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Gas company seeks permission to build pipeline under Cape Fear River

Piedmont Natural Gas is asking permission from the city of Wilmington to build a new gas pipeline underneath the Cape Fear River in order to help the company provide energy to the city.

“It’s part of a standard relocation and replacement process,” said David Trusty, spokesperson for Piedmont Natural Gas. “We operate over 25,000 miles of pipelines and are inspecting them 24/7, 365 days a year. Every so often pipes wear down and need to be replaced. This project is just replacing an old line with a new, higher-capacity line.”

The older, smaller line will not be removed, but will be purged of all remaining gas and then capped with the new line laid next to it, Trusty said.

“Both of the lines will lay a safe distance below the river bed,” Trusty said. “And it’s more environmentally responsible to leave the first line in with it. There’s no gas inside, and the process of removing it would require us to tear up miles of riverbed.”

Critics of the proposal suggest it is unjust, citing that possible dangers of the project are far removed from the people who will see the benefits of the pipeline. Among these critics is Naeema Muhammad, co-director of the N.C. Environmental Justice Network.

“Think about what happens when a pipeline explodes, or gas leaks into the water,” Muhammad said. “The ones who stand to benefit are not living in harm’s way. People living in these rural areas where the line will be laid already have low access to health care, and preexisting high levels of asthma and upper respiratory issues, yet they are the ones exposed to risk.”

Charles Rivenbark, Wilmington City Council and Cape Fear Public Utility Authority Board member, said the pipeline is part of routine maintenance and is unlikely to introduce any new risks.

“This is a pretty standard procedure,” Rivenbark said. “Believe me, Piedmont would not be undertaking this expensive of a project if it weren’t necessary to make their pipelines safer. And not a dollar of that cost is subsidized by the city.”

City Council member Neil Anderson said although there is a legitimate environmental debate over the continued use of natural gas to power Wilmington, the energy source is better than coal.

“Before we transitioned to natural gas, you had an old coal-fired power plant in the same area — which is about 10 miles from the city, in a more rural part of the county,” said Anderson. “And if the wind was blowing the wrong way, when you woke up in the morning your car would be black with coal and you’d be sucking in that dirty air all day long.”

Anderson said the transition to natural gas in Wilmington was made within the last few years, largely because of environmental groups’ outrage at the contamination of the Cape Fear area’s soil and water from the 2014 Duke Energy coal ash spills.

Muhammad said environmentalists resist the pipeline not just because of the project itself, but also because it represents a continued investment in nonrenewable energy.

“Instead of spending millions of dollars to keep up these pipelines and continue using dirty energy, which benefits only shareholders in those companies, we should be putting our resources towards renewables which can heal communities and the planet,” she said. 

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