Proposed Natural Gas Pipelines Threaten Scenic Western Virginia

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Dominion pipeline proposal undermines Virginia’s conservation easements More »

The latest route Dominion is pursuing for its Atlantic Coast Pipeline would directly conflict with the terms of open-space easements the Virginia Outdoors Foundation (VOF) holds on several conservation properties across the central Appalachians.   

It was standing room only at a public meeting last week as the VOF Board of Trustees considered Dominion’s ten requests to “convert” the protected lands to pipeline right-of-way. The board heard from dozens of landowners, farmers, representatives of land conservation organizations, and local government officials who oppose the conversions and urged VOF’s Trustees to stand strong against Dominion.

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Many landowners and easement donors who urged VOF to deny the conversions acknowledged that VOF does not have the power to stop the pipeline, or even the final say on whether the pipeline can be routed through the protected properties; that authority ultimately rests with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). However, they made clear they expect VOF’s trustees to deny Dominion’s request, both because a denial would uphold the stewardship commitments that VOF makes to landowners when it accepts easements, and because it would send a clear message to FERC that the pipeline should not cross conservation land. 

Steve Van Lear’s family has owned land in Bath County for nearly 100 years, and VOF holds an easement on their land. He attended the meeting to urge the trustees not to hide behind FERC, but rather to “stand in front” of the agency: 

“You need to show opposition to FERC. You need to join the people of this Commonwealth against something that should not happen. Show integrity for your mission statement.” 

VOF has an impressive track record of defending the easements entrusted to its care. However, Dominion is testing that record with a request that, if approved, would convert more total acreage out of protected status than VOF has approved in all prior conversion requests over its 50-year history.

For now, the trustees want more time. Citing the tremendous amount of public feedback and information they have received on the issue—including letters from more than 200 people urging them to uphold the easement protections—the VOF Board of Trustees ultimately voted to defer a decision so they could consider all the input.  

Looking ahead, the Virginia statute that lays out the limited circumstances in which conversions are allowed offers a clear resolution of the issue. “If you, the trustees, cannot reasonably make all the findings that the law requires, you simply do not have the legal authority to approve the conversions,” said Southern Environmental Law Center Senior Attorney Morgan Butler.  “And that is clearly the case here.”  

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Streams and forests of the central Appalachian Mountains are in the crosshairs of four proposed interstate gas pipeline projects: the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, the Mountain Valley Pipeline, the Appalachian Connector, and the WB XPress Project. These projects would cut through valuable natural areas in Virginia and West Virginia, particularly sections of the George Washington, Jefferson, and Monongahela national forests, to move natural gas to the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast.

In order to deal with this proposed large-scale build out of new infrastructure, SELC is advocating for a region-wide study—called a programmatic EIS—that would include all four projects. This study would analyze the demand for natural gas, the available capacity of existing pipelines, and the need for new capacity, and identify the route or routes that could minimize harm to some of our state’s most scenic lands, important agricultural resources, and historic properties.

FERC has typically reviewed proposed pipelines in isolation from other projects. Perhaps that approach worked when pipelines were relatively rare occurrences, but it is no longer a viable when multiple projects, like the four proposed across the central Appalachians, are slated for the same region on the same schedule. The only way to unravel these interrelated proposals and ensure a careful and deliberate decision that is protective of the environment and local communities is with a comprehensive, region-wide EIS.

SELC is a founding member of the Allegheny-Blue Ridge Alliance, a coalition of 43 organizations from across Virginia and West Virginia with grave concerns about the proposed route of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. SELC has partnered with citizens who are acutely concerned about the risks to their agricultural and rural communities, including damage to scenic landscapes and the risk of pollution.

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