Digging in

Inside Nelson residents' fight to stop Dominion's pipeline through the Blue Ridge

At the end of Charlotte Rea’s Afton driveway is a highly specific no trespassing sign.

“SOUTHEAST RELIABILITY PROJECT PERSONNEL KEEP OUT!” it reads. “VIOLATORS WILL BE PROSECUTED.” It’s pasted atop a placard that’s become an increasingly familiar sight along highways and backroads west of Charlottesville, one that features white block lettering on royal blue: NO PIPELINE.

Rea’s property—just over 29 acres on the North Fork of the Rockfish River—is one small parcel being eyed by Dominion Resources for a section of its planned 550-mile natural gas pipeline connecting West Virginia’s Marcellus shale deposits with the gas-hungry region to the south of the Commonwealth. Dominion has yet to submit the Southeast Reliability Project for federal review, but it’s already begun surveying a route that would see the 42-inch buried pipe enter Virginia in Highland County and run southeast through 10 other counties.

With an estimated price tag of $4.5 billion, it’s a project of epic proportions. It’s also moving fast: Dominion has said it plans to be transmitting gas by the end of 2018. But the company faces a tough battle in central Virginia, where the threat of eminent domain has sparked fury among residents like Rea, who are vowing to fight the pipe in every way they can.

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Location, location, location

Virginia owes its status as a pending pipeline host to a combination of geology and geography.

To the north and west—in West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York—lie the vast Marcellus and Utica shale deposits, deep rock formations loaded with gas. Less than a decade ago, they were virtually untapped, but thanks to the controversial drilling process known as fracking, the Marcellus alone now produces up to 16 billion cubic feet of natural gas a day. To the south lies the power plant empire of Duke Energy, the country’s largest electricity producer, which is looking to shift its generating stations from coal to gas in an effort to keep up with tightening federal emissions standards.

On April 1, Duke formally announced it is seeking pipeline proposals, and hopes to partner with an energy transmission company to funnel shale gas south.

Just over a month later, Charlotte Rea found a card in her mailbox telling her she had a certified letter waiting for her at the post office. It was a notice informing her Dominion intended to survey her land for a possible pipeline route.

Charlotte Rea stands in her Afton neighborhood not far from where Dominion plans to route a natural gas pipeline. Photo: Jackson Smith
Charlotte Rea stands in her Afton neighborhood not far from where Dominion plans to route a natural gas pipeline. Photo: Jackson Smith

Rea, 63, has an upright, no-nonsense manner refined by 26 years in the Air Force. She retired as a full colonel in 2002, came home to live with her mother in the house where she grew up in Crozet, and started looking for mountain land of her own. She’d spent years in Utah on three separate tours. The high peaks of the Rockies were beautiful, she said, “but they’re not the Blue Ridge. It’s just not the same.”

She found her own place at the end of Bland Wade Lane off Route 151 in Afton. Toward the end of the short residential road studded with driveways leading to low brick ranchers were three wooded lots that backed up to the river. She invested everything she had in the land. Rea isn’t married and doesn’t have kids, and for the last decade, life has revolved around volunteering—with Habitat for Humanity, as a founding member of the Nelson chapter of the Virginia Master Naturalists, on the board of the Thomas Jefferson Soil and Water Conservation District—and around home.

Now, she’s making it her full-time job to be Dominion’s worst nightmare.

As soon as Rea got the survey letter in May, she started calling everyone she could think of in the local environmental community. Nobody had heard anything about a pipeline through Nelson. And while the company had yet to produce even a rough map of its local route, “people started talking,” she said.

In early June, more than 150 locals crammed into the Nelson County Library for a meeting on the project. Many had received letters like Rea’s, and together, they were able to get a sketchy sense of the snaking path of the pipeline. From that gathering grew the Friends of Nelson, a community group chaired by Rea. It has acquired nonprofit status through Virginia Organizing, and along with two other grassroots groups in the county is bent on blocking the pipeline by tapping into residents’ deep-seated anger over private property rights.

Nelson’s stand

Like other utilities, Dominion has broad powers when it comes to examining property it may ultimately use. But thanks to the Virginia state code, the company has to follow a strictly timed sequence of landowner notifications.

First comes a letter of intent to survey, which gives owners 15 days to respond. If they give the OK or fail to respond at all, a letter of intent to enter a property follows, but no company rep can set foot on private land until 15 days after that second letter is postmarked. Still, Dominion holds the trump card: Should an owner refuse entry, the company can get a court order granting it permission to survey anyway.

That fact has infuriated many people whose land lies in the path of the project, and nowhere has the pushback been so intense as in the Blue Ridge counties of Nelson and Augusta.

