RICHMOND — A long-awaited federal draft environmental impact statement issued Friday says Dominion’s proposed 600-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline would have “some adverse and significant environmental impacts,” though most would be reduced to “less-than-significant levels” with mitigating measures proposed by the partners building the pipeline and recommendations by federal regulators.
Environmental groups, who have fought the $5.1 billion project tooth and nail, have a different take.
A statement released on behalf of a consortium of organizations, including the Charlottesville-based Southern Environmental Law Center, the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club and Appalachian Voices, among others, blasted the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for ignoring evidence that the pipeline “is not needed, (and) puts lives, communities’ drinking water supplies, private property, publicly-owned natural resources and the climate at unacceptable risk.”
FERC ignored clean-energy alternatives, warnings that the gas industry is overbuilding pipeline infrastructure and “disregarded evidence that the project would lock consumers into decades more reliance on dirty fossil fuels,” the statement says.
The executive summary for FERC’s draft environmental impact statement, which covers alternative routes, endangered species, wetlands, groundwater, the nearly 2,000 surface water bodies the pipeline will cross, potential effects on public and recreational lands and other factors, acknowledges potential hazards that include sinkhole-prone karst terrain and a route that includes more than 100 miles where slopes are greater than 20 percent and increased potential for landslides exists.
However, based on a review of the pipeline’s proposed construction methods, “impact avoidance and minimization measures” and consultations with state agencies and others, the FERC staff concluded that the potential for the pipeline to “initiate or be affected by karst conditions would be adequately minimized.”
The report says that the pipeline builders have yet to finish field surveys, analysis and final measures related to slope hazards and recommends that they file those studies and “identify mitigation that would be implemented during construction and operation of the projects.”
Leslie Hartz, vice president of pipeline construction at Dominion Energy, called the draft report, the result of two years of study and community engagement, a “very significant milestone” in the timeline of the $5.1 billion project, which formally applied for federal approval a year ago.
The pipeline would deliver up to 1.5 billion cubic feet of Marcellus shale gas from West Virginia to customers in Virginia and North Carolina every day.
“While we have to review the draft further, we believe it confirms that the project can be built in an environmentally responsible way that protects the public safety and natural resources of our region,” Hartz said.
“We have worked constructively with landowners and agencies to address the important environmental issues that have been raised. As the draft report demonstrates, we’ve taken meaningful steps to avoid or minimize impacts and incorporate public input in many important areas of the project.”
Hartz said Dominion has made more than 300 route adjustments and more than 250 miles of rerouting to “avoid environmentally sensitive areas and many other features of individual properties.”
The draft statement will be open for public comment until April 6, said Tamara Young-Allen, a spokeswoman for FERC.
She said the commission expects to present a final environmental impact statement by June, after which the commission, which is responsible for approving the construction, operation and maintenance of interstate natural gas transmission pipelines, will issue a ruling.
Young-Allen said that final ruling will touch on three areas: the environmental impact; whether there’s a need for the project; and whether the gas it will deliver will be at prices that are “just and reasonable.”
Dominion hopes to begin construction in the fall.
Kirk Bowers, a retired professional engineer and the pipelines campaign coordinator for the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club, questioned why FERC conducted a lengthy environmental review before settling the question of whether the pipeline is needed.
“They haven’t addressed the need for the pipeline, which is a major issue,” Bowers said.
He added that many of the customers who already have signed up for gas delivery are Dominion affiliates.
“It’s not needed. We know it’s not needed. ... FERC is basing the need on their affiliate contracts. We don’t know whether the affiliates need the gas or not, because they’re all part of the Dominion network,” Bowers said.
Cat McCue, a spokeswoman for Appalachian Voices, which also has opposed the pipeline, said the study “reveals that FERC has ignored evidence that the massive, expensive fracked-gas pipeline is not needed to meet demand, meaning the project’s clear threat to human life and to rural communities, the taking of private property and the permanent environmental destruction it would cause are wholly unjustified.”
Bowers said the draft statement is missing documentation the developers of the pipeline, which will pass through the George Washington and Monongahela national forests, have not yet provided, including information requested by the U.S. Forest Service “to assess project-induced landslide hazards and risk to public safety, resources and infrastructure.”
“It’s missing components that are essential for the review and required by the National Environmental Policy Review Act. It’s deficient in many areas,” he said, adding that FERC’s assurances about the pipeline builders’ mitigation measures amount to “feel-good propaganda.”
Bowers said he’s more interested in seeing slope-stability analyses and other detailed engineering data from Dominion and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.
“They’re not determining whether the pipeline is going to slide down the hill or not and blow up,” he said.
Dominion says the pipeline is “critically important” to meeting the growing energy needs of utilities in Virginia and North Carolina, is essential to economic development and is the “transition to a cleaner energy future.”
The pipeline will be built with redundant safety features and corrosion protection. Before service begins, each weld will be X-rayed and the entire pipeline will be pressure-tested.
“Once in service, we monitor the pipeline 24/7, every single day of the year from our gas control center,” a fact sheet on the project says.
Pressure, flow and temperature of the gas are monitored at all times, and remote-controlled shut-off valves are able to stop the flow of gas “if sudden or unexpected variations are detected.”