Two companies are floating plans for natural gas pipelines through Central Virginia, and while community groups and conservationists are raising environmental concerns about both, it’s outcry from historic preservationists in the Piedmont that could form the earliest challenge of the Commonwealth’s new status as a gas throughway.
Houston-based Spectra Energy’s proposed $4 billion, 427-mile pipeline would start in Pennsylvania and skirt Albemarle County before terminating somewhere in North Carolina. The company has declined to offer a detailed map of the route, stressing that nothing, including the project itself, is final. But groups affiliated with two local federally protected sites—James Madison’s Montpelier in Madison County and the Green Springs National Historic Landmark District in Louisa—say they’ve been told they could be in the way, and their response is firm: Not here.
“Spectra either showed profound lack of appreciation for history in rural areas, or they showed real incompetence in doing credible research,” said Montpelier Foundation President Kat Imhoff, who oversees operations at the historic home. “Neither of them are good attributes for a company that’s developing gas transmission lines, or hoping to, in Virginia.”
Imhoff said the foundation has received only a preliminary notice from Spectra that Montpelier’s land could be surveyed. The National Trust for Historic Preservation, which owns Montpelier, replied with a letter stating it firmly opposes the use of its land for the pipeline project.
The fact that Montpelier made the map at all is baffling, Imhoff said, and a broad look at Spectra’s route makes her question the company’s motives.
“They’re going through what they perceive as the cheapest route,” she said.
Routes planned by both Spectra and Dominion Resources, which has proposed its own gas pipeline that would cut through Nelson County on its way from West Virginia to North Carolina, conspicuously avoid Albemarle, where property values are higher than in adjacent counties. But preservationists in the Piedmont say Spectra won’t have an easy time getting its route through a federal approval process.
Louisa County’s Green Springs National Historic Landmark District exists because of a preservation fight from a previous generation. In the 1970s, the state was proposing a prison in the area, a rich agricultural spot just north of Zion Crossroads that’s home to more than a dozen well-preserved antebellum manor houses. Landowners successfully got landmark status—the highest level of historic preservation protection the U.S. offers—for 14,000 acres in 1974. The Department of Interior holds easements on half that land.
Rae Ely, president of the nonprofit trust dedicated to preserving the area, said the pipeline would cut through the entire north-south length of the district.
“It’s clear that they did no homework whatsoever, or if they did, they totally disregarded the federal implications of attempting to come into Green Springs,” Ely said. Under federal law, projects that impact National Historic Landmarks like Green Springs are subject to a very high level of regulatory scrutiny. Spectra would have to show it had no alternative but to run its pipeline through the district, said Ely, and she believes the company wouldn’t prevail.
“We do not accept the premise that they could build through this area,” she said.
Spectra spokesman Arthur Diestel said via e-mail that the company had merely identified a study corridor.
“The route for a typical interstate pipeline will undergo a series of changes before any final route is selected, and many of these changes arise in large part due to the survey work we perform and any sensitive areas we identify during discussions with landowners and other stakeholders, including historic resources,” he said. “The historic sites you mention are exactly the kind of thing we are looking to identify during the survey process.”
The best route, if there is one, said Imhoff, will be one that doesn’t threaten public investments. “The best outcome as far as I’m concerned is for the company to respect the rural historic district and National Historic Landmarks,” she said.
Living with gas lines
So what’s it like having a gas pipeline in your backyard? Depends on who you ask—and you don’t have to go far to find somebody with an answer.
Three existing interstate natural gas pipelines intersect Albemarle County, all owned and operated by Houston-based Columbia Pipeline Group. Two parallel lines—one dating to the 1950s, the other built in the 1990s—share a right-of-way that clips the northeast corner of the county. A longer stretch constructed in the 1960s crosses through Shenandoah and into Albemarle north of Crozet, marching through White Hall and Free Union to the county line south of Dyke. They’re buried about three feet deep, according to the company, but thanks to an approximately 100-foot swath above them that must be kept clear of trees and buildings, they’re easy to locate in satellite images.
One goes straight through White Hall Vineyards, neatly bisecting a field where owners Tony and Edith Champ have been growing grapes since 1992. Their daughter and general manager Lisa Champ said the pipeline has never caused any problems for their business, and that they have a good relationship with Columbia.
“If we want to do anything, we call first, and they come out and inspect what we want to do,” she said. “We put vines in around it. We just put a wind machine close to it. They give us the parameters, and we work with them.”
Residents of Sissonville, West Virginia, lived through a very different experience in 2012. In the early afternoon of December 11, a corroded Columbia pipeline in the small town north of Charleston exploded, creating a 1,100-foot fireball that destroyed three houses and engulfed and melted a stretch of nearby Interstate 77. No one was injured, likely thanks to the time of day.
“Had the accident occurred during commuting hours, when traffic would have been significant, severe or fatal injuries could have occurred,” reads a detailed report on the explosion by the National Transportation Safety Board.
The Sissonville line hadn’t been inspected or tested since 1988, the report found, and it had no automatic shutoff valves. Because the line was designated as running through a rural and sparsely populated area, it wasn’t subject to stricter “integrity management” oversight mandated by federal code for pipelines in more populous regions.
Columbia spokeswoman Katherine Dupuis Martin said the company’s 15,000-mile network of lines is safeguarded with a real-time electronic monitoring system, and the mainline systems—like the ones in Albemarle—are examined about once a month for leakage and damage with aerial patrols. She said employees also regularly monitor the right-of-ways by foot.
“We care about the concerns [of] our neighbors and work diligently to ensure that we answer any and all questions that they may have,” Dupuis Martin said in an e-mail.
According to an April report from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration (PHMSA), incidents like the one in Sissonville are getting rarer. The report found that there were 25 serious incidents on gas pipelines in 2013—an all-time low.
The PHMSA credits the drop in part to stricter enforcement. Last year, the agency proposed a record $9.7 million in civil penalties for 63 separate regulation violations by pipeline companies. It collected on 85 percent of those.