The Atlantic Coast Pipeline: Another Boondoggle in Virginia

Image from US Forestry Service

Two pipelines– the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) and the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP)—earmarked for construction in Virginia have been the source of massive controversy.

In a previous CounterPunch article I discussed the MVP, saving the equally controversial ACP for this article.

The ACP is a 42-inch fracked-natural gas pipeline that would run about 600 miles/970 km from West Virginia through Virginia before terminating in eastern North Carolina.

The ACP is a joint-venture between Duke Energy, Dominion Energy, and Southern Company Gas.

All three companies have poor records on environmental protection (and the latter has even been the leading funder of a controversial scientist whose work has been used to undermine the overwhelming scientific consensus that there is a major anthropogenic component to climate change with the aim of thwarting regulatory action).

The Fayetteville Observer reported that the ACP LLC announced recently that the pipeline is not expected to be in full service until 2021. It was initially expected to be in service this year.

The Observer also reported a projected cost increase of $2-3 billion above initial projections– estimated to cost between $4.5 billion and $5 billion when first announced, the ACP is now projected to cost between $7 billion to $7.5 billion.

The lead partner in the consortium, Dominion Energy, blames delays for the cost increases, due mainly to lawsuits being filed by opponents of the ACP, and the US Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals rescinding (in August 2018) two approvals permitting the pipeline, one from the Fish and Wildlife Service and the other from the National Park Service regarding a stretch across the Blue Ridge Parkway.

As with the MVP, the ACP will traverse a region of outstanding natural beauty. It will pose a threat to hundreds of streams and rivers, and the drinking water of this area, as well as its forests, endangered species, and fisheries, as it wends its way through unstable karst mountain terrain prone to sinkholes and landslides.

Private land needed for the ACP’s construction is being seized via the “eminent domain” process to line the pockets of greedy corporations.

Owners of the seized land are being promised compensation once the pipeline is completed, which of course is little better than daylight robbery—with the pipeline already plonked on their land, they will in all likelihood have to accept whatever miserable sum the deep-pocketed corporations, with the almost certain connivance of an ever-pliable judiciary and political system, will offer the hapless victims of “eminent domain”.

Some lawsuits claim that Dominion Energy, Virginia’s largest utility and its most generous corporate political donor, has exerted improper financial and corporate influence to secure regulatory approvals at both state and federal levels.

Virginia’s corporate Democrat governor Ralph “Coonman” Northam, now in deep doo-doo over his “yes perhaps, or mmmaay-bbbee-nnnot, but I’ve changed, yessir” blackface past, is reported to have accepted a $50,000 donation from Dominion Energy, and to have been promised a “consultancy” position by Dominion when his term is over.

Both Virginia and North Carolina face accusations of “environmental racism” by opponents of the ACP.

In Virginia, part of the pipeline will go through the historic African-American rural community of Union Hill, many of whose residents can trace their lineages back to enslaved and freedmen ancestors who settled there after the Civil War.

According to Rolling Stone:

“Dominion plans to build a high-powered compressor station mere yards from homes, which the Chesapeake Climate Action Network complains “would run 24 hours a day and emit sounds comparable to a jet engine.” Worse than being a nuisance, the CCAN argues that the station would pollute the community’s air with all manner of gases and particulates that could lead to ailments as serious as cancer. In perhaps a fitting bit of historical irony, the station’s planned site is on the grounds of a former slave plantation”.

Rolling Stone indicated that Northam had a big fat finger in this particular pie:

“… the state’s Air Pollution Control Board voted unanimously in January to approve a permit for the compressor station. Two months ago, Northam came under heavy criticism from environmental groups for removing two members of that board who had raised concerns about the energy company’s plans. The governor claimed at the time that he replaced those members, Samuel Bleicher and Rebecca Rubin, because their terms had expired in June — but what sense did it make for him to do it suddenly in November, right as they were asking questions? (Northam’s office did not respond to Rolling Stone’s request for comment on the issue.)

