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Fighting the Backyard Pipeline

Fracking has produced a glut of oil and gas in West Virginia and Pennsylvania.  Energy companies are desperate to get those products to market, and utilities are anxious to make the switch from coal to clean-burning gas. 

There is, however, something standing in the way – people who want nothing to do with pipelines in their communities.  In Nelson County, three groups have already formed to fight a pipeline that would also pass through Buckingham, Dinwiddie and Brunswick counties en route to North Carolina.

Kathy Versluys and her husband Martin traveled the world in search of the perfect place to live.  They settled on a farm in Nelson County, surrounded by mountain views, and turned a large stable into a quaint bed and breakfast called the Acorn Inn.

“Now we’re in a little gravel parking area with, on the right, the beautiful meadow  and that leads up to the woods, and then behind the inn is a great big oak tree, and that’s where we have weddings a lot.”

Marion Kenour

n neighboring Massies Mill, Marion Kenour  is the priest at Grace Episcopal Church – a structure built in 1886.  It survived a massive flood in 1969, when Hurricane Camille stalled over the Blue Ridge.

“All these pews were pushed forward.  It popped out the stained glass windows.  That lectern up there was washed to Wingina, forty miles away, so it was a huge devastation to the area, but the church stayed thru it all.”

And retired  Air Force, Colonel Charlotte Rea also chose to settle here.

“I moved 14 times in the 26 years I was in the military. “

She joins Versluys and Kenour in singing the praises of their home county and despairing over letters sent by Dominion Energy – a sister company of Dominion Virginia Power.  Its mission is to transport natural gas, according to spokesman Jim Norvelle.

“There is an abundant supply of natural gas and growing in the Pennsylvania /West Virginia area called the Marcellus shale, and there are markets where they do not have natural gas.”

Like North Carolina, where utilities would like to switch from coal to clean burning gas, and industry would welcome a cheap source of energy, so Dominion and two other companies are each looking at how they could build and bury pipelines from the Marcellus shale in West Virginia or Pennsylvania, thru Virginia to Carolina.

Rea and Versluys talk strategy.

“We have crews in the three states that are beginning to look for the best possible route with the least  impact to environmental, historic and cultural resources.  Then we’re going to go back to those communities and have open houses and meet with the boards of supervisors to say, ‘Okay, do you see this route as being the best possible route?’  That process is going to take probably the rest of the year.”

Norvelle says nothing’s been decided, but in a county of just 15,000 people, three grassroots groups have already formed to fight any pipeline.  Rea sits on the steering committee of Friends of Nelson County, which filed a lawsuit to prevent surveys until the county holds a public meeting with Dominion Energy.

“We had been trying to determine what the possible route may be through Nelson County jut by going door to door to find out if people received letters.  A county administrator asked Dominion for a list of all the property owners who might be affected, and that request was declined.”

The Reverend Marion Kenour formed Free Nelson – a group standing by to throw a party when surveyors arrive at local homes.

“We’ll be doing things like having banners in the air that hopefully will interrupt the laser of the surveyor, conga lines, red rover, bubbles, anything we can do to block that view.”

And a third organization is raising money at the local farmers’ market by selling lawn signs that read NO PIPELINE.  

In these situations, energy companies can use eminent domain to get the property they want, and they have a legal right to survey.   They clear-cut a swath about 100 feet wide, bury their pipelines 3-6 feet down, and plant ground cover above.   Some, like Kathy Versluys, worry about safety, but a Dominion employee who came to the inn dismissed her fears.

“He said, ‘This is the modern era.  We don’t have leaks.  They’re not made of clay anymore, these pipelines,’ but, he said, ‘We have – just in case there is a leak, although there won’t be any, we have equipment that will fly over to see if there are leaks.’”

Aerial spraying is also used to keep trees from sprouting above the pipeline, and landowners are not allowed to build there, but they do get a one-time payment.  In Nelson County, locals estimate that will be about five dollars per foot.  

Dominion has agreed to a public meeting on August 12th.  Meanwhile, residents of Warren, Orange, Culpeper , Fauquier, Rappahannock, Madison. Fluvanna, Louisa and several other counties are organizing to fight a different pipeline that Houston-based Spectra Energy may build.  Among landowners to receive letters about upcoming surveys – the historic home of James and Dolley Madison. 

Future Pipeline Site

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief
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