sources, energy conservation, and efficiency are not within the scope of this analysis because the purpose of ACP … is to transport natural gas.”

Eminent domain can be justified only if there is a public necessity. But existing natural gas pipelines, opponents contend, can meet the demand for natural gas in Virginia and North Carolina without creating the same environmental risks or taking peoples’ land against their will.

“Dominion’s Atlantic Coast pipeline … is unnecessary,” said Greg Buppert, senior attorney with the Environmental Law Center (SELC). “The current route carves through the mountains in an area the U.S. Forest Service calls, ‘the wildland core of the central Appalachians’, for a pipeline that will lock generations of Virginians into dependence on natural gas. We already have the gas needed to bridge us from dirty to clean energy — existing infrastructure can meet our demands for natural gas for at least the next fifteen years. This is a Dominion self-enrichment project, not a public necessity.”

“In what world does the rapidly increasing, cost-effective contribution of wind and solar not figure into the need for gas-powered electricity generation and, by extension, the justification for taking private property via eminent domain?” asked Jim Bolton, a Lovingston resident quoted in a Friends of Nelson press release.

FERC did evaluate 14 other alternative pipeline routes, including routes that would follow existing highway and electric-transmission rights of way and otherwise minimize crossing of Natural Park Service lands. The study compared total pipeline length, acres affected, the number of residences within 50 feet of workspace, and crossings of wetlands, waterbodies, forested land, public land and recreation features. “We … conclude that the major pipeline alternatives and variations do not offer a significant environmental advantage when compared to the proposed route or would not be economically practical,” the EIS states.

Topics addressed by the pipeline include:

Karst terrain and steep slopes. Portions of the ACP would traverse karst terrain characterized by sinkholes, caverns, underground streams and springs. The vast majority of the pipeline, using standard construction techniques, would limit land disturbance to between six and eight feet below the surface, the FERC document said, whereas sensitive groundwater resources and cave systems are generally found at greater depth. Continue reading

Gas Pipeline puts Virginia in Race for Three Prospects

Gas pipeline puts Virginia in contention for three industrial prospects.

Gas pipeline compressor station.

Virginia is in the running for three economic development projects that would rely on natural gas,  and one is “mammoth,” Governor Terry McAuliffe told a group of manufacturers yesterday.

“The only reason I’m in the hunt is because of the pipeline,” he said, referring to the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline. The 600-mile gas pipeline would bring new supplies of cheap natural gas from the Marcellus shale basin to Virginia and North Carolina.

Speaking to the Infrastructure Roundtable held in Richmond by state and national manufacturing associations, McAuliffe said that nondisclosure agreements prevent him from revealing the identity of the prospects, reports Richmond Times-Dispatch.

However, Sen. Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, a prominent pipeline backer, told the Times-Dispatch that he knew of a large industrial prospect that would convert natural gas feedstock into other products such as fertilizer and “would like to be located along deep water.”

The eastern part of Virginia — roughly from Interstate 95 east — has such limited supplies of natural gas that the region cannot accommodate a new large industrial customer. But several localities along the path of proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline have said that access to low cost gas would make them eligible for projects that would have eluded them in the past. McAuliffe’s remarks are the first public indication that access to the gas pipeline had put Virginia in the running for tangible industrial prospects.

While 92% of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline capacity is  reserved by electric and gas utilities, 8% is unreserved and potentially available to large industrial customers.

“We are actively marketing to potential industrial projects and potential utility customers,” said ACP spokesman Aaron Ruby.

Hundreds Seek Pipeline Construction Jobs

Atlantic Coast Pipeline construction will create 7,200 temporary jobs.

Pipeline construction.

The proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) is highly controversial in Augusta County, where property owners fear pipeline construction will jeopardize water supplies, create a safety hazard for nearby residents, and drive down property values. But hundreds of mechanics, welders, electricians and other blue-collar workers see the $5 billion project as a potential boon.

By noon Thursday, 157 people had signed up at the Augusta Expo put on by the ACP to inform local vendors and workers of opportunities to work on the 600-mile pipeline, according to the News Virginian.

At peak construction in 2018, said ACP spokesman Aaron Ruby, the pipeline will employ 7,220 workers.

Wrote the News Virginian:

Scott Bazzarre, the founder and president of Budget Electrical & Mechanical in Palmyra, wants to be considered for electrical work on the pipeline. He calls the pipeline a boon for workers like him and for the economy. “It’s a no-brainer, not just for the tax base but for a struggling economy.”

