Bacon's Rebellion

The Failed Mountain “Decapitation” Narrative

Schematic filed with West Virginia regulators of a two-mile stretch of the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline near the Virginia state line. (Click for larger image.)

Environmentalists say the Atlantic Coast Pipeline will “decapitate” pristine mountaintops in western Virginia. They have no evidence to back the claim.

Last week foes of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) leveled their most rhetorically heated charges against the 600-mile pipeline project yet. Construction teams would have to excavate some 247,000 dump-truck loads of rock and soil as they blasted a path across steep mountains and ridge lines. Describing the “decapitation” of pristine mountains, opponents likened the process to highly destructive mountaintop removal by the coal industry.

There was just one problem. The environmentalists’ calculations were based on the assumption that the ACP would flatten a 125-foot-wide construction corridor through the mountains. That assumption was inaccurate, Aaron Ruby, a spokesman for Dominion Transmission, managing partner of the pipeline project, responded at the time. On ridge lines, the company would carve out just enough space to excavate the trench, which will be “significantly narrower” than 125 feet. Without the 125-foot assumption, the rest of the “decapitation” analysis falls apart.

Ruby’s comment seemingly constituted a devastating rebuke. But pipeline foes are sticking to their guns. Building on the “decapitation” theme, the Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN) is planning a rally today in front of Governor Terry McAuliffe’s office to demand that the governor use his regulatory power to “halt Dominion’s proposed mountaintop removal plans.”

A CCAN briefing paper asserts that “the choice to build along ridgelines is part of Dominion’s preferred and deliberate design. Working on these ridgelines will require creating a wide and flat surface to allow Dominion’s earth-moving vehicles and deep-trenching machines to operate and maneuver. The federal government’s report on the environmental impacts of the pipeline declares that ‘narrow ridgetops’ [will] require widening and flattening in order to provide workspace in the temporary right-of-way.”

What proof does CCAN have to back up such claims? None at all.


ANALYSIS


In a follow-up email distributed to members of the media late last week, Rick Webb with the Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition (DPMC), a CCAN ally, attached a document that included the schematic above, which Dominion had submitted in a West Virginia regulatory filing. The schematic shows an elevation profile and a top-down view of the pipeline route on a two-mile section of the proposed pipeline near the Virginia border. A report by RESPEC, a geoscience engineering consulting firm hired by Appalachian Mountain Advocates, another anti-pipeline ally, estimated that construction would remove 130,000 cubic yards of material in that one segment alone.

That report, “Atlantic Coast Pipeline and Supply Header Project Volumetric Analysis,” made several assumptions. Among them, the firm created “typical cross-sections” to facilitate the computation of the volume of excavated material. One of the four cross-sections — “Ridgeline – Steep” category (shown below) — was applied to topography located on a ridgeline with an overall slope of greater than 20%.

Source: “Atlantic Coast Pipeline and Supply Header Project
Volumetric Analysis.” (Click for larger image.)

The graphic clearly shows the assumption that the top of the ridge-line will be removed in its entirety.

But the assumption is invalid. As ACP spokesman Ruby elaborated in an email: “We will not need to grade the entire 125-foot-wide construction right of way on every ridgeline. We may need to clear the entire ROW so we have room for our equipment, but we will only grade enough space so we can safely excavate the trench and install the pipe.”

There is nothing in the Dominion schematic to contradict Ruby.

In an interview with Bacon’s Rebellion, Webb acknowledged that pipeline foes were making assumptions for the purposes of their analysis, and he shifted the burden of proof to Dominion to prove their analysis wrong.

“We’re taking the information we have and saying, ‘It can be this bad,'” said Webb. “If Dominion says this is an exaggeration, show us the details to prove otherwise. Informed decisions can’t be made,” he added, until more information is made available.

Dominion has yet to file detailed construction plans for the route, Webb said. “The only detailed plans in Virginia we’ve seen is a one-tenth of a mile section in Highland County using high-tensile steel mesh nailed into the ground with six-foot nails. We want to see what they’re planning to do with the rest of the pipeline. Dominion has presented a concept. … We want to see solutions now.”

It’s one thing for pipeline foes to demand Dominion to make more information available to the public. It’s a very different thing to claim that the company intends to engage in mountaintop decapitation with devastating environmental consequences. Dominion insists that it won’t, and pipeline opponents have offered no tangible evidence to indicate otherwise. Perhaps proof will turn up in future filings to support their view. But it hasn’t yet, and pipeline foes undermine their credibility by trumpeting claims with no basis in demonstrated fact.

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