Hundreds of Augusta County residents descended upon Augusta Expo in Fishersville into Monday evening to get a look at Dominion’s plans for a pipeline that would bisect the region with the pipes carrying natural gas on a trek from West Virginia to the North Carolina coast.
The Augusta County Alliance, which has joined with environmental groups along the proposed pipeline path to oppose the plans, set up shop on the Expo complex a short walk down from the Dominion Resources presentation with its own informational event that drew dozens more local residents.
“The purpose of tonight’s event is to listen to the citizens of Augusta County, and specifically the landowners along the proposed study corridor. We believe it’s important for us to get all the information we can from them so that we can design the best route with the least impact to the environment, historic and cultural resources,” said Jim Neville, the director of communications for Dominion, which is partnering with three other major U.S. energy companies – Duke Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas and AGL Resources —in the pipeline venture, which the companies are calling the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.
The Sept. 2 announcement of the pipeline was touted by political leaders from both major parties, including Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who has called the proposed pipeline a “game-changer” for Virginia’s economy, with the governor’s office touting the pipeline as producing approximately $1.4 billion in economic activity and bringing more than 8,800 jobs to the Commonwealth.
Critics have pointed to concerns over infringement on landowners’ rights along the proposed pipeline path and environmental impacts on western Virginia, with the George Washington National Forest in Augusta County a particular point of focus.
Bobby Whitescarver, the former USDA district conservationist in the Shenandoah Valley, and now the principal in Natural Resources Management LLC, an environmental consultancy, raised another concern, with the karst topography in western Virginia, and the abundance of underground caves and sinkholes in the region.
“It’s like building on swiss cheese on top of a surface of sand. Putting rigid steel pipe on terrain that could subside is a recipe for environmental disaster,” said Whitescarver, who writes and edits an environmental blog at GettingMoreontheGround.com.
Whitescarver said that according to the maps of the proposed pipeline path made available to this point by Dominion, “they’re going to put this through at least 30 known sinkholes, and we’re just talking about the known sinkholes.”
“And in my years as district conservationist here, we saw new sinkholes open up occasionally. I’ve personally seen new sinkholes open up that could literally swallow an 18-wheeler,” Whitescarver said.
Marshall Pattie, who represents the Mount Solon District on the Augusta County Board of Supervisors, was on hand to interact with the folks from Dominion and to talk with county residents to learn more about their concerns with the proposed project.
Pattie noted that the Board of Supervisors won’t have a big role to play in the final approval of the project, which will ultimately come down to a decision made by the federal government.
“A lot of people in my district are going to be impacted,” Pattie said. “There are lots of people with questions about how this is going to affect them, and people want the county to take a leadership role. It’s important that we make sure that this follows an orderly process. The decision on this is ultimately at the federal level, but the old saying is true, that all politics is local, and people want us to be engaged and to take action, and we’re going to do everything we can to ensure that the process is followed.”
Neville emphasized that Dominion and its partners are in the early stages of planning related to the pipeline in a process that is expected to take up to four years to see through to a conclusion.
“In fact, we have not even applied to the federal government for permission to build this pipeline,” Neville said. “We are doing surveying, we’re talking to landowners about what’s going on with the route on their property, and we’re trying to find that best route, and the best route is the one with the least impacts to the environment, historic and cultural resources.”
Dominion could submit formal plans to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission related to the pipeline as early as this fall, according to Neville. If that were to be the case, final approval could come in the second or third quarter of 2016, with construction to begin at that point on schedule to conclude in 2018.
“The process takes about three to four years. We are in the early days of it,” Neville said.
The input of critics and even opponents to the pipeline is crucial to the planning process, Neville said.
“We’re listening. We’re taking notes. We’re taking their input. There are forms they can fill out. We’re listening to what they’re telling us. I think the critics are helping make this a better project. I think they’re helping us find the best route, and I think they’re helping us make sure that it’s a great project to take forward to the federal government,” Neville said.
At least one critic hopes the process leads to the pipeline never seeing anything resembling a green light from the federal government.
“My hope is that it doesn’t get built. That’s my first priority,” Whitescarver said. “Just think about what would happen if we put $4 billion into solar power instead of putting it into fossil fuels. We’re just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.”
Referencing the claims made by the governor and other project boosters regarding the economic benefit of Virginia, Whitescarver pointed out that the pipeline is not likely “to benefit Augusta County in any way.”
:It’s not going to benefit the landowners who are impacted by this pipeline. It’s not going to impact our tax base,” Whitescarver said. “They’re trying to ram this down our unsuspecting throats so they can export it and make more money. It’s Robin Hood in reverse. The rich taking from the poor and giving more to themselves. This is corporate greed at its worst.”
– Column by Chris Graham