Dominion spokesman Frank Mack said across West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina, 68 percent of people who have received intent to survey letters have given the company permission to come on their land. In Highland County, where relentless reporting in the celebrated weekly paper The Recorder has stoked opposition to the project, the company has seen a positive response rate of 55 percent. In Buckingham, it’s 66 percent. Dominion had no number to share for Augusta, because the path of the pipeline has shifted significantly there and the notification process has begun again, but elected officials and residents there have blasted the project and vowed to fight it.

And in Nelson County? Just 25 percent of the 225 landowners contacted there have granted Dominion permission to survey. And when a group of company reps held a community meeting in Lovingston to tout the project earlier this month, they got an earful.

About 35 miles of the Southeast Reliability Project’s 550-mile path lies in Nelson County.
About 35 miles of the Southeast Reliability Project’s 550-mile path lies in Nelson County.

About 650 people showed up at Nelson Middle School for the August 12 meeting, and dozens thronged the sidewalk outside in blue “NO PIPELINE” T-shirts holding protest signs: “Virginia is for lovers, not pipelines.” “Stay the frack off our land.” “You shall not pass.”

Inside, several Dominion spokesmen joined company engineers and environmental specialists to lift the curtain a little on their plans. The pipe would be 3.5 feet in diameter—big enough for the average six-year-old to stand in—and would be capable of moving 1.5 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day. They called the project an economic boon for the county. It would bring near-term jobs, said spokesman Emmett Toms, as the pipeline will be built with 40-foot sections, and typically “it takes a day and a half to do each weld.” With a construction timeline of just two years for the entire multi-state pipeline, that means workers will be needed in any given area for six to eight months at a time, he said. The project would also bring property tax revenue to the county, as Dominion would pay for the pipe “and the value of what’s in the ground,” Toms said.

But the Dominion employees didn’t answer every question thrown at them, and when they hedged—on the source and volume of water needed to do pressure tests on the pipeline, on whether the county could get assurance it could tap into the gas supply in the future, on whether the company would pay for extra emergency response training for local fire and rescue staff—they were met with jeers and derisive laughter from the packed house. And after the company reps filed out, residents took the mic one after another to rail against the project. They feared leaks, explosions, and impacts from the clearing of a 125-foot right-of-way. But again and again, they decried the possible seizure of property.

“Where does this stop?” asked 20-year-old Morgan Barker. “This is our home. This is our land. We will decide if it’s feasible for them to come through,” he said.

Power and the people

Dominion has downplayed the possibility of using court orders to survey and eminent domain to seize land it wants for its pipeline, and has said that the company has managed to avoid using eminent domain in 95 percent of its negotiations on past pipelines. Spokesman Frank Mack said the company has tried to be as transparent as possible as it pushes ahead with preliminary work on a project that hasn’t yet been submitted to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which must approve what may ultimately be thousands of pages of application materials before any digging can start.

Surveying takes a long time, he said—in fact, Dominion will probably apply for FERC certification before that work is done—and the route won’t be finalized until the company has a chance to examine the environmental and cultural resources that lie in the proposed path. For that reason, said Mack, landowners are encouraged to let surveying happen.

“We feel like it’s in their best interest, because they’re going to help us better understand their property and things to avoid,” he said. “Just because we’re surveying doesn’t mean we’re going to do construction on their land,” though, he added, “obviously it’s possible, or we wouldn’t be there.”

Rea’s not buying it. There simply is no acceptable place on her property for the pipe, she said, and in her mind, letting a surveyor step onto her land would mean conceding Dominion can take it.

“You have no right to come onto my property and take it away from me,” she said, “particularly not an investor-owned utility. A private company has got a right to come take my property away from me? I’m sorry, but no.”

The thing is, the law says it does.

In 2012, Virginia voters overwhelmingly approved a bill backed by Albemarle Delegate Rob Bell that inserted tougher eminent domain language into the state Constitution. Touted as a private property rights measure, it elevated to State Bill of Rights status changes made to the Virginia code in 2007: The government can’t seize land and hand it over to private companies unless it’s able to demonstrate it’s truly for a public use. But utilities—and that includes infrastructure like gas pipelines built by corporations like Dominion—are automatically assumed to be exactly that.

And gas companies’ right to employ eminent domain in the building of interstate pipelines is protected at an even higher level, in the federal Natural Gas Act. Once a company gets approval for a project from the FERC, the law says, it’s allowed to seize the property of landowners unwilling to play ball.

