2016-06-16 Opinions & Commentary
Put burden on companies, not landowners
For three years now, we’ve witnessed a perverse form of “crowd-sourcing” — the modern day term for gathering information by enlisting the free services of large numbers of people, usually online, for a particular project.
Dominion’s proposal for a 42-inch gas transmission pipeline over three states has used this method in a way that puts the burden of information and input on others. And we do mean burden.
It appears to us that once the corporation decided to install this pipeline, Dominion staff simply drew a path on the map from the gas source, Marcellus shale in West Virginia, to its goal in North Carolina, at Duke Energy, before it examined details about the terrain or properties along the route. Dominion left it up to residents and landowners in the pipe’s path to tell the company what kinds of resources it would impact.
This upside-down information flow was a savvy move for Dominion — you folks who are affected by the project put your own money, time and energy into telling the company what it needs to know about what’s in the pipeline path. It’s been your responsibility to explain the terrain, where the sinkholes are, about your historic farms, whether you have a conservation easement on your property, where your family members are buried, and much more, so Dominion can adjust its route accordingly.
Our state and federal agencies have been responsible for telling Dominion about the regulations in place to protect special areas, where threatened species live, what the habitats mean for our local ecology, which rivers are important to avoid, and more.
Of course, this information has flowed to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, not to Dominion directly, moving FERC closer to the point where it could possibly draft an Environmental Impact Statement for the project. This process for projects like the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is important in that companies really do need to know about features that might not be obvious in a project’s path, but in this case, nearly every piece of important information was readily available. Had Dominion personnel spent a week online studying the corridors they chose, they could have quickly learned about most of these features long before now. Before the company ever applied for approval from FERC.
Dominion staff could have easily discovered, for instance, the Cow Knob salamander lived in a protected area on Shenandoah Mountain. An online search yields dozens of articles about this special habitat in minutes.
They could have quickly found properties with existing conservation easements. Google Earth would have shown them where people live, or where their outbuildings and roads are, and the topographical features that would be hard to cross.
In fact, any reasonable person searching for a pipeline path would have done a little research, and concluded that coming through these mountains is not just a daunting task for engineering, but discarded this route for all the reasons people have explained to FERC for the last three years.
But, no. Dominion waited for somebody else to tell them what was in the pipeline’s path, thereby saving themselves the hassle, and the time. And, it continues to insist this is the only route it can use.
This region is particularly well protected, unlike our neighbors farther south whose land has been given over to mountain top removal and industrial ruin. It’s been protected by private individuals who value their properties’ important features; by state game, recreation and forestry folks who understand the need to preserve habitats for indicator species found nowhere else, and conserve rivers and forests for future generations to enjoy; by federal forestry officials who, with significant input from the rest of us, designate overall forest management to balance preservation with human use and need. Thanks to all of these individual and collective attitudes and policies about this region’s unique assets, the Allegheny Highlands and Blue Ridge Mountain areas are generally intact, thriving mostly the way Mother Nature intended. Thanks to that, they are also a boon to local economies where counties do not often sacrifice natural resources for big industry; or, when they do, they tread very carefully.
Dominion’s proposal would undo hundreds of years of preservation, conservation, and careful planning and growth. Let’s review again what this project would affect:
- Thousands of acres of private and public protected, managed land including rare and threatened species and habitats in the George Washington-Jefferson National Forest in Virginia, and Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia, none of which is earmarked for development of any kind, much less gas pipelines.
- Myriad water sources from the headwaters that feed the Chesapeake Bay and rivers enjoyed and protected for their special species and recreational opportunities, to the dozens of springs that serve as the single source of water for families and farms;
- Karst terrain that, over eons, has created caves and habitat for bats and other valuable creatures, plus an incredible underground maze of ever-changing formations that bear witness to the geology that educates and informs us about our planet’s evolution. One of the largest, the Burnsville Cove system, is already a designated natural landmark;
- Our state and federal agencies, many of which are woefully understaffed, that are now charged with (again, in this perverse “crowd sourcing”) significant and time-consuming reviews of environmental, cultural, and historical impacts, and who cannot adequately keep an eye on proper construction later to help avoid hazardous irreversible results;
- The Appalachian Trail, the entrance to key resorts, and dozens of historic properties that go back hundreds of years, preserved or rehabilitated lovingly by their owners; and
- Our local economies in areas that have fought very hard to establish jobs and steady growth in ways that complement our natural resources, not reduce them to silt. This project would undermine years of work by economic development groups, local governments, and chambers of commerce to keep these areas afloat with responsible businesses and employers.
To all of you who have put hundreds of hours of time and energy into providing detailed information to FERC about the land you walk on every day, here’s the good news: Now, it’s Dominion’s turn to spend its own time and money.
FERC has issued nearly 200 directives to Dominion based on your comments, your information, and now the company will have to reply. It will have to tell FERC what it intends to do in order to avoid certain areas and mitigate impacts to the places you hold dear.
Don’t get your hopes up that Dominion will find good solutions, though. More likely, we should expect Dominion to say there’s just no way ‘round some of these places, sorry. And it will say it has looked at all the alternative routes, although we know how well Dominion studies possible paths, so don’t be fooled. It will offer up standard procedures for blasting, building access roads, and running pipe under rivers and through karst — none of which will be good enough. We’ve seen this kind of response before.
But: The rational folks at FERC have at least told Dominion it won’t get a draft Environmental Impact
Statement schedule on the books until it answers these questions and provides considerably more information. This indicates not only that FERC staff has reviewed your comments, but that it takes them seriously enough not to forge ahead with a date for Dominion’s process to proceed.
However Dominion replies to FERC’s directives, we think it’s wholly irresponsible for any company to pick a pipeline path with so little research into what it will impact. Any fifth-grader with an Internet connection could have noticed one of the routes considered was going right up the driveway of historic Fort Lewis Lodge, or right into a valley with no way to escape emergencies, or right over a graveyard.
We are fortunate we could provide information to FERC about our region, although we remain convinced the agency should have provided more time to do that. But in the future, FERC should thoroughly examine its own methodology and put the burden on companies to do a lot more legwork on projects before they apply for approvals. It’s unfair that citizens, government, agency officials who don’t have the time or resources should have to explain what Dominion could have easily figured out for itself. Next time, FERC should tell project applicants like Dominion to plan more carefully, in advance, before establishing a route that is so clearly wrong.