Earlier this month, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality issued the final state approval needed to begin construction on the $6 billion, 600-mile, 42-inch diameter Atlantic Coast Pipeline planned to slice through Nelson County on its way from West Virginia to North Carolina, leaving only one more federal hurdle.
Massive opposition to Dominion Energy’s pipeline has made headlines since the project was proposed in 2014.
So when Governor Ralph Northam held his 2018 Governor’s Summit on Rural Prosperity in Staunton, just two days after the October 19 pipeline permit approval, activists were there to meet him. They say he’s touting “rural prosperity” while “greenwashing” his complicity in environmental destruction.
When Northam was serving as lieutenant governor under Terry McAuliffe in 2014, he sent a letter to DEQ stating that he wanted to make sure all environmental regulations and complaints were thoroughly evaluated, reviewed, and enforced.
“That indicated to a lot of people that he was serious about environmental regulations and making sure DEQ did the job correctly,” says Kirk Bowers, who’s with the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club. “Since then, he’s really not followed through on what he said he would do.”
Bowers had been waiting since last spring to know if DEQ would approve the final erosion, sediment control, and stormwater management plans for the pipeline—the permits were granted a few weeks ago.
“It was a bad decision by DEQ based upon what we’re seeing with the Mountain Valley Pipeline,” says Bowers. The MVP is a similar 42-inch natural gas pipeline that’s currently being built from northwestern West Virginia to the southern part of Virginia.
On October 19, the Army Corps of Engineers suspended an MVP permit to build through waterways in two West Virginia counties. It had previously suspended a permit in Virginia, and now the MVP can’t go through any wetland in its path.
More than 500 incidents have been reported during MVP construction, Bowers says, including numerous erosion violations through mountainous areas and steep terrains very similar to those found in Nelson County.
“I strongly contend that the plans [for the ACP] just aren’t going to work and we’re going to have similar problems like we’re seeing in southwest Virginia,” he says.
Among the activists who paid Northam a visit last weekend was Jill Averitt, who has lived on more than 100 acres in Nelson County with her husband and extended family since 2005. Dominion plans to run its pipeline through their Nellysford property, slicing across a large wooded area just yards from her back porch.
She’s invited Northam, who has received $200,000 in donations from Dominion, and Matt Strickler, his secretary of natural resources, “countless times,” to come hear the concerns of landowners. He shook her husband’s hand when running for the Democratic nomination against Tom Perriello—a known ACP opponent who banned campaign contributions from Dominion—and Northam promised to be in touch for a meeting to discuss the pipeline.
“He never followed through with that,” Averitt says. “We have yet to hear from anyone.”
For the first three weekends of October, the Averitts and other activists who oppose the ACP invited the public to their property to camp or visit for a few days of what they call “camptivism,” to learn why Nelson residents are so vehemently fighting to prevent the pipeline’s construction. Approximately 150 attendees heard from environmental experts, impacted landowners, and local historians.
“Northam’s supposed to represent all of us and he couldn’t even give us the courtesy of an hour?” Averitt asks. “He is allowing and participating in this negligent act of allowing these pipelines to be built in the face of every credible source that says they aren’t needed and [are] ill-advised.”
The governor’s own Advisory Council on Environmental Justice has recommended that the pipeline not be built.
At his summit in Staunton, when asked about the ACP, Northam said Virginia is moving in the direction of wind and solar energy, but in the meantime, he approves the usage of traditional energy sources, reports local news station WHSV. His office did not respond to a request for comment.
The pipeline will benefit the environment because it replaces the need for coal with cleaner-burning natural gas, says Aaron Ruby, a spokesperson for Dominion. With the final state approval, he says Dominion is requesting an okay to proceed with full construction in Virginia from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The company has already received a go-ahead in West Virginia and North Carolina, where it’s been building the ACP for months. Dominion expects it to be fully built by the end of next year.
“This project is all about building a better economic and environmental future for our region,” says Ruby. “Public utilities are depending on it to meet the growing energy needs of consumers and businesses.”
Says Averitt, “If these pipelines are developed, we would create a 600-mile development dead zone around them and jeopardize thousands of rural homeowners’ water along the route. I’d like Northam to explain to me how that is good for rural economies.”