Some in Nelson are already taking Dominion to court anyway. Rea is one of 13 county residents involved in two separate lawsuits filed against the company for violation of the state code on notification procedure. When Dominion sent out its second round of letters to the plaintiffs, the suits say, it set an “intent to enter” date that was less than the required 15 days from the letter’s postmark. Mack declined to comment on the suits specifically, but said Dominion is abiding by the rules. “We have to follow that requirement,” he said of the time buffer, “and we feel like we are.”

Lawsuits aren’t the only tactic opponents in Nelson are using. The Pipeline Education Group, another community organization headed up by sculptor Charles “Flick” Flickinger, is responsible for churning out the ubiquitous “NO PIPELINE” signs and T-shirts, branding the issue with a now-familiar shade of royal blue.

A third group, Free Nelson, is chaired by Marion Kanour, an Episcopal priest in Massie’s Mill. Her own land just down the road from Rea’s isn’t in the Dominion project’s path, but she and others are steering what she calls the “civil disobedience arm” of Nelson’s anti-pipeline movement.

Initially, the group were planning to physically block surveyors when they started showing up.

“A conga line, red rover,” Kanour said. “We’d have a party at the invitation of the property owners and party in the survey line.” That idea was scrapped when the group learned they could be sued for three times the cost incurred by Dominion for delays. “We decided we didn’t want to contribute to their coffers,” she said.

Instead, they’re planning to aggressively document Dominion’s work once the company starts operating on private property. About 20 photographers and videographers are on tap, ready to drive wherever they’re invited and pass on footage to news outlets.

“We just hope to make it all visible,” said Kanour. She said she’s done her fair share of protesting and sign-holding in the past, but this is something different. “This is the first time I’ve felt my homeland is in jeopardy,” she said. “It’s a visceral response to somebody saying they’re going to ram a 42-inch pipe through our farmlands and rivers and destroy the natural beauty here. This is the best way to channel my sadness and anger.”

For now, it’s working. Dominion has twice pushed back the date it plans to start surveying in Nelson and Augusta, citing a desire to resolve the pending lawsuits first. It’s also planning a community open house in Nelson on September 16. The wrangling in the mountain counties comes at a critical moment for the Dominion. The company has said it may be days away from firming up client relationships in North Carolina and formally deciding to move ahead with the project—just as Duke reps are saying the electricity giant is preparing to announce its pick of a pipeline partner.

Rea said Virginians everywhere should be watching what’s happening in Nelson, even if they’re far from the planned right-of-way. It’s an environmental justice issue, she said—just look at the counties Dominion chose to route the pipe through. The company could just as easily have charted a course through neighboring Albemarle, she said, but it has customers and shareholders who live there. 

“Albemarle has a lot of wealthy people,” she said. “Albemarle has fought a lot of things and kept them out.”

If Dominion’s leaders thought it could bypass opposition by targeting Nelson, Rea said, they were wrong. She’ll never agree to let the project touch her land, and she knows plenty of others who feel the way she does.

“It’s like a woman being raped and then having to live with the rapist the rest of her life,” she said. “That’s what it feels like to me. Somebody’s taking something away from me that’s mine. So I tell people I’ll stay here and fight until the bulldozer’s up against my toes.”

  • stew

    now many people are realizing what a deal with the devil the state made
    when they “negotiated” our agreement with Dominion to provide
    electricity. For decades we have abandoned our constitutional rights in
    multiple arenas to big business in favor of the “right” to convenience
    and cheap crap (indeed we are still being encouraged to do so in order
    to be “safe” and “drug-free”, etc.) and now its coming to bite us in the
    **s. im sure there’s an appropriate Ben Franklin quote out there
    somewhere. not sure if there’s any hope on this one but if there is its
    ultimately through the legislature, not the courts. And DOM owns the
    legislature so there will have to be pretty whole scale change of
    personnel (i.e. stop voting for any republicrats at all) for even that
    to have any chance… Oh, and stop using so much electricity, you only
    encourage them….peace and confusion to our enemies, err, us.

  • Sharon Ponton

    Great article. A privately held, for-profit corporation has no rights to take anyone’s property. Our state and federal legislators have no idea what kind of hornet’s nest they’ve stirred up in Nelson County.

  • Evan Knappenberger

    C-ville staff should make a trip to Mathias West Virginia, where the leaky natural gas pipeline exploded in 2004, nearly destroying the town and creating a HAZMAT nightmare. Funny thing is, the residents had been reporting leakage well before the explosion. Or go to Bellingham, Washington, where not too long ago three children were killed when the pipeline exploded there.

    Stop the pipeline. Move to renewable energy. Scrap the pseudo-utility corporate energy monsters.

  • Peace Arnold

    Dominion is a private company. If the law ‘presumes’ otherwise that does not make it so. Examining the facts reveals it not to be the case.

