Pipeline Controversy Heads to the General Assembly

Feb 2, 2015

Many residents in the path of the proposed Dominion natural-gas pipeline say that they are not being heard when they raise concerns about its effect on their property.

As WMRA's Andrew Jenner reports, at least two lawmakers in the General Assembly are responding to those concerns.

The proposed route of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline crosses the Shenandoah Valley and rural Southside Virginia. But right now, the intense controversy around this Dominion natural gas pipeline has come to Richmond, where the General Assembly is in session.

[Sound of a committee hearing in progress]

DEL. DICKIE BELL: The bill is designed to open up government, because that’s what the people I represent have asked me to do.

That’s Republican Delegate Dickie Bell of Staunton, speaking on behalf of one of his bills before the House Commerce and Labor Committee last week.

BELL: I don’t know that sunshine ever hurts anything, so when we have an opportunity to make government or public utilities a little more accountable to the people, then I think that’s a good thing. And Mr. Chairman, I thank you for your time.

This bill would make utility companies, like Dominion, subject to Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act if they use eminent domain to take private property, like for building a pipeline. Irene Leech, whose family farm is crossed by the proposed route, testified in support of the bill:

IRENE LEECH: The process is very much stacked against us. We need information, because right now we don’t have a good way to get the information we need. It only comes from the company when the company chooses to give it to us.

Moments later, however, the committee voted to ‘lay the bill on the table’ – that’s legislature jargon for killing it – and moved on to the next order of business. Here’s Bell again, in the busy corridor outside the hearing room.

BELL: Well I don’t feel any differently about the bill because we lost the battle today. We’ll live to fight again.

Since it was announced last summer, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline has met with plenty of resistance in communities along the route. And state legislators like Bell are hearing a lot about it.

BELL: You know, the pipeline issue has been a difficult one. I think the route they picked is certainly not one that I would have picked or one that I’d like to see, and it goes beyond just the ‘Not in my Back Yard’ syndrome. We’ve never had a pipeline that big. I think there’s a great deal of concern about what happens when you try to place that pipeline where it is.

In the Senate, another lawmaker whose district is crossed by the pipeline has introduced three bills in response. The first from Senator Emmett Hanger, a Republican from Mount Solon, is identical to Bell’s Freedom of Information Act proposal. Two others would go further yet.

SEN. EMMETT HANGER: There was a bill passed in 2004 in the General Assembly which basically allowed gas transmission pipeline companies to enter property without approval of the property owner.

Hanger and nearly every other state senator voted for that bill. But at the time, he says, he didn’t anticipate it would be used to survey a route for a 42-inch pipeline running several hundred miles across the state.

HANGER: This is a huge project, a whole different set of circumstances, and I think that particular legislation, in reflecting back on the implications for a huge project like this, are inappropriate.

Hanger’s second bill would simply repeal that 2004 law.

HANGER: And that’s the one that’s preferred. The other one would be basically to involve the local government as kind of a backstop where it would be necessary for the local government to essentially, by resolution, state that this is a project in the public interest, that it’s not in conflict with local zoning and planning.

That would allow a gas company to survey private land without landowner permission – but only with the approval of local government. That’s not currently required by state law. Both Bell and Hanger say they don’t oppose pipeline construction per se. Instead, they object to this pipeline’s specific route and specific effect on people and property in their districts.

HANGER: I’m glad that we’re developing our natural resources as long as it’s done in an appropriate manner. In this instance, I felt that the trajectory or the route that Dominion was proposing for their pipeline was not good for the area that I represent.

A Dominion spokesman declined to comment on the legislation. As of Tuesday morning, none of Hanger’s pipeline bills had been scheduled for a committee hearing in the Senate.