RICHMOND — The Atlantic Coast Pipeline — the deeply contentious, $5.5 billion Dominion Energy-led project planned to run from West Virginia through Virginia to North Carolina — moved closer to construction Friday after winning a pair of key approvals from environmental agencies in West Virginia and North Carolina.
And with tree clearing already approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission along some portions of the 600-mile route, state officials in Virginia are preparing for protests and confrontations between activists and workers, Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran and Virginia State Police Superintendent Gary Settle told legislators this week.
Last weekend, police were called out in Buckingham County as activists recorded video of Dominion workers toting chainsaws along an access road in the woods.
Settle, newly appointed to succeed Steve Flaherty, called the protest “uneventful” but cautioned members of the Senate Finance Committee’s Public Safety Subcommittee that “more than likely, it will escalate as we move forward.”
He and Moran said after the meeting on Wednesday that the state police fusion center is closely monitoring potential plans for protests or other actions to obstruct the pipeline’s construction.
On Wednesday, the Allegheny-Blue Ridge Alliance, a coalition of 50 organizations in Virginia and West Virginia, announced its Pipeline Compliance Surveillance Initiative, a construction monitoring project aimed at ensuring “strict application of environmental laws and regulations.” The monitoring effort, the group says, will involve hundreds of volunteer observers in Virginia and West Virginia, water-quality monitoring and aerial observation.
“We strongly believe that the ACP is unneeded and cannot be built safely without causing permanent damage to the environment, particularly critical water resources,” said Rick Webb, a retired University of Virginia stream scientist and a coordinator with the anti-pipeline Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition. “We will continue to challenge the government decisions involving the project. But, with certain preconstruction activities already underway, citizen oversight is essential given the limited resources of government agencies that are responsible for regulating pipeline construction.”
State police met with their counterparts from North Dakota in August for a “lessons-learned” training session related to the prolonged confrontation there over construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline and are communicating closely with local law enforcement in the localities that the Atlantic Coast Pipeline would cross, as well as other state agencies and the U.S. Attorney’s Offices in western and eastern Virginia.
Settle said law enforcement’s aim is to allow pipeline opponents to protest peacefully, while protecting them and others from potentially violent confrontations or criminal activity.
“We are worried about their safety,” he said. “We don’t want them to be in harm’s way.”
Aaron Ruby, a Dominion spokesman, said the company is making its own plans.
“The safety of our employees and contractors and the safety of the community are paramount,” Ruby said. “We’re taking all necessary precautions to secure our work sites and make sure our employees and contractors have a safe work environment.”
On Friday, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection approved a general permit that covers stormwater and erosion and sediment control plans for the project, which will cut through national forests, steep terrain and hundreds of waterways along its route.
“The pipeline construction stormwater permit allows WVDEP and its enforcement officers to oversee construction activity along the full route of the pipeline, including water crossings, uplands and every other part of the impacted surface through which the pipeline crosses,” the agency said in a statement Friday.
Also on Friday, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality announced it had approved a water-quality certification for the project.
“DEQ left no stone unturned in our exhaustive eight-month review,” said North Carolina DEQ Secretary Michael Regan. “Our job doesn’t end with the granting of the permit but continues as we hold the company accountable to live up to its commitments. Our efforts have resulted in a carefully crafted permit that includes increased environmental protections, while giving us the tools we need to continue close oversight of this project as it moves forward.”
There are no further approvals outstanding in West Virginia. In North Carolina, the project must still obtain an air quality permit for a compressor station in Northampton County and three stormwater permits. It also must get erosion and sediment control plans approved for the portion of the pipeline planned to run through the northern part of the state.
“This process resulted in more environmental protection and higher water quality standards than any other project of its kind,” Ruby said after the North Carolina announcement. “At every stage of the project, we’ve gone above and beyond regulatory requirements and adopted some of the most protective measures ever used by the industry. Additionally, state and federal inspectors will closely monitor construction to ensure we meet all regulatory standards.”
The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection has been criticized by environmental groups for ceding its authority to issue a separate water quality certification for the potential effects of the project on waterways.
But North Carolina’s DEQ, which had rejected initial permit requests and repeatedly sought more information on the pipeline plans, had been seen by pipeline opponents as conducting a more rigorous review than in Virginia, where the state Department of Environmental Quality has been blasted over its handling of the water quality review.
In a controversial decision last month, the Virginia State Water Control Board voted 4-3 to approve a water quality certification for the project, though it delayed the effective date until the DEQ has approved outstanding erosion and sediment control plans and presents a report to the board. Those plans remain under review, the DEQ said Friday. The board’s decisions on both the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and another project, the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which would cross into Southwest Virginia, have been challenged in federal court.
The Atlantic Coast Pipeline also is awaiting approval by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
In an announcement Friday, the Laborers’ International Union of North America announced a partnership with the Virginia Community College System to recruit and train Virginians at six state community colleges to work on the ACP, including installing environmental control devices, ground clearing, coating and installing pipe and restoring the right of way.