The Atlantic Coast Pipeline is one among several projects threatening rural Appalachian landscapes and communities.
Bill and Lynn Limpert searched for years for a place to retire in the country. In April 2009, the couple from Frederick County, Maryland, finally settled on a small montane property near the village of Bolar in Virginia’s Bath County. Mountainous, thickly forested, with a population of just over 4,600, Bath County borders West Virginia in the Allegheny Mountains, and is known for its small farms, scenic beauty, and great stretches of intact forest. It also lies along the proposed route of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP), a 600-mile-long behemoth that would carry some 1.5 billion cubic feet of gas through their community every day.
The Limperts are worried. “We live in the pipeline’s ‘blast zone,’ about 675 feet from the ACP itself,” Bill Limpert told me as we relaxed on his front porch in the afternoon sun, gazing northward over miles of gently undulating forest, the only sounds a slight breeze through the oaks and occasional birdsong.
Though they still seem stunned by how the pipeline could disrupt their quiet life, the Limperts aren’t taking the news lying down. “We first learned about the [pipeline] coming through our property on February 12 of this year,” Bill Limpert said. “Since then I have put in an average of four hours a day working to stop it. That’s about 600 hours so far. I’ve never been so angry or so stressed for so long. Some nights I’m getting up in the middle of the night to work on stopping the pipeline.”
Bill Limpert isn’t alone. The people of Appalachia, well accustomed to exploitation from moneyed outside corporations, are rallying against the loss of land, home values, and safety posed by the pipeline proposal. In fact, the pipeline has united communities across political and social spectra, in a fierce defiance against the project and a common goal to defeat its proponent, Dominion Resources.
The furor over the proposed Keystone XL pipeline may have abated since President Obama vetoed the project last November, saying that the transborder infrastructure project “would not serve the national interest of the United States.” But while Keystone has certainly been the most well-recognized fossil-fuel transmission project, many other potentially disastrous pipelines are now under consideration, yet are receiving far less public scrutiny.
The bulk of these pending pipelines would transport natural gas. Domestic natural gas production reached a record high in 2015, and the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) projects that US production will increase 55 percent by 2040. Much of this increase has and will come from the Marcellus and Utica shale formations in the Appalachian Basin, particularly in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. According to the EIA, West Virginia alone—the eighth-largest natural gas-producing state in the nation—had more than 28 trillion cubic feet in gas reserves in 2014. Production in the Appalachian Basin has increased thirteen-fold since 2009, and is projected to double again by the early 2030s, at which point the region could provide 50 percent of all US gas production.
In the past year or so, several new pipeline projects to move gas out of the Northeast, mainly to the Mid-Atlantic and the Gulf Coast have been completed. Still, pipeline infrastructure projects have not kept pace with production in Appalachia, which means there is not currently enough pipeline capacity to move gas out of the region. Industry is looking to fill this gap, and there are dozens of Appalachia pipeline projects pending before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). Four of these proposed pipelines would cut through West Virginia and Virginia. The Atlantic Coast Pipeline is one of them.
The 42-inch-wide ACP, the path of which has been altered several times due to landowner opposition and Forest Service objections, would currently run nearly 600 miles from eastern West Virginia, over the Allegheny and Blue Ridge Mountains, to southern North Carolina.
Dominion Resources, with its project partners Duke Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas, and AGL Resources, states that the pipeline would be able to carry “up to 1.5 billion cubic feet/day” of natural gas from fracking wells in West Virginia.
Dominion has strong ties to the region. An enormous energy corporation with assets of almost $60 billion, Dominion is headquartered in Richmond, Virginia. The company has long been recognized for its outsized influence on Virginia’s government, and it was clear from the beginning that the state’s bipartisan General Assembly and Chamber of Commerce were fans of the pipeline project.
Virginia’s Democratic governor, Terry McAuliffe, who was elected in 2013 on a platform that included strong environmental protections, too, voiced his strong support for the company’s proposed pipeline in a September 2014 press conference announcing the project. His enthusiasm for this gargantuan project, which he described as a “game changer” that would bring “economic growth in all parts of the Commonwealth,” reflected only the vaguest understanding of what the pipeline would entail for his constituents. At the time, the actual physical route of the pipeline had not been finalized, and Dominion had yet to pre-file its project application with FERC, which regulates interstate gas pipelines.
