Mike Tidwell is director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. LaDelle McWhorter is chairperson of Virginia Organizing.
More than 60 candidates for the Virginia House of Delegates have rejected campaign contributions from fossil-fuel giant Dominion Energy. Two candidates for governor, a Democrat and a Republican, have, too. It’s the equivalent of an earthquake.
Why is this happening to Dominion, the once all-powerful corporation that has “owned” Richmond for decades? To understand, all you have to do is visualize verdant Roberts Mountain in Nelson County, nestled in the heart of the Blue Ridge range of central Virginia.
Federal regulators have revealed that Dominion intends to remove the tops of mountains, including Roberts Mountain, to build a pipeline for gas from hydraulic fracturing. Indeed, using publicly available documents, opponents of the pipeline have shown that the summit of Roberts Mountain could be “reduced” by 60 feet, literally exploded away.
But that’s just the beginning of Dominion’s plans for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline for fracked gas. It’s a gas “superhighway” tragically supported by Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D). To complete the full length of the proposed pipeline — from the fracking fields of West Virginia and into Virginia — the company would have to remove the tops of 38 miles of heavily forested, mostly pristine ridgelines in the two states. From 10 to 60 feet would be shaved off to create a wide, flat surface to allow Dominion’s heavy equipment to lay a 42-inch-diameter pipe. Much of the land would be seized outright using eminent domain from landowners who obviously don’t want their mountaintops blown apart and permanently destroyed.
As details emerged over the past month, the Dominion plan has shocked the conscience of many Virginians. In town-hall meetings statewide, political candidates report that “pipeline resistance” is one of the top things they hear. And nothing better signals a candidate’s pledge to fight back than to turn down a company’s campaign donations.
But growing voter dissatisfaction with Dominion involves more than leveling mountaintops for a fracked-gas pipeline that is not needed, according to an independent energy analysis. Dominion also has dumped highly controversial coal-ash liquid into major Virginia rivers (the James , tributaries of the Potomac , the Elizabeth). And now Dominion wants to save money by burying millions of tons of remaining toxic coal ash right where it sits along these rivers to satisfy new federal health and safety requirements. The ash, which has accumulated from decades of coal combustion at nearby Dominion power plants, is already suspected in places to be leaking highly toxic substances into the rivers. A better solution is to move the coal ash to modern, safe landfills. But Dominion says this is too expensive. Cue more public backlash.
Finally, adding to Dominion’s unpopularity is its desire to build a $19 billion (yes, with a “b”) nuclear reactor at its North Anna plant. Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) says it’s unneeded and a bad deal for consumers.
As the tide shifts against Dominion, it’s almost comical to watch the company try to defend itself. On the destruction of 38 miles of mountaintops, for example, Dominion says the removal will be “temporary.” After clear-cutting hundreds of thousands of square feet of trees, much of it rare virgin forests, Dominion will use TNT to remove the ridge tops, lay the pipe and then pile the millions of tons of rock and soil back on the mountains. This will create a 38-mile-long rubble pile that will be denuded for years and susceptible to potentially catastrophic landslides for decades. Dominion actually says this is environmentally friendly and responsible.
And McAuliffe agrees. He could reverse himself and save his decidedly mixed environmental legacy. Under the federal Clean Water Act, McAuliffe has the power to stop Dominion’s radical Atlantic Coast Pipeline by denying the company the water pollution permits it needs. A proposed pipeline in New York state was halted this way.
In Virginia, that could set the stage for an era in which leaders not only reject Dominion’s cash but also permanently reject the company’s entire pro-pollution agenda. The commonwealth could then begin to catch up with neighbors North Carolina and Maryland on wind and solar power. And instead of a moonscape, Roberts Mountain in Nelson County could become a fully forested testament to an entirely new environmental order in Virginia.