“Virginia is for lovers, not pipelines.”
“You shall not pass.”
“Humpback wails over pipelines.”
The gauntlet of signage on the sidewalk outside Nelson Middle School Tuesday evening ahead of the community’s first public meeting with representatives from Dominion Resources made the sentiments of hundreds of local residents clear: They don’t want to see the company build its planned natural gas pipeline through their county.
There was standing room only in the 650-seat auditorium when the 7pm meeting began. Three and a half hours later, well after Dominion reps were done pitching the project and answering a barrage of questions from Nelson County supervisors, residents were still waiting to take the mic during a public comment session.
“Where does this stop?” asked 20-year-old Morgan Barker. Like many in the audience, he leveled harsh criticism at Dominion, which had until last night released few details on the route the proposed 550-mile pipeline may take through Nelson. “This is our home. This is our land. We will decide if it’s feasible for them to come through,” he said.
The seven Dominion employees who joined supervisors for the meeting did share some new information about the pipeline, which has sparked similar opposition in Highland and Augusta counties since it was announced in April. 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. While they continued to stress that the company hasn’t committed to the project, they said their preliminary plans are for a 35-mile stretch in Nelson County that would cut through 225 land parcels.
Letters requesting permission to survey those properties went to landowners beginning in May. That step is required in Virginia, but under federal law, energy companies can ultimately seize land for projects like pipelines using eminent domain, a possibility that has infuriated residents in Nelson and other counties that lie in the path of the proposed gas line.
Dominion spokesman Emmett Toms said about a quarter of those contacted in Nelson have granted the company permission to survey their land. The majority of the rest haven’t responded, but some have written back to deny Dominion access, and 13 residents have launched two separate lawsuits claiming the company gave improper notice. Another company spokesman present Tuesday, Frank Mack, said Dominion is holding off on surveying any land until the end of August.
Meanwhile, Houston-based Spectra Energy announced it has suspended efforts to build its own proposed 427-mile natural gas pipeline through central Virginia, a spokesman said this week. A preliminary route for that project ran from Pennsylvania to North Carolina through the Piedmont and came within a few miles of Albemarle County. Spectra spokesman Arthur Diestel said in an e-mail the company “will be analyzing other opportunities in the region.”
A map distributed at the meeting—the most detailed yet released by the company—shows the pipeline crossing the Blue Ridge Parkway about five miles southwest of Route 250, coursing east and south through the Rockfish Valley,intersecting numerous streams before crossing under Route 29 a few miles north of Lovingston, and passing close by Shipman before following the James River corridor out of the county and into Buckingham.
The company reps explained the buried pipe would initially require a 125-foot right-of-way*, which would be reduced to 75 feet after construction was complete. They said the project would bring property tax revenue to the county, as Dominion would pay for the pipe “and the value of what’s in the ground,” said spokesman Emmett Toms.
It would also bring near-term jobs and a boost to the local economy, he said. The pipeline will be built with 40-foot sections, and typically “it takes a day and a half to do each weld,” Toms said. 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.
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 derisive laughter from the packed house.
Attendees broke out into sustained applause when Supervisor Thomas Harvey asked his final question: “What are the odds this pipeline will not come through Nelson County?”
They laughed when Dominion spokesman Chet Wade said he didn’t know the answer.
“I heard more questions unanswered than answered,” said Charlotte Rea, who chairs the anti-pipeline community group Friends of Nelson and is party to one of the lawsuits brought against Dominion over land access. The company repeated that the project isn’t a certainty, she said, even as a spokesman said it would pre-file for approval with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission this fall.
“To me, he just told us they have already decided to do this,” she said.
Dominion will hold another public meeting on the project in Nelson next month.
*The original web version of this story misstated the right-of-way width as 175 feet.