Bacon's Rebellion

FERC Finds Pipeline Impact “Less than Significant”

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

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.

Prior to construction ACP will perform electrical resistivity investigation surveys to detect subsurface features along the route. These results will be correlated with boring logs to ensure the analysis reflects the field conditions. ACP also will employ a specialist to monitor karst features along the route. The gas pipeline industry is experienced in working under such conditions, the study says: “Many miles of similar pipeline facilities … were installed using similar methods and have safely operated in karst-sensitive areas for decades.”

The ACP would cross 84 miles of steep slopes (greater than 20 percent). Construction in such conditions creates a risk of landslides. However, ACP has developed a Geohazard Analysis Program and is developing a Best in Class Steep Slope Management Program to minimize the potential for slope instability. The company has not yet filed all its plans, but the FERC authors concluded, “Based on our review … we conclude that the potential for ACP … to initiate or be affected by damaging karst conditions would be adequately minimized.”

Public land and recreation. The pipeline would cross the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, and other recreational assets. To avoid crossing these scenic assets, ACP plans to drill beneath the parkway and trail. Removing trees along the route also would cause permanent visual impacts. FERC staff recommends that the company also restrict the width of right-of-way to 50 feet in certain areas, and also to file “site-specific visual mitigation measures” for each scenic byway crossing.

Sensitive species. Construction and operation of the pipeline would likely adversely affect five federally listed species: the Indiana bat, Northern long-eared bat, Roanoke logperch, running buffalo clover, and Madison Cave isopod. Development of conservation measures is not complete, and the EIS recommends that ACP file additional information.

Water resources. The ACP and associates facilities would cross 1,989 perennial streams, intermittent and ephemeral streams, canals and ditches, and ponds and reservoirs. Construction work would temporarily affect 786 acres of wetlands.

ACP would conduct water quality tests before and after construction to determine if activity adversely affected water resources. Testing would be conducted by qualified independent contractors. “No long-term impacts on groundwater are anticipated,” says the EIS, “because disturbance would be temporary, erosion controls would be implemented, natural ground contours would be restored, and the right-of-way revegetated.”

Wildlife. Construction work along the pipeline right-of-way would require cutting down the tree canopy. Construction-related impact would be temporary, lasting until trees grew back, but land in the pipeline right-of-way would be permanently changed. “We conclude that the ACP … would not have a significant adverse impact on vegetation and wildlife, with the exception of forested areas, which would experience significant impacts as a result of the effects of fragmentation and where forest land would convert to herbaceous vegetation in the permanent right of way.

Economy and property values. The report downplayed the pipeline impact on property values.

With regard to potential future sale of properties that contain natural gas facilities, each potential purchaser has different criteria and differing values or considerations for purchasing land. Decisions made by a purchaser are often site-specific and are difficult to generalize or predict. With some exceptions, such as building structures within the pipeline easement or planting trees, once a pipeline is buried, it does not preclude future use. Based on literature reviews and discussions with real estate appraisers, we conclude that ACP … would not result in decreased property values.

Opponents also have cited a negative pipeline impact on local tourism and economic development, particularly in the Nelson-Augusta-Bath county region. The study acknowledges that travelers and tourists would experience “temporary visual and noise impacts” from construction. ACP would keep local businesses and recreational stewards informed of scheduled construction activities to avoid conflict with special events. As for the much-publicized Yogaville meditation center, it would be located more than four miles away. “Therefore, we conclude no direct or indirect impacts on tourism to Yogaville would result.”

Another fear is that the project would stymie development in and around the Wintergreen resort and the Rockfish Valley. A proposed luxury hotel at Wintergreen would produce $15 million to $20 million in annual revenue. But ACP can reduce or mitigate any negative impacts “as demonstrated by other residential and commercial developments in the area and similar projects throughout the country.”

Public safety. FERC staff minimized concerns about pipeline impact safety. All proposed facilities would adhere to federal safety standards. Regulations include specifications for material selection, minimum design requirements, and protection of the pipeline from internal, external, and atmospheric corrosion.”We conclude that ACP … would not significantly impact public safety.”

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