The revenue and job numbers Dominion has projected for the construction of the pipeline are staggering: $2.7 billion in “total economic activity,” 17,240 “jobs supported,” and $4.2 million in “average annual local tax revenue.”
To some market analysts, this sounds almost too good to be true. In fact, environmental groups have challenged many of Dominion’s economic projections surrounding the project. In 2015, a review commissioned by the Southern Environmental Law Center, an environmental group opposed to the ACP, concluded that Dominion’s claims regarding economic benefits were overstated and lacked adequate supporting data.
Furthermore, the ACP’s supporters reliably ignore the tedious environmental realities of this gargantuan undertaking. Building the pipeline would necessitate a 125-foot-wide cleared construction right-of-way, a 75-foot cleared permanent right-of-way, and access roads that accommodate heavy construction equipment, all gouged through a rolling rural landscape of farms and woodlands with minimal transportation infrastructure. The pipeline would cross the popular Appalachian Trail, and cut through a 13-mile stretch of the mighty George Washington National Forest (GWNF), which, at over one million acres, is the largest tract of public land between the Great Smokies and the Adirondacks and one of the most significant undeveloped areas remaining on the East Coast.
The GWNF serves as the headwaters of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers, which provide clean drinking water to millions of American citizens. The region is also renowned for world-class fishing, with more native brook trout streams than all other national forests in the southern US combined. Native “brookies” thrive in its coldwater rivers, and there are approximately 1,300 miles of perennial streams, highly popular among both local and visiting anglers.
The ACP could threaten all of this. “While the mountain streams may be small, they provide very important features that cannot be replaced and which will be destroyed, especially when companies blast through bedrock stream bottoms,” says David Sligh, conservation director with the forest advocacy group Wild Virginia.
The ACP could also amplify industry pressure to develop oil and gas interests in the GWNF. In 2014, the US Forest Service announced that it would permit extractive activities in roughly 17 percent of the forest where land had already been leased for drilling, or where private parties held mineral rights. Extraction has yet to materialize, but if the ACP moves forward, the GWNF, too, could be exposed to the sprawling industrialization, groundwater pollution, and habitat destruction being visited on remote locales throughout the Appalachian region.
Environmental advocates argue that the pipeline would necessarily harm federally listed species in the region, including the Cow Knob salamander; the James spiny mussel, a freshwater mussel species; and the Indiana, northern long-eared, and Virginia big-eared bats, the latter of which is already experiencing a population free-fall due to the devastating effects of white-nose syndrome. “A pipeline right-of-way cut through the forest would fragment natural habitats, creating a barrier for passage by animals from one part of the forest to another… and destroy[ing] habitat for rare animals and plants,” Sligh says.
Land cleared around the pipeline would also facilitate the movement of harmful invasive species like Japanese stiltgrass and giant hogweed, as well as transmissible diseases, including chronic wasting disease, which impacts both whitetail deer and Virginia’s newly reintroduced elk herds. Such invasive species movements have been documented at other pipeline sites, and Dominion is already planning widespread herbicide applications along the ACP route to address the issue—yet another controversial measure.
Then there are threats to public health and safety that the ACP would create. Funneling explosive and highly flammable gas at something like 1.5 billion cubic feet per day through the farms of the Shenandoah Valley has set off alarms among even the most reserved of local residents. Karst formations—ancient fragmented limestone with networks of cracks, voids, and channels—underlie the entire geography of this region. Only a small percentage of the region’s abundant caves have been comprehensively mapped. Sinkholes, unpredictable and sudden collapses of the top portion of a hidden cave, are regular occurrences here; deep sinkholes closed down Interstate 81 in both 2011 and 2015.
Surveying karst requires precise measurements and costly, complicated instruments to detect even the largest of caverns, with deeper or smaller voids or fractures being practically unknowable. Localized surveys cannot be extrapolated due to karst’s highly irregular structure, and the disjointed, porous nature of karst means that any contaminating leak or spill could be disastrous; groundwater in karst moves up to several miles per day, so even a minor spill could have immediate impact on local users. Wells and natural springs have for centuries been the primary means of attaining potable water for the dispersed, highly rural inhabitants of this region, and a spill could contaminate drinking water long before it is detected and the public notified.
