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Augusta Expo Attracts Pipeline Backers & Opponents

Dominion wrapped up a dozen public open houses this week – events designed to explain a natural gas pipeline it hopes to build from the fracking fields of West Virginia to markets in Virginia and North Carolina. 

The road to the Augusta Expo Center was lined with lawn signs – some reading Protect Our Water – No Pipeline, and No Pipeline on our Farms and Forests, while other signs promised Safe Energy, Energy Jobs and Energy Independence.  Inside, however, there appeared to be consensus.

"No pipeline!  No pipeline!"

More than 300 people chanted and waited to chat with three members of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission which will, ultimately, decide whether the pipeline can be buried at least three feet down, along a 550-mile route.  Some, like John Geary, said, ‘Not in my back yard.’

“These are the restrictions that come with the pipeline – ten pages of restrictions which basically I can’t do a whole lot with my property that I bought and paid for. I'll have the mortgage, and I’ll have to pay taxes, but that’s about it.“  

Others, like Diana Woodall, said not on my planet.  "We’re going 180 degrees in the wrong direction.  We need to stop trying to extract fossil fuels and go to clean energy. We need to do that now, and Dominion could, instead, be developing offshore wind.   They have the leases for offshore wind. Virginia is very well situated to develop offshore wind, and they’re not doing that."

And many expressed doubts about the safety of building a 42-inch pipeline across the unique geology of Augusta County.  It’s called Karst -- a landscape characterized by sinkholes, caves, and underground streams. 

Tom Long displayed a large photograph of a pipeline on fire. "We have a picture of a Canadian pipeline exploding, and even Dominion says that this high-pressure 42-inch line they want to put in would have a blast zone 1100 feet on each side, and they’re coming pretty close to the Stewart’s Draft schools, many homes, churches, and that’s just in Augusta County."

And Phillip Knoff circulated a petition expressing fears about possible damage to the area’s water supply.“I talk about how dangerous it is to run the pipeline across the national forest where there are many small dreams that are headwaters to the Shenandoah, to the Potomac, to the Bay.”  

But Dominion had fifty people on hand to offer reassurance.  They said thousands of miles of pipeline already operate successfully through karst, and pipelines are the safest way to transport gas.  Dominion claims it’s developing wind and solar, but those resources are not reliable enough to provide power 24/7. 

Meanwhile, spokesman Jim Norville says the company must stop burning coal to meet new environmental regulations. "Dominion Virginia Power  and Duke Energy are closing coal-fired power stations for environmental reasons.  Natural gas is a cleaner fuel to keep the lights on reliably."

Norville said the company was not surprised by the extent of opposition to the pipeline. "You know I think any time you do an infrastructure improvement project, be it an interstate highway, or an airport or a sewer line, you’re going to have pushback."

Dominion plans to submit a formal request to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission late this summer.  FERC will then release an environmental impact statement about 12 months later, will hold more public meetings and is expected to make a decision toward the end of 2016.  If FERC, the National Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agree, Norville says Dominion would be ready to start construction in 2017, with gas flowing thru the line one year later. 

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief
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