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.


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.”