    • Edward N Virginia

      HAS Dominion presented its detailed plans to pay for any and all remedies and recovery – for years or decades if needed – for any harms from pollution, explosions, disruption of commerce, disruption of family life, disruption of public life, and all other adverse events? And, do the detailed plans include setting aside enough funds – in escrow, in trust, or by other legally binding means – to cover any and all remedies and recovery? And that these funds would be IMMEDIATELY available to private persons and public authorities for remedy and recovery? And that no taxpayers will ever have to pay for any costs of pollution, explosions, disruption of commerce, disruption of public life, or any other harms?

  • Edward N Virginia

    WHO is missing from this discussion? Who has been going blah blah blah claiming to be protectors of private property rights? Who has been going blah blah blah about protecting family values? Virginia Republicans and their TEA Parties! … and what have they to say? My family sent email after email to our Republican delegate and finally got a short sentence reply that failed to answer our questions. In other words: nothing to say! BTW, he apparently has gotten many many many thousands of dollars from BIG ENERGY CORPORATIONS! We sent emails to many central VA TEA Parties and didn’t hear any response. After trying again we heard back from one of them: turns out that they support government taking of private property (eminent domain)! And, they want the public to pay for the costs of explosions, pollution, disruption of commerce, when accidents occur with the pipelines (as they most certainly will!). So, Virginia Republicans and their TEA Parties who claim to be conservatives actually appear to be supporters of BIG BROTHER GOVERNMENT: to take private land by eminent domain and to harm the family life of those who live there against their values! WOW! And furthermore, they don’t appear even to support that American Exceptionalism means that all the gas – however it gets around – should stay in America to keep America energy independent of foreign powers, potentates, and caliphs! Do they love foreign potentates and caliphs, or their BIG ENERGY BUDDIES, more than American liberty?! WOW!

    • Edward N Virginia

      Oh, and further from the TEA Parties, a local leader told me that transit by pipelines was safer than hauling by train, with a nod to the explosion of cars and derailment in Lynchburg. We also remember the town-destroying and life-destroying explosion and derailment in Quebec recently (where people were apparently vaporized by the explosion and never found, among other horrors!). And, then the leader told me (perhaps as a sarcastic remark?) to tell the Town of Scottsville – where the same rail cars go after Lynchburg – to be sure to get plenty of insurance to cover explosions, pollution, derailments, and disruption of commerce. So, apparently, the Virginia Republicans and their TEA Parties want THE PUBLIC – through our taxes – to be responsible to pay for the harms of pollution, explosions, disruption of commerce, destruction of family businesses and family life. THEY want THE PUBLIC – through out taxes – to pay for all the harms leaving all the profits to the BIG ENERGY CORPORATIONS, who give ga-googles of dollars to the Virginia Republicans! AND you may have thought that the McDonnells were hypocritical, corrupt liars?!

    • Peace Arnold

      No
      one fails their children more than industry leaders who use their
      influence in deceptive and destructive ways to get what they want …
      and, the legislators who knowingly facilitate this destruction.

  • jamesharrigan

    Citizens who care about fighting global warming should support this pipeline, as it will lead to much lower carbon emissions as Duke Energy shifts from high emissions coal to lower emissions natural gas. The environmental impact of laying this pipeline will be minimal and short lived. I have no sympathy for Charlotte Rea, with her histrionics about rape and the inviolability of her property – she is nothing more than a selfish NIMBY type. I suspect she uses electricity, as do all of the opponents of this pipeline and of fracking. Like it or not, natural gas is one of our best bets to slow global warming while we move toward even lower carbon electricity generation in the coming decades.

    • itzj

      Minimal impact? How can you consider clearing a 125 ft right of way through forests minimal? Or how about when the pipeline explodes? None of these will be minimal for the residents of Nelson county.

    • Edward N Virginia

      SPEAKING of ‘NIMBY’ – ‘not in my back yard’ – selfishness, why don’t Virginia Republicans – who have been taking tens of thousands if not HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS of dollars in contributions from BIG ENERGY CORPORATIONS, OLIGARCHS, AND OVERLORDS – and their TEA Parties, propose that the routes of proposed pipelines go through their properties and homes, run close by the schools and nursing homes where they have family, disrupt businesses that they own, etc. In our experience the endless blah blah blah of Virginia Republicans and their TEA Parties about how environmental concerns MUST be subordinated to their plans for business development (e.g. uranium mining, fracking, new factories, new highways, etc) always ends on the same note: BUT THE MINING, THE FRACKING, THE HIGHWAYS, AND FACTORIES WON’T BE IN THEIR BACK YARDS! When are the Republicans and their TEA Parties gonna stop being hypocrites?! If they believe that we need more mining, more fracking, more pipelines, more highways, etc … they should be the first to say ‘put the factory across the road from my house’, ‘superhighway in my neighborhood’, ‘frack here behind my house’, ‘dig a mine next door’, etc. Oh, but we never hear that from the Republicans and the TEA Parties, do we?! WOW!