Unlike landowners, who will have to live with the pipeline as a permanent fixture on their property, construction workers will benefit only for the duration of the construction project. But there are undoubtedly thousands of workers who think like Bazarre: “We have to have good-paying jobs for my kids and grandkids.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Is it a stretch to suggest that the ACP pipeline controversy reflects the same societal schisms as the 2016 election: the propertied, educated class versus blue collar workers struggling to survive economically? Such a framework over-simplifies a complex reality, but I think there’s something to it. Even though Virginia’s unemployment rate stands at 3.7%, theoretically full employment, rural/small town Virginia has a higher jobless rate, and the “unemployment” figures don’t take into account discouraged workers who have dropped out of the workforce. Pipeline construction would throw construction workers a lifeline.

On the other hand, property owners can’t be blamed for wanting to be left alone. The value of land in the Shenandoah Valley is determined increasingly by aesthetics — bucolic rural landscapes, mountain views, wildlife habitats — not by farming/timbering income streams that traditionally determine compensation for land taken by eminent domain. One can argue that Virginia’s eminent-domain laws do not provide fair compensation for lost value.

In any case, Virginia’s blue collar workers have been largely invisible in the pipeline debate until now. Don’t be surprised to see ACP maximize their exposure.

Pipelines Offer Hope, Provoke Despair

Fern and Earl Echols stand near a pipeline marker on their property in Giles County. Photo credit: Roanoke Times

Fern and Earl Echols stand near a pipeline market on their property in Giles County. Photo credit: Roanoke Times

Recent articles have highlighted rural communities that stand to win and lose from proposed natural gas pipeline mega-projects crossing the state.

On the hopeful side, the Daily Press reports that Isle of Wight County economic development director Tom Elder would like to build a lateral line off the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) to supply gas to the county’s intermodal industrial park. Gas from the interstate pipeline would supplement supplies made available by local gas distributor Columbia Natural Gas.

“If we had a heavy user, there’s some stipulations that Columbia couldn’t provide at this point,” Elder told the Isle of Wight Board of Supervisors.

Said County spokesman Don Robertson: “We’d love to have a gas line at the intermodal park — it’s going to make that park more marketable. … How and when that happens is obviously going to be determined by the amount of funding and the board’s willingness to do that.”

Isle of Wight joins Brunswick County, Buckingham County and others that view natural gas as a potential boon to their industrial development efforts.

By contrast, residents of Newport in Giles County worry that the economy of their small town will suffer from the Mountain Valley Pipeline. “Newport, more than any community in the pipeline’s proposed path, is potentially going to take a direct hit in the heart of our historic district, while avoiding more affluent communities and homes,” lifelong resident Perry Martin told the Roanoke Times.

Initially, Newport residents expressed concerns that the MVP route would run close to a school, recreation center and rescue squad building. When the pipeline company adjusted the route closer to the center of the town, foes said it threatened other assets such as an ante-bellum church and the historic C.A. Hardwick house. If the pipeline exploded — admittedly, an unlikely event — the potential impact zone would encompass those buildings and several others.

Pipeline companies attempt to negotiate with landowners to obtain the right to cross their land, and often adjust their routes if they can’t reach agreement. But sometimes altering the route is impractical, in which case they can invoke the power of eminent domain on the grounds that their projects are a public necessity. Communities along the route of the ACP in Augusta, Nelson and neighboring counties voice similar fears to the residents of Newport.

“I just don’t understand how people can come in and just take what you’ve worked your whole life for,” said resident Earl Echols. “Where’s 80-year-old people going to go and start over?”

Pipeline Creates Opportunities in Buckingham

Kyanite Mining Corp. , one of the largest employers in Buckingham County, has entered into an agreement to access a natural gas tap off a lateral line from the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP). And now the county is exploring the possibility of acquiring 200 acres of land along the tap line for industrial development. The line would have enough capacity to supply Kyanite Mining as well as three or four companies of comparable size, reports the Farmville Herald.

Atlantic Coast Pipeline opens up economic opportunities in Buckingham County.

Blue Kyanite crystal

Kyanite Mining, which mines and processes Kyanite ore, runs the mineral through a rotary kiln in which the temperature exceeds 1450° Centigrade. The operation can produce more than 150,000 tons of commercial grade Kyanite concentrate every year. Kyanite is used in products as diverse as dishware, porcelain plumbing fixtures, electronics, electrical insulators and abrasives.

According to County Attorney E.M. Wright Jr., the 200 acres would be available to be marketed  as a site that would have gas and other amenities. Two non-binding memorandums of understanding are needed from the county, he said, “so definitive agreements can be made.”

While the pipeline has inspired stiff opposition in the mountainous Augusta-Nelson-Bath county area, partially on the grounds that it would negatively impact views, property values and economic development, the project has garnered support in other localities along the route. The availability of natural gas puts numerous counties into the running for new categories of industrial investment.

