Natural gas plant construction causes concerns for Native American landowners
The Lumbee Tribe's tribal government office, pictured here on Thursday, April 16, 2020, is located in Pembroke, North Carolina. The Lumbee Tribe is a state-recognized tribe in North Carolina numbering approximately 60,000 enrolled members. Most of them live primarily Robeson County.
A plan for Piedmont Natural Gas to construct a liquefied natural gas plant in Robeson County is causing conflict among Native American landowners.
For Piedmont to construct the plant, it must connect the 685-acre development site to existing natural gas infrastructure via pipelines. On-site construction has continued despite the COVID-19 outbreak, with workers engaging in social distancing and wearing adequate personal protective equipment.
Meanwhile, landowners living along the proposed pipeline await eminent domain court cases delayed by the pandemic that could grant Piedmont access to their properties.
Piedmont, a regional subsidiary of Duke Energy, proposed the facility in 2019 to store super-cooled natural gas — which takes up just a fraction of the space it does at higher temperatures — for use during winter months when energy demand is higher. The facility in Robeson County is expected to supplement demand for 100,000 homes and businesses across the state’s eastern counties.
Piedmont said the development of the natural gas facility will lead to an increase in the county’s tax revenue and provide temporary and permanent jobs during and after development. Many of the affected landowners, however, are affiliated with tribes such as the Lumbee Tribe or the Tuscarora Nation and have deep familial and cultural ties to the land.
Piedmont plans to lay a 4.5-mile pipeline to link the facility with their distribution network, said Tammie McGee, a spokesperson for Piedmont. To do so, they are seeking easement rights to cross the property of landowners along the pipeline route, either through contracts with landowners or through court proceedings.
“It is our preference to exercise our right of eminent domain when every other option has been exhausted,” McGee said. “So we do try to work with these landowners and take their considerations and concerns into account.”
Landowners Foncie and Belton Oxendine, members of the Lumbee Tribe and brothers who farm on their properties along the pipeline route, said their interactions with a contracted land agent have made them concerned Piedmont isn’t interested in working with the landowners to find a mutually beneficial way to access the easements.
Piedmont has held open meetings since the facility was proposed to include the community in discussions about development. Belton, who attended one meeting, said the company representatives dismissed his questions and concerns about how the pipeline could affect his property.
Last month, Foncie received a letter of condemnation after choosing to not sign a contract with a price he considered too low. David Barton, a member of the Tuscarora Nation and a farmer, said the land agent promised Piedmont would work in good faith with the landowners. After Barton expressed wanting certain restrictions with the easements, he said the land agent dismissed his proposals.
“There’s no act of good faith about this whatsoever,” Barton said. “They want all the terms to be in their favor. There’s nothing in the favor of the landowner whatsoever.”
The main concerns of the Oxendine brothers and Barton include damage done to drainage ditches on their properties during development. When Duke Energy has gone through their properties to repair damaged power lines, they have inadvertently clogged drainage ditches, causing subsequent flooding of parts of their fields which they said has caused the loss of crops.
Landowners said the facility and pipelines have damaged the environment and the health of those who live nearby.
Donna Chavis, a local Lumbee activist who has frequently opposed fossil fuel development, raised concerns about a cancer cluster in Robeson County associated with fossil fuel infrastructure. Barton and the Oxendine brothers said they have family members with property along pipelines who have been diagnosed with cancer.
Because of the high expense of academic research on cancer clusters, there have been no formal studies into cancer clusters in Robeson County, which has one of the highest poverty rates in the state.
Some cancer clusters have been attributed to the presence of toxic chemicals in water and soil that leak from industrial facilities or pipelines, according to the National Cancer Institute. But methane, the main component of natural gas, is nontoxic and is transported through pipelines in a gaseous state that dissipates into the atmosphere when it leaks rather than linger in soil or water, McGee said.
However, methane is a potent greenhouse gas that alarmingly contributes to global warming, the effects of which are disproportionately harmful to Black and indigenous people of color. In Robeson County, people of color compose more than 70 percent of the population, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
Alongside landowners, Chavis has attended some meetings held by Piedmont. She said she is reaching out to allies in the legal and nonprofit communities on behalf of the landowners and others opposed to both the pipelines and the liquefied natural gas plant as a whole.
Piedmont said they are committed to minimizing the impact of development on the environment. The facility, which itself is much smaller than the plot of land it sits upon, will be surrounded by a buffer of green space.
“We’re going to plant trees and make it nice-looking and restore the land as much as we can to what it looked like before,” McGee said.
McGee also said Piedmont will employ construction techniques that will allow for placing pipelines beneath sensitive waterways and wetlands with minimal environmental impact. Some waterways in Robeson County, particularly the Lumber River, are culturally significant to the Lumbee.
The Lumbee people are a traditionally agrarian society with deep ties to their historic land, said Wendy Moore, a member of the Lumbee Tribal Council. They have historically lived in southeastern North Carolina, particularly in Robeson, Scotland, Cumberland and Hoke counties.
“These are people who feel a responsibility to care for this land, not just for themselves, but for their children into the future,” Chavis said.
Moore represents the Oxendine district where Piedmont is building the liquefied natural gas plant. She ran for council to remind the people of their power in governance, and since December, she has worked to create a council committee to handle issues related to agriculture and natural resources.
“There are Lumbee who actually have no problem with (the facility), and some of them are in governmental positions,” Moore said. “That being said, that does not negate the adverse impact on the families that I’ve been meeting with.”
Moore attended a meeting at Oxendine Elementary School, which is close to the natural gas facility, where constituents are concerned about the damage to historic native land.
“It’s like you give what your family has worked so hard and people just come in and take advantage of all your labor,” Moore said. “In our communities, we are a very, very tight-knit, clannish community. We are very tied to the land, and I don’t think a lot of non-native people understand our ties. But we are the keepers of the land.”
With the current ambiguity due to the COVID-19 outbreak, it's difficult to say when courts will reopen and how long cases will be delayed.
“That’s up to the discretion of the court,” McGee said.
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