Northam’s two replacement picks didn’t vote in January on the compressor station permit, and a third member abstained due to a conflict of interest. Had they all voted against it, that wouldn’t have been enough. But imagine if Northam had stood with his Union Hill constituents against Dominion, throwing the weight of his office behind their protest. Could he have made a difference?

Instead, he sided with Dominion, apparently in violation of a campaign promise to require individual stream permits for pipeline companies. His administration emphasized that the compressor station won’t damage the health of residents. The AP reported that Dominion has also offered $5 million to help “improve” Union Hill. But Northam not only disempowered the board that ultimately made the call on the very thing they sought to block, but took pains to show his indifference. “As far as the pipeline,” Northam said in a recent radio interview, “there’s not a lot of middle road on that issue,” adding, “I’ve tried to be as fair as I can.”

Thus speaketh the governor with a “complicated” racist past who’s made every one of his ACP decisions so far in support of the pipeline’s corporate polluters.

In North Carolina, the pipeline route will have a lop-sided impact on Native Americans, including members of the Meherrin, Haliwa-Saponi, Coharie, and Lumbee Tribes.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission issued an environmental impact statement on the pipeline’s construction and operation, which showed that Native Americans make-up over 13% of the population living within one mile of the ACP’S route through North Carolina while constituting only 1.2% of the state’s population.

North Carolina however is no stranger to environmental racism.

A 1958 urban freeway project linking Durham (where I resided for nearly 2 decades) and the state capital Raleigh demolished houses and businesses in 200 acres of the Durham community of Hayti, which was cut in half by the freeway in a deliberate act of racist vandalism.

Hayti was founded as an independent black community shortly after the Civil War on Durham’s southern periphery by freedmen seeking work in the city’s several tobacco warehouses.

Durham was touted at one time as “the tobacco capital of the world”. Today, with the huge decline in demand for tobacco products, all these tobacco warehouses have been converted into luxury condos for Durham’s burgeoning yuppie population.

Hayti was thriving then– African-Americans owned and operated more than 200 businesses within its borders– and continued to prosper until the community was eviscerated by the freeway project.

Opposition to the ACP is however growing in Virginia and North Carolina.

Perhaps perversely, the current racist and sexual-harassment quandaries of Virginia’s top politicians is shining a long-needed light on several aspects of their decision-making, including their lock-in with corporate interests which don’t give a fig about the people these politicians profess to represent.

Virginia is the crucial link for the ACP—originating in the fracking fields of West Virginia and terminating in North Carolina, with Virginia as the location of its crucial middle section, the ACP will not be constructed if the politically-troubled Virginia pulls the plug on a project conferring little or no benefit on taxpayers and citizens.

Meanwhile the regulatory travails of Virginia’s other pipeline, the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) continue.

A special meeting of the State Water Control Board will take place on March 1 to discuss a permit revocation that could jeopardize the MVP’s future.

This hearing will decide whether to rescind the Board’s earlier water-quality certification for the MVP, taking into account environmental damage occurring since construction began.

According to The Roanoke Times, the MVP’s builders are also under criminal investigation into possible violations of the Clean Water Act and other federal laws.

On Jan 7, one of the MVP’s builders received a letter from the Roanoke US attorney’s office informing them that it and the Environmental Protection Agency were looking into criminal and civil violations regarding the MVP’s construction.

A month later, a grand jury subpoena was issued “requesting certain documents related to the MVP from August 1, 2018 to the present”.

The Virginia Attorney General’s lawsuit cites more than 300 violations of erosion and sediment control measures in the MVP’s construction.

There is a significant fightback against the AVP and MVP, whose builders and the avaricious politicians supporting them (stooges of corporate America to a man and woman), seem to be plunging themselves into the equivalent of a legal and political quagmire each step of the way.

So, can there be hope (possibly!) for the many who oppose these boondoggles?

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.