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Pipeline Prospects: Environmental Impact

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Plans to build two large pipelines through some of Virginia’s scenic farmland and forests have raised serious environmental concerns.  Builders say the work can be done with minimal damage to the land and water, but critics say that’s impossible.  In part one of a five-part series, Sandy Hausman looks at the main environmental concern – water.

Fishing is good in Western Augusta County.  The streams run clear – perfect for brook trout. Rick Webb studied mountain streams for thirty years.  Now in retirement from UVA, he’s fishing and fighting to save these waterways.

“What I’m concerned about is maintaining what we have left.  It’s time stop tearing it up.  It’s important for sanity really.  We need to be able to get out of the rat race and be a little closer to the natural world.”

So he was alarmed when he learned the Atlantic Coast Pipeline would cut a 50-foot swath through many of Virginia’s last mountain streams where brook trout survive.

“We’re talking about building a pipeline in extreme landscapes. Soil which has been held in place by the trees and the undergrowth and the leaf litter on the forest floor is suddenly exposed  to the rainfall and sometimes we get torrential rains here, and so it gets washed down hill into the streams, and it will choke them.”

Dominion spokesman Aaron Ruby says the company can prevent that.

Rick Webb is fighting to save mountain streams.

“We fully analyzed each of the steep slopes along the route, and we’ve developed an approach for each of those slopes that is tailored for the unique conditions of those slopes, so that they’re using the most protective techniques that they can to address the unique conditions of each one of those slopes.”

And he touts years of experience building pipelines through the mountains of West Virginia, but from 2012 to 2014 that state’s Department of Environmental Protection cited Dominion for a ruptured pipeline that released crude oil into a stream, for then failing to contain the leak or report it. The state also says Dominion failed to respond to repeated requests for information after construction caused sedimentation in eight streams.

“When you disturb large areas of land, and you turn forests into dirt, a certain amount of erosions is going to take place.”

That’s Evan Hansen, president of Downstream Strategies, an environmental consulting company in West Virginia. Even after a pipeline is buried and covered with grass, he says, water will run off quickly, causing erosion of stream banks.  And during construction, measures that control erosion on level ground or gentle slopes may not work in the mountains.  Virginia’s Director of Environmental Quality, David Paylor, is confident.

Pipeline opponent David Sligh

Paylor: “We will issue a certification that complies with the law as long as the practices can give us a reasonable assurance that water quality will be protected.” 

Hausman:  “There are those who look at the lay of the land and say, ‘It’s impossible,’ and I’m wondering how many pipelines have actually been built through terrain similar to the route of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.”

Paylor: “I’m unfortunately not the one to ask on how many pipelines.”

His boss, the secretary of Natural Resources, couldn’t say either.  She noted this is the first time DEQ has done a certification of this kind in a generation.

Then there is the challenge of enforcement.  Consultant Evan Hansen says it isn’t easy.

“A lot of these pipeline projects are out in the middle of nowhere, so it’s not like people are driving by and noticing the impacts.”

And David Sligh is worried.  He’s a member of Wild Virginia, a group that advocates for the state’s natural areas. He recalls construction of a smaller pipeline in Giles County three years ago.  Tons of rock and mud fell into streams, and the state contacted the developer.

“They said, ‘You better fix this,’ but by then a lot of the damage was done, and the delay between the time they were told to fix things and the time that it actually happened was unacceptable.”

We’ll hear more about the challenges of regulating a major pipeline project in our next report. 

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief
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