Richard A. Lambert, president of the Virginia Speleological Survey and a member of the Highland County Cave Survey, recently released a report assessing four distinct karst systems along the ACP’s route through the George Washington National Forest as “classic examples of the hydrological and biological sensitivities” associated with karst in the region. Lambert concludes that the ACP would have grave impacts: “The magnitude of the size of this proposed construction project… is a prescription for disaster for the karst systems along the [proposed] route. Not only is our National Forest system threatened, but also the most significant karst area in Virginia… No amount of mitigation or compensation by setting aside karst lands for protection elsewhere will make this route acceptable to the Highland County Cave Survey.”
In addition to the environmental and safety concerns surrounding the ACP, what really has Bath County community members on edge is the fact that under Virginia law, corporations like Dominion can invoke nongovernmental eminent domain, forcing private citizens to allow surveyors on their property, and then permanently seizing land along the pipeline’s route for construction and maintenance.
This absolute power is seen as government overreach at the behest of private business—overreach that robs landowners of the safe and secure enjoyment of their property, and sometimes of their very way of life. It has not sat well with residents of this deeply conservative part of the state, home to major Civil War battlefields and family farms that reach back to colonial days. Dominion representatives’ haughty behavior during FERC-mandated public meetings hasn’t helped the situation either, and has raised the hackles of this mannered, intrinsically respectful people.
As one affected resident put it in a May 2016 letter to a local Virginia newspaper: “Dominion has acted from the start as if people losing their rights and land are a nuisance along the way to bolstering its bottom line. Will Dominion get its way, trampling economic development and private property rights while giving little or nothing back to those it abuses? Perhaps. But this [is] not a done deal.”
The primarily low and middle income people of Appalachia have faced more than their fair share of environmental ills and corporate exploitation. For over a century, since coal became the engine of American development, industry has exerted tremendous influence in the region, often with casual disregard for natural and human communities. Now, with natural gas production booming, infrastructure development is poised to become yet another injustice heaped upon them.
However, they were told that this time, things would be different. That pipeline proponents would take local interests into consideration. “I look forward to working with stakeholders to making this the safest, most environmentally responsible and locally cooperative pipeline ever built in the history of the United States of America,” McAuliffe had said at the ACP’s September 2014 announcement.
That’s not how things have played out, and now communities along the ACP route are fighting back, concerned about ruined property values and destroyed natural habitat, and anxious over the security of their homes and even their own physical safety. Residents have filled public meetings on the project, and in May 2016, the Bath County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously against the ACP, a strong statement but a largely symbolic act since the ultimate decision will belong to FERC.
Landowners along the pipeline route have also taken a stance by rejecting Dominion’s notice to survey their land. In 2015, Dominion sued 27 such property owners in Virginia. Protesters have targeted Dominion’s Richmond headquarters, in one instance blocking an intersection near the company’s offices. And in June, more than 60 groups and community leaders signed an open letter to McAuliffe, asking that he stop supporting fossil fuel projects that hurt residents as well as the climate, and that he “reconsider his blanket support for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.”
FERC’s review of the project is ongoing, and it has yet to complete an Environmental Impact Statement for the pipeline.
Bill and Lynn Limpert’s town, Little North Mountain, was initially preserved from the pipeline’s path, which was slated to tunnel through Shenandoah Mountain. The legal impediments and engineering costs of blowing a hole through the mountain, however, were such that an expansive detour was unveiled, this one bisecting the Limpert’s adopted home, and adding an additional 30-plus plus miles to the ACP’s length.
The ACP’s current route would cut through a half mile of the Limpert property, along what they call Miracle Ridge. The ridge has a magnificent old-growth forest, and a botanical rarity: a healthy stand of American chestnuts, formerly the most populous tree species in the East before a foreign blight nearly eradicated it in the early twentieth century.
The Limperts still have a home in Maryland, and Bill Limpert tells me that if the ACP is approved, he would be forced to sell his precious Bath County farm, at a tremendous loss—he simply could not stay and endure the destruction of a land he’s come to love.
William H. Funk is a freelance journalist and environmental attorney based in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Reportage for this story was funded in part by the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources’ Frank Allen Field Reporting Award. Reprinted from Earth Island Journal (Autumn 2016), a quarterly magazine reporting on news of the world environment.