STUARTS DRAFT, Va. — Virginia Davis can picture the day construction on a natural gas pipeline might begin near her farmers market. Bulldozers rumble over a nearby hillside. Hundreds of jelly jars jangle on the shelves.
“You save, you scrimp, you eat spaghetti, and they come in saying they can do whatever they want,” her husband, Kenneth Harris, said of the prospect of losing peace and quiet to development. “It’s just not fair. It’s not the American way.”
The couple are bracing for a natural gas construction boom in Virginia, where utility companies stand poised to capitalize on cheap energy from the fuel-rich Marcellus Shale formation. They believe the path of one pipeline will run just beyond the property line of their business and home.
The demand for energy from the deposit spanning Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast has triggered a vast re-plumbing of the nation’s fuel-delivery system. And to move energy from north to south, it has to go through Virginia. Two lines are moving through the federal regulatory process with two more under consideration.
More pipelines mean lower energy bills, fewer greenhouse gas emissions and a resurgence in manufacturing jobs, proponents such as Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) say. Companies will flock to the state for its easy access to natural gas, and electric companies can use the fuel to generate reliable power, supporters say. This, they tell residents, is progress.
But the projects have tapped into anger in swaths of rural Virginia where residents worry that their way of life will change. Before maps spread on kitchen tables, they point to schools and scenic areas along pipeline paths that they say would be affected. They fear an explosion could strike, even though such events are rare, or that their drinking water could be compromised and property values could plummet.
The result of that anger and worry has been the formation of a coalition of activists, residents and environmental groups, which has taken on the business interests it says threatens the land.
The opposition focuses on and around the Shenandoah Valley, where residents are railing against a $5.5 billion, 564-mile pipeline that utility giant Dominion plans to construct from West Virginia through Virginia and into North Carolina. Residents worry about water quality and soil erosion, species habitats, property values, construction noise and sinkholes.
Dominion says there’s no evidence to suggest the pipeline will damage the water supply, force people to leave their homes en mass or rupture. The company points to statistics that show there are already 21/2 times more miles of natural gas pipeline in the commonwealth than interstate highway.
“Protecting the safety and well-being of every community where we operate is our top priority as a company. At every stage of the project we will use multiple, overlapping layers of protection to ensure that we operate the pipeline safely and in an environmentally responsible way,” Dominion spokesman Aaron Ruby said in a statement. “We’ve evaluated more than 3,000 miles of potential routes in order to select a proposed route with minimal impacts on the environment and people’s daily lives.”
Those assurances have done little to assuage the concerns of residents who live and work along the proposed Atlantic Coast pipeline and others in development. Rooted in a mistrust of powerful corporate interests, residents are organized and fighting, through lawsuits seeking to ban companies from surveying, protests and all manner of road signs that warn “No Pipeline!”
Dominion has changed the path a few times to accommodate sensitive areas. The latest one enters Virginia in Highland County. From there it passes through the Monongahela and George Washington national forests and into Augusta County, where Jack and Mary Wilson are renovating a historic diner they had purchased in foreclosure.
Before the place fell into disrepair with overgrown weeds, White’s Wayside — “since 1929,” the sign says — was a cattle drive stop famous for its pull-apart white bread. The recipe relies on Shenandoah spring water, and the couple said they spent $10,000 testing the well for public consumption.
They’ve been told the building phase will be good for business. But to the proprietor of a 20-seat diner baking artisanal bread, a temporary crush of hungry construction workers doesn’t sound like good news.
“Honestly, I don’t know why this is with FERC and not the Justice Department,” he said, referring to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and pointing to woodlands rising up behind his wife’s future healing garden.
Their fight got a significant boost in January, when the U.S. Forest Service declined to give Dominion special permission to traverse two protected forests because of potential damage to species’ habitats, but the company has said an alternative route is still possible.
“While none of us want it in our back yard, the national forest is our priority,” Jack Wilson said. He’s heard Dominion tick off the pipeline’s benefits. In three years’ time, it will save customers $243 million a year and guard against the kind of rate hikes that came with the polar vortex, according to an economic impact report.
His response? “Their scare tactics insult us.”
From the Wilsons’ place, the pipeline would travel 50 miles along ridgetops past Davis’s farmers market in Stuarts Draft.
The route, if finalized as is, would clear a 125-foot-wide path during construction and look to passersby like a benign grassy strip no wider than 75 feet when it’s finished, the company has told her.
