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"Pipeline Air Force" Scrambles Against Dominion's Plan

One group of opponents to the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline are taking to the skies.WMRA’s Andrew Jenner went along for the ride with a group calling itself the Pipeline Air Force... and he also got Dominion’s view from the ground.

[Sounds of an airplane taking off]

The air’s a little rough but the view is magnificent from a few thousand feet above the Shenandoah Valley. Michael Godfrey steers his tiny plane, an M7 Maule, west across Augusta County, through Jennings Gap and up over Shenandoah Mountain, following a line on his GPS that traces the proposed route of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. A consortium led by Dominion – one of the country’s largest energy companies – is proposing the 550-mile pipeline to transport natural gas from West Virginia to Virginia and North Carolina. Frank Mack is communications manager for Dominion Transmission, a subsidiary that would build the pipeline:

FRANK MACK: There’s a huge need for additional natural gas infrastructure that’s going to help companies like Duke Energy and Dominion Virginia Power with meeting new air emission regulations, because they’re going to be replacing a lot of their coal plants with natural gas.

In and around the Valley, this would be a 42-inch line. That’s big – bigger even than the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline – and its potential impacts on things like property values and the environment have gotten a lot of people very worked up.

RICK WEBB: I care about the fact that it’s coming through my community and that it will be impacting private property and lifetime investments of the people that live there.

Rick Webb is a retired environmental scientist from the University of Virginia who lives in Highland County, a few miles from the proposed route. He’s also coordinator of the Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition, made up of a dozen organizations opposed to the project.

WEBB: I also care about what it’s going to do to the ecosystems in the area, and in particular, in the National Forest. It’s a real intrusion into lands that we’ve set aside to protect and maintain for our children and their children and so forth.

In October, Dominion filed its first documents with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission – the agency with ultimate oversight of the pipeline. Dominion hopes to start building it in 2016 and start using it by the end of 2018.

MACK: We’re looking to make the best route with the least impact to the environment, the cultural and historical resources.

Here’s the problem. People like Webb say that whatever this “least impact” is, it’ll still be too much for a special place.

WEBB: The route that they’ve chosen through the National Forest and through some of our wild landscape has been as about as bad as you could conceive. The pipeline cuts right through the areas that will be the last refuge of the brook trout, of a number of mountain salamanders and other species. Bats, birds, etc. We’re talking about a very poor choice for a place to put a pipeline – some of the best of what remains, and some of the best of what will remain in a changing world.

The two sides simply disagree on what’s possible. With careful planning, Dominion says, the pipeline can coexist with these mountain ecosystems.

MACK: We’ve met with technical staffs from both the Monongahela and George Washington National Forest multiple times. They’ve made us aware of certain areas that they would really want us to avoid. For example, in the George Washington National Forest there’s the Cow Knob salamander, so they made us aware of where that salamander generally lives. So those are the kind of things that we’re going to try to avoid.

But to Webb, that’s trying to have cake and eat it too.

WEBB: They cannot bring a pipeline through the Central Alleghany highlands without significant damage to the environment.

If the pipeline monitoring coalition fails at its main goal of blocking the project altogether, they’ll do everything they can to make sure it’s built according to the precise letter of every applicable law. They point to a recent Dominion project in West Virginia as an example of why this is a concern. Between October 2012 and March 2013, state regulators documented at least 16 violations of water quality laws on nine different streams during the construction of a small pipeline, called the G-150, in the state’s northern panhandle. Last October, Dominion signed a draft consent order requiring it to fix all the problems and pay a $55,000 fine. Mack says that sort of thing is the exception, not the rule.

MACK: Dominion works hard to comply with all environmental rules and regulations, and in this instance, we did not meet our own expectations. We agree with the administrative consent order from the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, and we are working with the state to resolve all the issues and will implement all requirements of the consent order to ensure it doesn’t happen again on future projects.

If the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is approved, he adds, it will be subject to oversight from dozens of local, state and federal agencies. That’s little comfort, though, to Webb and others who don’t have confidence in those regulatory agencies, either. Which brings us back to Michael Godfrey and his airplane. Godfrey is one of four pilots that have mustered to form the Pipeline Air Force, the aerial branch of the pipeline monitoring coalition.

MICHAEL GODFREY: The idea is to establish an unprecedented level of observation and surveillance for the construction and maintenance of this pipeline, if it occurs. The prospective contractors who build this pipeline for Dominion need to understand that they are going to be held to the letter of the law.

In the meantime, they’re also lining up the legal team to help compel enforcement of these laws, if it ever comes to that. And so, the Air Force and the rest of the pipeline monitoring coalition aren’t just taking on Dominion, widely regarded as the most powerful economic and political entity in Virginia. They’re also going up against Virginia itself – and they’re ready to take the fight to the skies.

GODFREY: It is a David and Goliath kind of idea. Some may consider it quixotic, but you have to do what you can on behalf of your way of life and your community.

Andrew Jenner is a freelance reporter based in Harrisonburg. After working as a journalist in the Shenandoah Valley for a decade, he spent three years living and reporting in Brazil, returning to Harrisonburg in the summer of 2018. Andrew has reported for TheAtlantic.com, The Washington Post, Deutsche Welle, Discover, Modern Farmer, and many others. He is a graduate of Eastern Mennonite University, has a MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Goucher College, and almost made it onto Jeopardy! a few years ago.
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