Proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline leaves communities divided

Written by: Catherine O’Neill and John Aceti

Photos by: Viviane Feldman

Video by: Amanda Lalezarian

The proposed pipeline spans over 550 miles and cuts through three states. It runs under rivers and creeks, and numerous Native American tribes allege it will destroy their sacred sites. Protesters from near and far have gathered to halt its construction while advocates have cited the economic benefits it will bring to the struggling region.

It sounds like the Dakota Access Pipeline, which has received national publicity for months and became an issue during the presidential campaign. Instead, it’s the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which is planned to pipe methane gas through West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina.

It’s listed as one of President Donald Trump’s top infrastructure projects for the coming year, but it hasn’t received anything near the media coverage of the North Dakota project.

Controversy and protests have dogged the planned pipeline since it was announced in September 2014. The pipeline is being built in partnership between Dominion, Duke Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas and Southern Company Gas.

On March 4, a group of protesters gathered in Whitakers, North Carolina, to kick-off their walk in opposition to the ACP. Gathering at the Franklinton Center, which is situated on a former slave plantation, local environmental action groups, landowners affected by the pipeline’s route, representatives from local Native American tribes and community members led participants in songs and speeches. For the next two weeks, the group—which swelled and dwindled from day to day—marched along the 205 miles of the proposed pipeline route in North Carolina.

Mac Legerton, one of the primary organizers of the march, has been building environmental coalitions with his wife, Donna Chavis, for the past 30 years. He said all of the coalitions of which he has been a member have been successful in halting the environmentally damaging projects they opposed, but that this pipeline presents a challenge because the public is less aware of the risks associated with methane gas.

He said the risks “include the highly volatile nature of it, (that) it’s vulnerable to explosion, and…the fact that it’s the most dangerous fossil fuel that causes global warming.”

Legerton also argued that the use of eminent domain to seize private property for personal financial gain is an abuse of government power.

Many speakers at the opening ceremonies of the protest march made emotional appeals and focused on their personal connections to the land, but Legerton said it’s important to ground the protest in factual data about the risks associated with the pipeline.

He said in order to succeed, the coalition will “need to combine effective leadership and successful research.”

Although some community members have begun uniting in opposition to the pipeline, others see the potential economic benefits the pipeline could bring to the region.

Chris Johnson, the director of Johnston County Economic Development, said that many communities along I-95 were excited about the opportunity the pipeline has for building capacity and better positioning for manufacturing.

While Johnson said he couldn’t be specific about the number of jobs the pipeline would create, he highlighted that without it, no new jobs would be created.

“Eastern North Carolina has been decimated by job loss for the last 25 to 30 years,” he said. “During the 90s, the area lost six to seven thousand jobs.”

He said access to natural gas is crucial for some of the poorest areas, like Smithfield and Selma, if they want to draw new business to the area.

Johnston County is one of eight counties directly affected by the proposed pipeline. Of the eight counties affected–Northampton, Halifax, Nash, Wilson, Johnston, Cumberland, Sampson and Robeson counties–all but Nash and Wilson have officially endorsed the pipeline’s construction.

Dave Harman is also part of the North Carolina Alliance to Stop the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Harman said the proponents of the pipeline are focused on the short-term economic benefits rather than the long-term impacts of the pipeline.

“We could be generating that same amount of energy using renewable resources,” Harman said. “(This pipeline) will marry us to fossil fuels for another 40 years.”

Harman said the counties have been seduced by the promise of financial windfall as a result of increased property taxes, but that such projections ignore the potential financial losses if homeowners move away from the area.

Robie Goins, a Robeson County resident and member of the Lumbee tribe of North Carolina, said the companies involved in the development of the pipeline have not considered the residents in decisions about its construction.

Goins said that community members need to seek out information and be more engaged if they want to oppose the pipeline.

“We need more people to get involved and take pride in the environment around them,” Goins said. “Take a stand for it. Ask questions…Right now our communities–I don’t know if it’s enough advertisement or caring–but the involvement of the community just isn’t as strong as it needs to be.”

Protesters have cited destruction of wilderness, use of eminent domain, environmental racism and contribution to climate change as reasons the project should not proceed.

However, local government officials on both sides of the aisle have thrown their support behind the ACP, citing reasons ranging from energy independence to economic stimulus. Bobbie Richardson, a Democratic representative of Nash County, even went as far as to send a letter to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to endorse the ACP.

According to proponents of the pipeline, the project could stimulate local economies by bringing in more business–nearly $700 million of direct stimulus created by the pipeline’s construction and use of local contractors and $8 million in direct tax revenue given to the affected counties.

Aaron Ruby, a spokesperson for Dominion Power, said he deals with plenty of misconceptions about the ACP and pipelines in general. He likes to say that the anti-pipeline protesters like to use a “spaghetti defense” tactic when criticizing the ACP.

“If you imagine throwing spaghetti at a wall, some of it will stick but most of it will fall off,” Ruby said. “It’s very much the same with the things they say about (the ACP) … ‘it’ll poison the water, it’ll destroy the environment’ and so on, and they couldn’t be more wrong.”

Partners at Duke Energy and Dominion Power have said that they will conduct extensive testing to ensure the pipeline meets the highest standards. One such test involves pumping water through at higher pressure than natural gas would to ensure structural integrity and make sure no leaking will occur once the pipeline is functional. Additionally, representatives said quality testing the various sections of the pipeline every two years will help keep the pipeline running smoothly and safely.

“I can assure you, we are just as concerned about limiting the impact this pipeline will have on the environment around it as anyone else,” Ruby said. “Underground pipelines are a normal part of the everyday lives of most Americans, yet they go virtually unnoticed because they’re underground, safe and do not disturb the environment.”
If Duke Energy and Dominion Power receive the proper permits for the pipeline, they are slated to begin construction in November 2017 and to finish the pipeline in February 2019. A final environmental impact statement on the project will be released on June 30, 2017, with federal authorization for the project being decided within 90 days of the EIS.

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