She purchased her land hoping to one day cash in on encroaching commercialization. Now Davis fears the project will keep customers away and make her land worthless. She joined a lawsuit to block a survey crew, but the General Assembly granted Dominion that right years ago and she expects a dismal outcome.
“What major retailer or major fast-food chain is going to want to buy this when you’re right next to a pipeline?” she said.
Davis read from documents promising respect and trust, good-faith negotiations and respect for the “regulatory compact,” and she dropped them on a pile of cabbages in disgust.
“We don’t have to worry about, when the big explosion happens, losing a limb, ’cause we’ll just be dead. We’re in the disintegration zone,” she said facetiously. “So if something was to happen we would make ‘Good Morning America’ for sure.”
Leaving Augusta County, the pipeline will travel under the Blue Ridge Parkway and cross the Appalachian Trail, to the foot of Wintergreen in Nelson County.
The route traverses steep inclines and, according to the homeowners association comments to FERC, comes uncomfortably close to the entrance to the 11,000-acre resort valued at $1 billion.
Hank Thiess, general manager of Wintergreen, said buyers are reluctant to settle in a community near a 42-inch-high pressure pipeline. It will blaze through a corridor of wineries and breweries that attract tourism and plans for a hotel could be at risk, he said.
“I get worried that if you miss these opportunities or windows of growth they just don’t return,” he said.
The most vocal opposition is centered in Augusta and Nelson counties, where unemployment is below the statewide average. But as the route travels south it finds increasingly rural territory where the employment situation is more desperate — and support for the pipeline is more robust.
Fifty miles from the condos and mountain-view chalets of Wintergreen, Dominion’s pipeline enters Buckingham, where a compressor station is also planned.
Paul Wilson, pastor of two African American congregations within walking distance of the station, said he worries about how the potential for noise and odor could erode the country living his mostly retired worshipers are accustomed to.
“It’s not so much that I’m against pipelines, but the disruption,” said Wilson, who at 63 is sometimes the youngest person at church. “Dominion cannot do enough to calm the fears I have about what’s going on.”
He visited a compressor station in Pennsylvania but doubted it was as ominous as the one coming to his community. “You’re going to build a Rottweiler. You’re going to show me a Chihuahua. But those dogs can bite.”
Wilson rides his cross-country motorcycle on the winding roads in the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains and lets his dogs run off-leash. “That’s what country life is all about. Now you want to come and take that away,” he said.
But former Buckingham supervisor Cassandra Stish said in the county of 17,000 residents — where 2,000 are incarcerated and more than 60 percent of families qualify for public assistance — the pipeline equals hope: living-wage jobs, new industry, a lifeline.
“We have every reason to believe that the economic development opportunities from the pipeline and our eventual tapping of the gas across our high-growth area will have a significant impact for jobs and revenue,” she said.
Stish, who did not seek reelection last year, said county supervisors support the project and want to be responsible stewards of residents’ need for jobs, as well as President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which makes natural gas a no-brainer for companies that can no longer rely on coal.
The economic picture dims further as the pipeline travels through six counties where unemployment runs as high as 6.3 percent — more than two percentage points above the statewide average, before ending in North Carolina.
Gary P. Pisano, a Harvard Business School professor and co-author of the 2012 book “Producing Prosperity: Why America Needs a Manufacturing Renaissance,” said a skilled workforce tops energy supplies when it comes to attracting good-paying jobs.
And a pipeline is only one component: “Does it hurt? No. Can it help? Sure. Is it a guarantee? No.”
Yet the ultimate pipeline booster — McAuliffe — said it is key to his pitch when luring foreign investment to Virginia.
Counties that have lost coal, textiles, tobacco and furniture industries could see jobs return if manufacturing companies believe they can save enough on energy costs, he said.
Dominion is first in line to build its infrastructure link, but others are planning similar projects: The Mountain Valley Pipeline would span about 300 miles from West Virginia to southern Virginia, and others are under consideration in Virginia.
“The only way I can convince them to go there is if I have cheap energy because it helps them make more money. Manufacturers go where they can increase their spread,” he said in an interview.
Last fall, McAuliffe stood next to Dominion chief executive Thomas Farrell II to announce his support for the pipeline. The move angered environmentalists who make up the Democrat’s natural base, but his enthusiasm for natural gas hasn’t waned.
“I support this because I am a true believer,” he said. “Natural gas is here to stay.”