Shadow of planned pipeline causing concern in Virginia

Staff Writer

SHIPMAN, Va. (Feb. 3, 2015) — Standing among her herd of dairy goats on a pasture that rises fast toward the mountainous peaks behind her home, Ridgely Harrison wondered last week, among other things, how she’d get to her house if the power company gets its way and buries part of a 500-mile natural gas pipeline beneath her farm.
Harrison keeps sheep to make wool clothing, goats for different dairy products and even raises guardian dogs on Bethlehem Farms, her eight-acre property roughly 40 miles southwest of Charlottesville in rural Nelson County.
She said she uses every inch of the land she owns to maintain her modest business.
But her worries about the gas line began, much like many other farmers in her community, in May when she received a letter from Dominion Energy, part of the massive Richmond-based Dominion Resources utility company.
It said her property lies along the potential path of the planned Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a $5 billion joint project among several major U.S. energy companies that would run from Harrison County, W.Va., southeast to Greensville County, Va., toward southern North Carolina.
It would also connect with a lateral pipeline that travels east to Portsmouth.
The company wants access to survey her land and potentially use eminent domain to negotiate an easement on her property thatwould allow for the burial of the 42-inch pipeline four feet under the soil.
“I told them I wouldn’t take $4 million for the thing,” she said. “It doesn’t work for my business.”
She’s one of many farmers and Nelson County residents who have protested the pipeline construction. Some with property along the pipeline path have been sued by Dominion for declining to allow them onto their land to study and survey, and the company has said it plans to sue more than 100 county residents for access.
“I want my day in court,” said Carlos Arostegui, a nearby farmer who raises dairy cows on 184 acres and said he was among those sued. “This is just a land grab. They’re taking stuff from us for corporate gain.”
Dominion Energy isn’t thrilled to file lawsuits, said Jim Norvelle, a company spokesman.
But due to a controversial Virginia law that grants natural gas companies permission to access and study a property without the landowner’s consent, the suits are necessary to compel landowners to cooperate so the company can avoid important landmarks or sensitive areas such as water resources when laying the pipeline, he said.
“We just think it’s the right thing to do,” Norvelle said. “It’s only for those who have steadfastly refused to speak with us that we are going to court with.”
Dominion also said it’s building the pipeline in the public interest.
In a toughening regulatory climate against dirtier forms of power such as coal-fired plants, Dominion along with its partners Duke Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas and AGL Resources see the pipeline as a way to lower prices to heat and power homes and businesses and do it in a cleaner way.
The pipeline will also create jobs and added property tax revenue for the counties it runs through, Norvelle said.
But farmers and residents in Nelson County have expressed concerns about everything from the pipeline construction’s affect on local water resources to the risk of explosions and gas leaks.
Wayne Wright, a Shipman cattle farmer who was told his property runs along the pipeline path, said he worries the pipeline runs too close to a nearby reservoir that supplies the area.
His protest against hosting the pipeline on his own property is simpler, however.
“It’s just my conservative view of the rights of property ownership,” he said.
Wright, however, said he’s spoken with Dominion about his land.
“That’s not to be construed as approval for this pipeline,” he said. “I’d just rather go to hell than go to court for anything.”
Dominion should favor running the pipeline along existing right-of-ways, Arostegui said.
He said he’s asked repeated questions about his concerns but has never received answers in writing.
He said he often gets conflicting answers based on who’s answering the questions.
Norvelle acknowledged the resistance from landowners in Nelson County though he said only 240 of roughly 3,000 landowners along the entire pipeline route have denied the company access.
Regardless, the Nelson County Board of Supervisors passed a resolution in September opposing the construction, saying it would disturb and harm surface water resources, hurt county tourism and impose a significant burden on local resources, including fire and rescue.
Many farmers and residents said they hope the heavy opposition will push the pipeline into a different county.
Heavy opposition in Floyd County near Roanoke successfully booted the pipeline there in October.
Dominion announced two weeks ago a reroute of the pipeline in Nelson County, leading farmers like Wright and Harrison to wonder if they were still part of the plan.
They said they’ve received no letters from Dominion, so they continue to assume the worst.
The pipeline plan is currently running through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s review process.
Construction would begin in 2016 and proceed for two years with a planned service start date in 2018.
If it does come through, Harrison wonders if she’ll have to leave her farm and her home as Dominion cuts a 125-foot wide construction easement through her property, potentially disrupting her breeding activities, among other issues.
Once it’s completed it would leave a 75-foot wide easement on her property. It’s a lot to consider.
It’s too much, Arostegui said.
“This pipeline thing has become another full-time job,” he said. “The difference between these Dominion people and their perky T-shirts and their smiles is that they’re getting paid for this. We don’t.”