“This is a great example of how the Atlantic Coast Pipeline can serve as an economic development tool for counties to support their local businesses and even attract new industries to help grow their economies,” said ACP spokesman Aaron Ruby.

“For more than two years, we’ve worked very hard to find opportunities across the region to expand access to natural gas in under-served communities, including Buckingham County,” he said. “We’re pleased that after more than two years of discussions with Buckingham County, Columbia Gas and Kyanite Mining Corporation, we’ve reached an agreement in principle that will help facilitate natural gas service to the county. More work remains to be done to finalize the agreement, but we’re very pleased with the progress that has been made.”

Update: Michael Martz with the Richmond Times-Dispatch delves into this story, including the local politics, here.

Trenches, Sinkholes and Slippery Slopes

The proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline would traverse this ridge in Highland County.

The proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline would traverse this ridge in Highland County, according to the Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition

Building gas pipelines over steep mountains and sinkhole-prone terrain risks erosion, sedimentation and drinking-water pollution. Are state regulators on top of the situation?

by James A. Bacon

Early this year James Golden and Melanie Davenport, senior managers with Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), were hearing increasingly vocal concerns about the environmental problems posed by the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) and Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP), especially where routes crossed steep terrain riddled with sinkholes and underground rivers. Pipeline foes doubted it was possible to build pipelines in such adverse conditions without putting water quality at risk. Golden and Davenport wanted to see for themselves.

The two DEQ officials got their chance when their West Virginia counterparts arranged a tour of a major construction project, the Ohio Valley Connector, which runs 37 miles through rugged terrain. EQT, a principal partner of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, was managing the project. Golden, DEQ’s director of operations, and Davenport, director of DEQ’s water division, especially wanted to see how the pipeline diggers handled the challenge of steep slope construction.

The tour took them through several phases of construction on the West Virginia side of the border where IQT was clearing trees, digging trenches, and stabilizing the site. Although some mountain slopes in Virginia are steeper, the environmental and topographic conditions are comparable to much of what pipeline companies would experience in the Old Dominion.

“We saw clearing on a slope that was so steep it gave me vertigo,” Davenport told Bacon’s Rebellion. “A backhoe was rocking like it was going to slip down the hill. Sometimes its tracks started slipping. It looked so dangerous, but the driver was nonplussed. I couldn’t take my eyes off it.”

Despite the challenges of laying pipe in steep terrain, says Golden, “We came away with the impression that [construction] can be done that seemed acceptable under the regulations.”

Golden’s reassurances are scarce comfort to Rick Webb, program coordinator of the Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition. “We’re dealing with pipeline construction [in Virginia] on an unprecedented scale,” he says. While ACP and MVP have redrawn routes around the most sensitive environmental habitat, there is no avoiding the steep mountain slopes, which are prone to landslides and erosion, and karst limestone geology, with its easily contaminated caves and underground streams.

Governor Terry McAuliffe, who supports both pipelines, has said he has no authority to deny air or water quality permits. But Webb says that’s a cop-out. He is particularly concerned about the approach taken by DEQ, which plays a key role in regulating storm water runoff and protecting the quality of water in rivers, streams and aquifers. “I have a profound lack of faith in the process,” he says. “It is a fundamentally broken regulatory system. Virginia’s largest construction projects in the last 50 years are basically operating without state oversight.”

Environmental regulation of pipelines is a patchwork of federal and state rules. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) takes the lead role, conducting an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers has a say-so in activities that might impact rivers and streams. And DEQ regulates the erosion and sediment runoff resulting from pipeline construction.

There are two clusters of issues relevant to state oversight of pipeline construction: regulating how pipelines cross rivers and streams, and regulating the length of trenches that construction contractors can dig. In both instances, Webb says, DEQ is taking less forceful action than it could. But Golden and Davenport say there are safeguards are in place to provide ample protection of fragile terrain.

Slippery soil on steep slopes

DEQ maintains the Annual Standards and Specifications, a framework detailing how contractors address erosion & sediment control in major construction projects. The standards cover 19 best management practices such as silt fences, detention basins, and setback requirements. Like anyone else undertaking a big construction project, like the Virginia Department of Transportation, pipeline companies must submit a plan describing how they intend to meet these standards. They must give particular attention given to how they will manage disruption to stream beds they cross. And DEQ must approve the plan.

The problem with a standard framework, says David Sligh, senior regulatory system investigator with the Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition, is that the proposed pipelines cross four separate physiographic provinces, each with different habitats, geologies, soils and species. “To think that you can come up with an overall plan that is appropriate for each of these areas is dreaming.”

Webb says he would like to see plans tailored for each of dozens of streams, river crossings and steep mountainsides. Continue reading