On hold: Dominion faces pipeline permit problems

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Activists say Dominion’s plan to build a pipeline compressor station in the historically African American community of Union Hill is a stark example of environmental injustice and racism. Courtesy of Friends of Buckingham Activists say Dominion’s plan to build a pipeline compressor station in the historically African American community of Union Hill is a stark example of environmental injustice and racism. Courtesy of Friends of Buckingham

All is quiet along the proposed path of the 600-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline, now that five federal permits have either been thrown out or put on hold.

A vote on a permit that would allow a 54,000-horsepower pipeline compressor station to be built in Buckingham’s historic African American community of Union Hill, on a former slave plantation, has now been deferred twice by the Air Pollution Control Board.

“If they had voted in favor of the permit the other week, it would have been a riot up in there,” says Pastor Paul Wilson, who leads the Union Hill and Union Grove Baptist churches.

Anti-pipeline activists in Buckingham have called Dominion’s plans to build one of three ACP compressors in that community a stark example of environmental injustice and racism, and have alleged that when looking for a sparsely populated place to build, the energy giant intentionally erased a large percentage of the Buckingham population in its application to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

The number FERC used in its final environmental impact statement on the ACP was 29.6 people per square mile in the area surrounding the pipeline’s path in Buckingham. Dominion asserts that number was provided by the U.S. Census Bureau, but residents say it was off by about 500 percent.

At a December 19 meeting, the State Air Pollution Control Board again kicked the can down the road by rescheduling the compressor station vote for January 8, when it has declared that public comment from attendees—like the 150 concerned citizens who showed up last month—won’t be accepted.

“From what I’m seeing, unless the [previous] comments changed peoples’ minds on the board, it appears that Dominion will probably get that air permit,” says Wilson. After this story went to press, the board voted unanimously to approve the permit, but Wilson says, “the pipeline can still be stopped.”

In fact, construction—which never started in Virginia—has been halted along the entire 600-mile route from West Virginia into North Carolina as other legal battles play out.

The Southern Environmental Law Center is involved in several of the cases and represents a small coalition of local conservation groups.

SELC attorney Greg Buppert notes a December 13 decision handed down by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit that threw out a U.S. Forest Service permit that would have allowed the ACP to cross two national forests and the Appalachian Trail.

Buppert says, “Dominion doubled down” by proposing a route—and nearly all of its alternatives—that went through the same point on the trail because it thought it could get around requirements that apply to national parks.

“It gambled the project on this one location,” says Buppert. “I think the decision sends the route and the company back to the drawing board.”

Dominion spokesperson Aaron Ruby says 56 other oil or gas pipelines already cross the trail. Dominion is appealing the ruling—and he’s confident it will prevail.

“Opponents’ tactics in the courts are not doing anything to provide additional protection of the environment,” he said in a December 13 statement. “They are only driving up consumer energy costs, delaying access to cleaner energy, and making it harder for public utilities to reliably serve consumers and businesses.”

While Forest Service employees were initially very skeptical of that permit, they decided to approve it, and the court called their decision “mysterious.”

“Part of the story in that case was several years of concern about the Atlantic Coast Pipeline from the Forest Service, and then political pressure from Washington caused the agency to back down on its concerns,” says Buppert. “Dominion went to political appointees to bend the rules for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. With that kind of gamesmanship, the company shouldn’t be surprised that a federal court has thrown out its permit.”

As Pastor Wilson puts it, “Dominion is trying to beat out the clock.” He adds, “This thing is costing more money each day.”

Dominion’s Ruby told the Washington Post that the once-$6.5 billion project is now looking like $7 billion. His company has had to lay off or delay hiring 4,500 construction workers, and the pipeline that was once scheduled to be fully built by the end of the year is now looking at a mid-2020 completion. Ruby did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The SELC also has plans to challenge the pipeline’s entire approval permit because of what Buppert calls “mounting evidence” that it isn’t necessary to meet future energy needs.

“That evidence is significant enough that it’s getting the attention of important elected officials,” says Buppert. He mentions a January 2 newsletter from Delegate David Toscano, in which the legislator compares the ACP to an old automobile in need of a valve job: “It is leaking serious oil, suffers by comparison to newer, more advanced models, and even if it can be made roadworthy, you and I will pay the bill for decades.”

Toscano also notes in his letter that a recent filing from the State Corporation Commission said Dominion’s projections of demand for electricity and gas “have been consistently overstated,” and that existing pipelines are sufficient to meet future needs.

“It’s hard to justify a load forecast prediction that shows aggressive energy demand growth when the actual numbers for the last 10 years are flat,” says Buppert. “It’s an issue that we’ve worked on for a long time, and I think the data and the facts have caught up with Dominion.”

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