Atlantic Coast opponents seek their own environmental assessment

By Madelyn Beck | 03/17/2016 08:10 AM EDT

Environmental groups are raising money to do their own environmental assessments on the effects the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline would have if it’s built along its proposed route through the Monongahela and George Washington national forests.

Environmental groups are raising money to do their own environmental assessments on the effects the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline would have if it’s built along its proposed route through the Monongahela and George Washington national forests.

The pipeline has already been delayed due to a reroute requested by the Forest Service to avoid sensitive species in the area (EnergyWire, Feb. 16). Dominion Resources Inc., the company building the 550-mile line, said it would cost between $4.5 billion and $5 billion and would run natural gas from major shale basins in West Virginia to eastern Virginia and North Carolina distributors.

Rick Webb, coordinator for environmentalist group Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition, is trying to raise public awareness of the ACP by uploading an interactive map and raising $10,360 to pay contractor Downstream Strategies to zero in on potential water contamination hazards.


"We believe that if there is an objective environmental assessment … that this project [ACP] will not happen," Webb said.

He said workers providing environmental assessments in the area are likely overlooking many of the potentially costly hazards because those workers are being paid by Dominion.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which is reviewing the line for potential certification, approves and hires third-party environmental assessors and is supposed to directly supervise their work while Dominion pays the assessor’s salary.

FERC’s rules require that a third-party contractor submit a statement the agency is required to screen to ensure there’s a plan to handle conflicts of interest, either mitigating the conflicts or denying a contract if they’re unavoidable.

Webb argues that both Dominion and FERC have too much power in the process, and that skews the results. Most politicians in Virginia have directly received donations from Dominion or Dominion subsidiaries, and in 2014, Dominion hired 14 lobbyists for Virginia alone, according to political money watchdog Follow the Money.

"We have no confidence in the state, we have no confidence in the … regulatory system," he said.

Dominion spokesman Aaron Ruby said much of the data in the environmental impact statements simply can’t be biased.

"A lot of it is pretty straightforward, empirical data," Ruby said. "Types of species, types of river crossing, kinds of air emission that will be generated. … That type of evaluation doesn’t lend itself to bias or manipulation."

FERC also makes all environmental impact statements publicly available.

FERC spokeswoman Mary O’Driscoll said, "FERC does not signal if or whether it is having any internal deliberative discussions about changes in policy, or about what those discussions may be."

Webb said a truly objective survey would inform residents of the danger of water contamination and would stop the ACP, which he calls "unnecessary" and a "redundancy" next to the Mountain Valley Pipeline.

He noted that Dominion also faces tension in Northern Virginia over whether it can put treated water from metal-heavy coal ash ponds into streams. Levels in the water would be held to state health standards, though some argue those standards are too low.

Webb said the major Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley lines are likely pushing through without proper assessments in order to get to the Chesapeake Bay terminal. He said they want to be some of the first to get their natural gas on a ship there and sent abroad, while the lines’ environmental impacts lay victim to companies’ greed.

Dominion’s Ruby vehemently disagreed. He pointed to the 20-year contracts Dominion already signed with energy utilities in Virginia and North Carolina, which he said have pledged to use 97 percent of the ACP’s gas capacity to make up for closing coal plants.

"Our electric generators are getting ready to retire, and the reason they are doing that is to significantly reduce carbon emissions in the region," he said, adding, "There are also areas that simply don’t have enough infrastructure and enough supply."

Webb wants to work with Downstream Strategies to not only create their own environmental assessment, but provide a guide for landowners to monitor their water quality. He said the 42-inch line is too big not to cause significant problems on the mountain’s steep slopes.

Kendra Hatcher, Downstream Strategies project environmental scientist, said the 12-person company works with a lot of nonprofits. While it posts most reports for free online, she said the guide would go a step further by "providing some feedback to homeowners for monitoring steps they could do" at home, as well as giving a list of places where homeowners could pay to have testing done for them.

Webb is confident that public involvement and the additional information would stop at least one line.

"My prediction," he said, "is that the Atlantic Pipeline will not be built."

Downstream Strategies’ assessment is projected to be done by April 15.