The U.S. Supreme Court will decide in the next few months whether to grant a permit allowing a natural gas pipeline to cross underneath the Appalachian Trail in Virginia on federal land. The court heard oral arguments from both sides last week.
The pipeline, known as the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, is an $8 billion project jointly owned by Duke Energy and Virginia-based Dominion Energy Inc., who oversees the pipeline’s construction and operation as the majority partner. It will deliver natural gas from West Virginia through to Virginia and eight counties in eastern North Carolina.
Ann Nallo, spokesperson for Dominion, said the question before the court is whether the U.S. Forest Service has the ability to approve energy infrastructure projects to cross under the Appalachian Trail — managed by the National Parks Service — on federal land.
In December 2018, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals decided that the Forest Service didn’t have that authority and vacated the permit, siding with several conservation groups represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC).
According to the SELC, while many pipelines already cross the Appalachian Trail on state-owned, privately owned or certain federal land, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline would be the first to cross under land protected by the National Parks Service, creating the debate over who has jurisdiction.
Nallo said Dominion thought they presented a strong case to the justices and felt decades of precedent were on the company's side. The U.S. Forest Service had been granting permits to cross the trail for more than 50 years, she said.
“An attorney representing the U.S. Solicitor General’s Office also argued at the court on Monday with us,” Nallo said. “Both of us are in agreement that this is U.S. Forest Service land.”
D.J. Gerken is an attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, which represented several conservation groups in the court last Monday.
“We are confident about the arguments we made today before the United States Supreme Court, but have no doubt this pipeline is unreasonable, risky and has a long road ahead of it no matter what happens today,” he said in a post-argument press conference.
The pipeline was supposed to be completed by 2018, but federal courts and agencies have revoked eight permits required for project completion since May 2018. Even if the court reverses the 4th Circuit decision, the SELC said the pipeline companies would still have to secure seven other permits to finish the project.
Should the court reverse the 4th Circuit decision, Nallo said Dominion would go back through the permitting process again and correct other issues the 4th Circuit identified. Under its current timeline, she said they would resume construction this summer, complete the pipeline at the end of 2021 and start delivering gas in early 2022.
Reactions on the ground
Many environmental activists, like Nash County native Marvin Winstead, worry the pipeline will pollute water quality, harm endangered species and exacerbate climate change. Winstead leads a group called Nash Stop the Pipeline and volunteers with the Sierra Club and the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League.
He lined up outside of the Supreme Court at 4 a.m. on Monday to try to watch the oral arguments but couldn’t get in to observe the full hour.
“Our planet is on fire,” he said. “And they are literally pouring gas on the fire to make it worse.”
But fighting off pipeline is also personal.
Winstead owns a 70-acre farm in Nash County that’s been in his family for generations. In May 2014, he received a letter telling him that Dominion wanted to build a pipeline under his field, and he’s been fighting it ever since.
“Out of my 39 acres that is tillable cropland, they want 11.75 of those acres,” he said. “If you do the math, that’s over 30 percent of my cropland.”
Winstead said the pipeline would probably decrease the value of his land and damage his land’s crop yield.
“It robs me of any future development should I choose to,” he said. “I’ve never had any plans to develop my property, but (for) farmers always in the back of our minds, our land is our rainy-day asset if you have some medical crisis.”
He’s also worried about the possibility of gas leaks and explosions. The pipeline would be within 275 feet of his home.
“The craters are usually 1,100 feet wide,” he said. “So that means my house is gone, and if I happen to be at home, I’m gone, too.”
Nallo said Dominion shares those concerns.
“Pipelines today have so many redundancies, so many checks and balances, for safety,” she said.
Nallo said pipeline leaks are extremely rare, adding that several methods include 24/7 monitoring from a gas control center, remote shut off valves, aerial observation and automated sensors.
Donna Chavis has fought the Atlantic Coast Pipeline for several years as the senior fossil fuels campaigner for Friends of Earth. She was arrested last Monday for protesting the pipeline right outside of the Supreme Court. She lives in Robeson County, where the pipeline will end.
“This pipeline could be the poster child for environmental injustice,” she said.
It would go through North Carolina’s poorest and most diverse regions, she said, including many “Tier 1” counties, or counties with residents perpetually below the poverty line. People of color and Native American tribes — including her own, the Lumbee — also predominantly live in these counties.
But beyond that, Chavis said this pipeline puts her home at stake.
“The endpoint (of the pipeline) is right at half a mile from the home I was born in,” she said.
Her mother had 14 children in that house but only raised 10.
“Those children are all buried close enough to our family home that if there were an explosion, we could very well lose those graves,” she said, adding that it would feel like losing her siblings all over again.
She said the pipeline and its compressor station would also be close to schools, homes and churches, which could hurt hundreds in case of explosions or gas leaks.
“People might say that’s few and far between,” Chavis said. “But one is too many.”
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