Thomas Jefferson worried that as elected representatives became physically separated from their constituents they would care less about serving the folks back home and more about serving themselves. “Our country is too large to have all its affairs directed by a single government. Public servants at such a distance, and from under the eye of their constituents, must from the circumstances of distance, be unable to administer and overlook all the details necessary for the good government of the citizens; the same circumstances, by rendering detection impossible to their constituents, will invite public agents to corruption, plunder and waste.” Take a minute to just savor this assessment and how prescient it was to the political condition of today.
Is there a place for you and me in keeping our public servants focused? For me it is simply paying attention and then challenging what doesn’t seem right or fair. And it doesn’t hurt to be relentless.
The Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) has done wonders in bringing citizens forward to challenge the shifting of authority to a corporation and away from the rights of individuals. Of course, challenging "the big boys" can be exhausting. And often the work seems useless but sometimes it isn't. But always it is satisfying to make the effort, to stand for what's right. Teddy Roosevelt's "Man in the Arena" comes to mind.
In October 2014, I was part of an eclectic group of concerned citizens who were granted an audience with the then chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) Cheryl LaFleur. We (Bobby Whitescarver, Nancy Sorrells, Travis Geary, Jennifer Lewis and myself) spent more than an hour with Chairman LaFleur and staff members. We talked about valley karst, our water and the need to protect this irreplaceable gift. We noted the dangers of instability of 42”, heavy, pipe in karst and the problems inherent with pipeline construction in this fragile geological condition.
I like to think our presentation helped influence Commissioner LaFleur when she voted “no” to the “Certificate of Approval” for the ACP. Unfortunately the 2 Commissioners voting to proceed weren’t on the Commission when we had our face to face meeting. Nonetheless it was a good experience, a day well spent.
Success did come when the ACP requested a locally administered Special Use permit. Heart felt local opinions had a role in denying Dominion’s plan to place a construction yard and storage site in rural Augusta County. Swoope conservationist Bobby Whitescarver spoke about how ongoing local efforts to clean up polluted streams and rivers, by the farm community, could be undone. I asked for a traffic count and when the ACP revealed numbers that showed vehicles arriving but never leaving (think The Hotel California) the Zoning Board members were not just skeptical but ridiculing as they voted “no”.
And now a new opportunity has presented itself that requires public engagement. Earlier this year Virginia’s DEQ yielded its regulatory authority to monitor individual stream crossings to the Army Corps of Engineers. The corps, in turn, gave the ACP blanket approval for its work through rivers, streams and wetlands via a Nationwide Permit #12. This permit allows “discharge of dredged or fill materials into wetlands and streams during the construction of pipelines.” This blanket permit replaces the normal standard of individual monitoring for particular issues of water quality on the 889 waterbody crossings across the state or the 189 stream and 43 wetland crossings in Augusta County.
How is it right then that after our legislators wrote laws to protect our streams and wetlands and created the DEQ to enforce those laws, that the DEQ can just relieve itself of its mandated responsibilities? And how is it right that after being ceded the authority to protect these same resources that the corps should then yield this oversight to the very ones who we are to be protected from? In sum who thought it a good idea to put the fox in charge of the henhouse?
We cannot simply allow the ACP to work unwatched in our waterways. Each of us in our own voice needs to send comments about the importance of protecting our water by looking at every stream crossing on a case-by-case basis to: DEQ, P.O. Box 1105, Richmond, Va. 23219,
Jefferson felt public agents lost their way when they thought no one was watching. We need to let the DEQ know not only that we are watching, but that we are passionate in protecting what we have.
Tracy Pyles is a columnist for The News Virginian and a former chairman and member of the Augusta County Board of Supervisors. He lives in Augusta County.