    • AccidentalRichmonder

      James–the first step to lowering emissions is efficiency: eliminating waste. Second is renewable sources. Dominion Va. Power is dead LAST in efficiency and renewables for investor-owned power companies. I would wager a guess that Charlotte uses a fraction of the electricity on any fat cat Dominion executive (buy a share or two of Dominion stock and find out how outrageously they are compensated). Yes, we all use electricity unless we are off grid. But many of us choose to live smaller, conserve, and invest in efficiency for our homes. Our electricity bill is about $50 a month most of the time (we do not have natural gas). It’s still more money than I’d like to give Dominion, but I don’t have a choice of power companies because they are a monopoly. A monopoly that has the General Assembly in the palm of its hand. Dominion writes their own regs and they are in the interest of one thing only: Dominion’s profits.

      Dominion always holds their stock holder meetings out of state–to keep away any Virginian who would like them to do business differently.

    • Shredder

      Natural gas will actually make global warming much worse if it continues to cause methane pollution. The idea of natural gas as a bridge fuel is a fantasy. At a minimum there must be regs to ensure well casings are properly designed and built, and there is no leakage in transportaion, and that has not happened and is not likely to happen as long as we have free-market fundamentalists quacking about regulation and “freedom.” And that NIMBY remark is exactly the kind of thing a corporation’s trolls are paid to say on message boards. At the end of the day, Dominion may well have to abandon this entire project, and that would be a win not only for the people of Nelson County but for the people of the Commonwealth as Dominion is forced to follow the only remaining common-sense path: a massive shift away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy.

      • jamesharrigan

        Natural gas will actually make global warming much worse if it continues to cause methane pollution
        Yes and no. It is true that methane is a very potent GW gas, but unlike carbon it doesn’t last in the atmosphere very long (don’t have a reference handy on this). But I totally agree that fracking needs to be better regulated, not least to cut way down on methane emissions.
        that NIMBY remark is exactly the kind of thing a corporation’s trolls are paid to say on message boards.
        Perhaps, but unlike you [or is your name actually "shredder"?] I use my real name when making comments. I work at UVa and live in Charlottesville, feel free to google me.
        the only remaining common-sense path: a massive shift away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy
        You can say this, but that doesn’t make it true. If Dominion doesn’t switch to gas it will continue to burn coal. There has been a lot of progress on renewables, especially solar, in just the past few years, but a short-term switch from coal to solar and windmills and whatnot is simply not going to happen.

        • Shredder

          “a short-term switch from coal to solar and windmills and whatnot is simply not going to happen”

          Short term long term whatever. The change is already happening but as long as we allow the likes of Dominion to stand in the way of progress, the long term effort will fail. There is simply no time left to screw around with band-aids whose efficacy is marginal if not harmful. In a sane world, intransigient corporations like Dominion would have their assets seized and sold at auction. Corporations exist ultimately at the pleasure of the people and Dominion would do well to keep this in mind at all times. If ever there were a scientific consensus on the climate crisis, it is now. See also: http://www.trust.org/item/20140829134359-meolv/

    • wozy

      Actually the methane leakage drom fracking to transporting to shipping in the U.S. and overseas is more damaging over the long run. Everywhere along the routes and compressor stations there are substantial leaks. No better than coal.

  • JBVA

    How can a corporation destroy our property rights and property values, clear cut and bulldoze our forests, and pollute and take our water to send the natural gas to liquifiers on the coast so that this product can then be exported to fulfill contracts to India and Japan. Stop the unsustainable southeast reliability project! No pipeline!!

  • RandomThoughts

    Will Dominion be offering free gas to property owners like the pipeline in WV does ?

    • Ginger Larkin Hash

      No, Nelson will not get any gas. And the majority of Nelson is not even served by Dominion. Our electricity comes from AEP and CVEC mostly.

  • Ginger Larkin Hash

    I wonder what Dominion’s plan is for water in Schuyler. When they blast through the Rockfish, it will definitely interrupt the flow of water, and I’m sure will bring all sort of sediment to the river. The Schuyler community is on public water that receives water from the Rockfish. What about the environmental impact this will have on the fish and wildlife in the river. Or when they blast through the James between Howardsville and Wingina?