Landowners Fear Dominion Pipeline Will Threaten Property Rights

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Travis Geary (far left) and his family have owned farmland in Augusta County since the 1970s.

Travis Geary (far left) and his family have owned farmland in Augusta County since the 1970s.

By Shelby Mertens | VirginiaFreeCitizen.com

Earlier this month Dominion Power announced its plans to construct a 550-mile natural gas pipeline that would run through parts of West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina. While those in support of the pipeline say that it will create jobs, increase state tax revenue and lower energy prices, local landowners fear their property rights are at stake.

If the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approves the pipeline, Dominion will be legally allowed to use eminent domain or easements to acquire private properties that fall in the route of the pipeline, according to Travis Geary, co-chair of the Augusta County Alliance, a group of citizens who formed in opposition to the pipeline. Geary said his family’s farmland in Augusta County would be directly affected if the pipeline were built.

“It’s actually going to hit my parents farm, my uncle’s farm and my brother’s farm right down the road,” Geary said.

Gov. Says Pipeline Will Create Jobs, Boost Economic Activity and Lower Energy Costs

Dubbed the “Atlantic Coast Pipeline,” the project is a joint venture between Dominion and three other utility companies — Duke Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas and AGL Resources. Gov. Terry McAuliffe and other officials have praised the project for its economic benefits.

McAuliffe said the pipeline would create an “energy superhighway” and was quoted by the Staunton News Leader as saying “This project will … help make Virginia the manufacturing hub of the Mid-Atlantic by enabling us to recruit job creating companies that rely on natural gas. The pipeline could produce $1.42 billion in economic activity and support 8,800 new jobs in the state.”

A Dominion press release stated that the pipeline is expected to cost $4.5 billion to $5 billion and it would transport 1.5 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day.

The pipeline is slated to start in Harrison County, W.Va., running through Virginia, down to Greensville County at the southern border, and into the eastern part of North Carolina. There will be a branch from the Virginia-North Carolina border that will run 70 miles through the Chesapeake region, according to Dominion’s website.

The main pipeline from West Virginia to Virginia will be 42 inches in diameter, making it larger than the Keystone XL Pipeline, which has a 30-inch diameter. The Atlantic Coast Pipeline will decrease to 36 inches in diameter in North Carolina and 20 inches in diameter in the Hampton Roads extension.

Eminent Domain and Property Easements

Geary said FERC approves 95 percent of its proposals. If the pipeline is approved, Dominion legally has to offer a price to landowners, but under law landowners can’t object, he said. This practice is commonly called eminent domain.

“What Dominion calls negotiation is a bit of a farce … because they (landowners) can’t say no, they can’t make sure they receive a fair price,” Geary said. “If you don’t like that, they’ll see you in court.”

Dominion claims to be seeking easements instead of full ownership. Under an easement, the landowner would still own the property, but would be forced to comply with various regulations.

“What they said they’re seeking is an easement, which means the landowner still owns it and pays property taxes on it, but that easement can be very restrictive,” he said.

A map of the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline, courtesy of Dominion.

A map of the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline, courtesy of Dominion.

Some restrictions, Geary said, include weight limits for crossing the pipeline, prohibition of trees, restrictions on fences and limitations on crops for farmers.

Another reason some residents oppose the pipeline is the fear of devalued homes. Although Dominion has refuted such claims, Geary believes the pipeline will cause home values to plummet.

“Part of the reason why pipeline companies can get away with this is because natural gas has (just started) booming in North America and we don’t have the data yet (on property values),” he said. “I think in the next five to 10 years, if you look at the data, you will see a devaluation.”

In March of this year, a family in Texas won $2.1 million in a lawsuit against a pipeline company for the devaluation of their property.

Dominion stated that pipelines do not devalue properties because they are underground and that most people do not even realize their presence.

Environmental and Geological Impacts of the Pipeline

Others oppose the pipeline because of its potential environmental and geological impacts. Geary said he spoke with an industrial archaeologist about the process of putting the pipeline in the ground, which some say will make the land less productive.

“My understanding … (is that) they swap the rock and subsoil that’s underneath it. They take your subsoil and put down the pipeline, then they put the rock and clay (on top),” he said.

Essentially, Geary said the rock and clay is underneath the topsoil, which is only a couple inches deep. He said this makes it difficult to run equipment across and for plants to grow.

“Without the subsoil, the land is not productive,” he said.

On agricultural properties, pipelines can also cause soil compaction, Geary said, which leads to crop failure. Soil compaction is the result of heavy machinery that compresses the soil.

Constructing a pipeline also means running the risk of spoiling or drying up wells, Geary added. Beneath Augusta County is karst, a “landscape formed from the dissolution of soluble rocks such as limestone, dolomite and gypsum.” Karst is known to produce underground sinkholes and caverns. Blasting the karst terrain can spoil wells too.

“A project of this scale has a very high likelihood of spoiling wells a mile away, or even several miles away,” Geary said.

The Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy produced a map that shows where the highest prevalence of karst and sinkholes are in Virginia. Augusta County, which is located in the Shenandoah Valley, is included in the area with the highest concentration of karst. Reports say there are at least 30 sinkholes in Augusta County that the pipeline would cross in the proposed route. The pipeline would run through 43 miles of Augusta County, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Dominion stated that they are “well accustomed” to operating on karst terrain.

Reports Say Pipeline Explosions Have Caused $2 Billion in Damages Since 2004.

Safety is another concern for pipeline naysayers, as pipelines can leak, which can cause explosions and hazardous gases to emit. A recent investigation by NBC News and USA Today “found that every other day in America, a gas leak damages property, injures or kills someone.” The report centered around the danger of aging gas pipes. Since 2004, USA Today found that pipeline blasts have killed at least 135 people and injured 600, while mounting $2 billion in damages.

In the press release, Dominion said the FERC review process involves gathering input from local, state and federal agencies, and citizens, as well as examining “public safety, air quality, water resources, geology, soils, wildlife and vegetation, threatened and endangered species, land and visual resources, cultural and historic resources, noise, cumulative impacts and reasonable alternatives.”

Dominion argues that pipelines are safe for transporting natural gas and that incidents are rare.

“Natural gas pipelines have an excellent safety record … the number of incidents nationally is very small given the more than 300,000 miles of natural gas pipelines in the country. Pipelines are the safest way to transport energy,” Dominion stated.

Environmental activist groups such as the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club and the Southern Environmental Law Center have voiced their opposition to the pipeline because of its potential threat to the landscape, natural ecological habitats, pollution and the impact of pipeline development.

Dominion stated that natural gas is a sustainable resource. The Dominion press release included a joint statement from the four chief executives of the partnering companies:

“Natural gas is increasingly important for advanced electricity generation, contributing to significantly lower greenhouse gas and other emissions. The project will also provide more reliable access to new sources of natural gas, keeping consumers’ energy costs down — even during the coldest and hottest weather.”

Who Will Benefit From the Pipeline?

Geary believes most of the jobs for this project will go to highly skilled, specialty workers from out of state who travel with the pipeline construction companies. Geary also said the majority of counties the pipeline runs through would not reap any benefits of the pipeline.

“There’s a whole lot of impacts for the landowners and the thing that makes me the angriest about this is that the government, including the governor, is saying how great this going to be, when the fact of the matter is the people who are going to benefit from this are not those in Augusta County,” Geary said.

Dominion states that Duke Energy and Piedmont Natural Gas plan to supply natural gas to markets in North Carolina. An energy company based in North Carolina, PSNC Energy, plans to sign a 20-year contract to receive natural gas supplies from the pipeline. AGL Resources has requested to supply natural gas to the Chesapeake and Hampton Roads market. Virginia Power Services Energy will also likely purchase natural gas from the pipeline for Dominion’s power stations.

The natural gas from the pipeline will not be directly transported to localities.

“While it would not be feasible to connect individual homes or small businesses directly to the pipeline, we do expect to connect with various local gas distribution companies, as capacity permits, and with power generators that would use improved access to natural gas to provide electricity for consumers while meeting new environmental air regulations,” Dominion stated.

Geary said he is not against the actual pipeline, he would just like to see the pipeline built along public rights of way instead of along private properties.

“I think the energy is good for Virginia,” Geary said. “My main rub is that there are more responsible ways of doing this. I’m not opposed to the pipeline, just the way they are doing it.”

Alternative Pipeline Routes:

Below is a list of alternative routes Geary, along with others who oppose the pipeline, believes Dominion should consider:

  1. Existing rights of way, along routes like I-64
  2. Railroad rights of way
  3. Existing easements for other pipelines (Columbia Gas Line runs through Chesapeake, North Carolina, exactly where Dominion plans to run a leg through North Carolina). This is a common practice called “looping,” which involves putting one pipeline next to an existing pipeline.
  4. High voltage power line corridors (if they’re grounded).

Dominion says existing rights of ways are sometimes “not feasible” or there may not be enough room along interstate highways.

Geary said those who may be affected by the pipeline or any concerned citizens may write a letter to FERC and he encourages those who oppose the pipeline to intervene in the FERC approval process. For more information, visit augustacountyalliance.org.

Dominion has already notified landowners who will be affected by the pipeline and the surveying process has also started. The surveying is expected to finish by the end of the year. Dominion’s website states that 70 percent of affected landowners have submitted the permission form to allow Dominion to survey their land. But Geary says the forms do not allow you to deny permission.

Dominion says it is surveying for a route “that meets operational and reliability needs while minimizing the impact on the environment as well as historical and cultural resources.”

The projected timeline for construction of the pipeline is 2017, with operations beginning in late 2018, according to the Dominion website.

Please share your thoughts by commenting below.

Shelby Mertens

About Shelby Mertens

Shelby Mertens is a recent graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University with a degree in Mass Communications - Journalism. She was the arts and culture editor of The Commonwealth Times, VCU's independent student press. Shelby was a blogging and social media intern for Gandzee, an online retail startup in Richmond. She covered the General Assembly session last spring for Capital News Service on behalf of over 70 news publications across the state. She has also published work on WTVR-CBS 6's website, a part of the iPadJournos project at VCU.