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The Atlantic Coast Pipeline Goes to Court

One of the selling points for backers of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is its job-creation potential – and there’s one group already reaping the benefits: lawyers. Pipeline builder Dominion recently filed more than two dozen lawsuits against landowners who don’t even want the company on their property to survey, and dozens more are to come. WMRA’s Andrew Jenner reports.

When Shahir Kassam-Adams and his wife, Nancy, were looking for a new place to call home seven or eight years ago, they ended up in Nelson County.

SHAHIR KASSAM-ADAMS: We fell in love with the area because it’s so close to Charlottesville, and at the same time, it’s very, very secluded and very pristine. A lot of the area shares our values where people have been great stewards of the country, of the farms around there. So we felt that we really enjoyed that and belonged.

But now they have a problem. One potential route for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline – which Dominion wants to build to transport natural gas – crosses the Kassam-Adamses’ driveway. They don’t want the pipeline there. They don’t even want surveyors coming to begin planning a route. By state law, though, utilities don’t need landowner permission for surveys like this. And so, the Kassam-Adamses are getting sued.

FRANK MACK: We’ve sent two letters out, as required by the law, and we’re asking landowners who continue to deny us permission if they would reconsider allowing us to survey, but unfortunately, some continue to steadfastly deny us. And that’s why we’re going to court.

Dominion spokesman Frank Mack says that it’s in landowners’ best interests to cooperate with the surveys.

MACK: They know their property better than anybody else. They can make us aware of a wetland or a stream, a family cemetery, even a 200-year-old oak tree that they would prefer that we preserve. But we can’t find the best route with the least environmental impact until we actually survey, and that’s why having permission from the landowners in critical.

KASSAM-ADAMS: That view would be so much more credible if they started the conversation that way, and then said, ‘Hey, we want to engage in finding a path through this.’ There’s nothing civil about taking away someone’s property. It’s a whole lot more egregious to take away someone’s property and couch it in the terms of ‘Well, I’m being reasonable, and why don’t you just talk to me about it.’ That seems like a conversation between a powerful person and a less-powerful person, not between neighbors.

So far, Dominion has sued 27 landowners in Virginia – most of them in Nelson County. Mack says the company plans to take similar action against up to 100 more people in the state.

MACK: I think in any infrastructure project today, you almost expect to have opposition. So that’s not a surprise. We’re still on schedule. We’re planning on filing our preferred route with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission later this summer.

The Kassam-Adams’s case will be heard in circuit court in several weeks. Their lawyers will argue, on some technicalities of state law, that Dominion doesn’t actually have the right it thinks it does to survey their property.

KASSAM-ADAMS: I believe that the circuit court will rule in our favor, but more importantly, they will see it for what it is, which is the first step towards grabbing a hold of people’s dreams, their homes, their property, without any consideration towards what it is that could be an alternative – which is what they’re required to do. They’re required to look for alternatives before they settle on taking away or stealing people’s properties.

In the meantime, two cases now in federal court are challenging the state law Dominion wants to enforce against people like Kassam-Adams. Both lawsuits were brought by pipeline opponents and they were argued in February in Harrisonburg. Nancy Sorrells, a former Augusta County supervisor active in several groups opposing the pipeline, says a joint ruling on these cases is expected soon.

NANCY SORRELLS: We’re not overly optimistic about what the outcome is going to be, but even if the judge says, ‘No, they can go ahead and survey, it’s constitutional,’ it’ll be appealed. Now I think if the judge says it’s not constitutional, Dominion will appeal it, so either way, we’re far from over on the decision.

In other words, expect to be hearing a lot more about this. Dominion plans to start construction next year. But at the same time:

SORRELLS: You’ve got a lot of people who have said, ‘You’re not coming on my property, no way, no how.’ I’ve never seen anything that has galvanized people and brought people together from across all spectrums of the political process. I won’t say that it’s 100 percent of people that are opposed to the pipeline, but there’s a pretty large number. I’ve never seen anything like it on a local issue, and I’ve seen a lot of local issues.

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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