As Dominion makes the case for its pipeline to feds, locals say they’ll keep fighting it

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Dominion has submitted details of an alternative route for its Atlantic Coast Pipeline (in red), but officials have made it clear that they intend to stick to an eastern route (in blue), which cuts through Nelson County. Image courtesy Dominion Dominion has submitted details of an alternative route for its Atlantic Coast Pipeline (in red), but officials have made it clear that they intend to stick to an eastern route (in blue), which cuts through Nelson County. Image courtesy Dominion

Dominion’s plans for a 550-mile natural gas pipeline through Virginia are marching ahead, and with the release of the company’s first reports to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), anti-pipeline activists in Nelson County are finding more reasons to rally opposition to the multi-billion-dollar project.

The federal approval process requires companies to file a dozen “resource reports” with the FERC detailing everything from impacts on wildlife and air quality to project safety, and the first two of those reports for Dominion’s Atlantic Coast Pipeline project were due earlier this month. One is an overall project description that includes a lot of information already made public: the length, the route, a detailed timeline. The other, known as the Route Alternatives report, essentially makes a start-to-finish argument for the project’s existence and the planned pipeline path.

“The FERC wants to know your thought process,” said Dominion spokesman Jim Norvelle.

The report offers a first look at a completely different path for the project Dominion once considered, one that would have entered Virginia further west of the current route, skirted Roanoke, exited the state near Danville, and run through Chapel Hill on its way to southern North Carolina. That so-called “western alternative” was initially drawn up as one of two rough drafts of the project’s possible route, said Norvelle, and was abandoned early on. The rejected route would have been almost 70 miles longer than the adopted eastern path, and would have crossed 86 more miles of forested land and 63 more waterways—though the eastern route crosses more wetlands and slightly more historic land.

Norvelle made it clear that including the details of the western option in the FERC report is merely a mandatory show-your-cards rule, and that Dominion doesn’t consider the route a viable option.

“We are doing no work whatsoever on the western alternative,” he said.

The report discusses many other decisions on route alternatives, including a major one just west of Charlottesville, where the pipeline path cuts through the George Washington National Forest. An original baseline route would have sliced through several sensitive areas within Forest Service lands, including the Eliot Knob and Big Levels Special Biological Areas and the Saint Mary’s Wilderness Area. Three alternatives were proposed, and the one Dominion chose brings the pipeline north, much closer to Staunton and Waynesboro.

That didn’t sit well with officials in Augusta County, who protested when they realized the pipeline would come within half a mile of three Stuarts Draft public schools. Supervisors there suggested alternatives that would have allowed for a bigger buffer, but Dominion rejected that proposal, according to a report in The News Virginian.

Some activists in Nelson County, where opposition to the project has been especially vocal, said the reports reinforce their view that Dominion is unwilling to listen to local input.

“I think they’ve always known the route they wanted to take,” said Marion Kanour, an Episcopal rector and co-leader of pipeline protest group Free Nelson. “FERC required them to discuss other alternatives, and they put them all in the worst possible way.”

Seven Nelson County residents recently got some face time with one official whose opinion on Dominion’s planning process will matter a great deal in the months to come. The group, which included anti-pipeline organizer Charlotte Rea and Nelson County Supervisor Connie Brennan, presented a briefing to FERC Commissioner Norman Bay earlier in December, Rea said. Their choice was strategic: Bay is a relative newcomer to the four-member commission, and he’s the odd one out, as his background is not in energy but the law—he’s a former U.S. Attorney—and regulatory enforcement. He’s also slated to be the chairman of the FERC starting next spring.

Their briefing hit on some major reasons Nelson is the wrong place for a pipeline, said Rea, including the fact that numerous Monacan Indian and African-
American cultural sites lie in the way of the project and that its shallow soils on top of mountain granite bedrock are a recipe for disastrous erosion.

“The pipeline is going right through the area devastated by Camille,” said Rea, referring to the remains of the 1969 hurricane that killed 153 people in the county, many of whom died in massive landslides.

The residents’ point about unstable soils is backed up by a December 5 letter to FERC from the Thomas Jefferson Soil and Water Conservation District, which warned that the deforestation required to clear the route for the pipeline would make the ground unstable and increase runoff. The Conservation District called for an alternative path that would “avoid the sensitive landscapes, geology and terrain that are characteristic of the proposed route.”

Bay did not respond to a request for comment by presstime.

Back home in Nelson, activists are getting ready for what they expect will be a doubling down by Dominion in the early part of 2015. The county has been an island of relatively stubborn resistance along the route, with approximately 70 percent of landowners approached by the company saying “no” to requests to survey their properties.

“Our guess is that they’ll begin to hit Nelson pretty hard, and go landowner to landowner to try to convince folks to make deals with them,” said Kanour. “That’s why we’re trying to ramp up our message.”

Dominion’s next Nelson County open house on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is scheduled for Wednesday, January 14 at Nelson County High School in Lovingston.