Now that the 600-mile-long pipeline is dead, killed by rising costs and unresolved questions about its market, plenty of Virginians are scratching their heads wondering how the controversial project, announced in 2014, got so far and lasted so long. They are putting together a list of what to change so it doesn’t happen again.
What transpired was an enduring marriage of interests. Environmentalists opposed the project’s degradation of air and water and its contribution to global warming. Homeowners, including those at the affluent Wintergreen ski and golf retreat in Nelson County, fought expensive legal battles after Dominion and its partners, including North Carolina’s Duke Energy and Georgia’s Southern Company, sued for eminent domain rights to their land. Residents of Union Hill, settled by formerly enslaved people after the Civil War, were bewildered that their cherished, quiet community could morph into a heavy industry site.
One target is the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which approved the pipeline.
Greg Buppert, a lawyer with the Charlottesville-based Southern Environmental Law Center, which led the legal fight, notes that FERC does not consider whether an entity seeking its approval is in the public interest or has a real market for its products.
FERC requires a contract showing that the energy such projects provides has a buyer. In the Atlantic Coast Pipeline case, there was such a contract, but it was between Dominion and Duke and their own subsidiaries. “This needs to be resolved,” Buppert said.
FERC and other regulators likewise consider projects with a sense of tunnel vision. They deliberately do not consider similar projects or the need for them in the same area at the same time. As the Atlantic Coast Pipeline was under FERC consideration, another natural gas project, the Mountain Valley Pipeline, was being planned in another part of Virginia. “There is no holistic approach,” Buppert said.
Survey rights and eminent domain are also big issues, said Joseph T. Waldo, a Norfolk lawyer and property rights expert. Early in the Atlantic Coast Pipeline project, Dominion sent letters to property owners asking for permission to survey their land.
If the owners declined, Dominion sued. It was able to do so because former state Sen. Frank Wagner, a Virginia Beach Republican who had accepted donations from Dominion, had successfully moved to change state law so that utilities could get access to private land. “That needs to be changed,” Waldo said.
And, all the groups say, the fix seems to be in with state regulators. In 2018, after two members of the Air Pollution Control Board questioned the project, Gov. Ralph Northam (D) had them replaced.
The opponents did effect some changes. Chad Oba, a mental health specialist in Union Hill who co-founded the Friends of Buckingham activist group, said FERC had been able to proceed with a project’s approval despite outstanding permits, but no more.
Her efforts show just how hard organizing grass-roots activism can be. She said that one August day in 2014, a friend in neighboring Nelson County called her and asked about the compressor plant idea. She had not heard of it, but Dominion had scheduled a public meeting about it that very same night. “We got a stand set up outside,” she said.
But organizers faced considerable problems, such as the lack of broadband, computer illiteracy and the age and health of area residents.
Eventually, such stubborn work paid off. Project officials are trying to find a way out. Dominion Energy spokesman Aaron Ruby said in an email that it is trying to resolve about 80 condemnation lawsuits and make good on promises to restore disturbed land.
At Union Hill, hard feelings linger with some residents who wanted to settle with the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Wilson said he resisted because it was the right thing to do. “A sweet voice from heaven told me we would win. I didn’t know it would take six years,” he said.