Pipeline Approaches Approval, but Foes Still Full of Fight

Ridge removal zones along the ACP route are shown in red based on Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition calculations.

From the perspective of its managing partner, Dominion Transmission, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is looking more and more like a done deal. Dominion has completed more than 65% of the high-performance steel pipe needed to build the roughly 600-mile pipeline, and it has procured almost 85% of the land, materials and services it needs, pipeline executives disclosed today.

Pipeline officials also say they are nearing the end of a two-year regulatory process. In December, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) issued a favorable draft Environmental Impact Statement. The final EIS is expected by June 30th.

“We have every reason to believe the favorable draft EIS and — ultimately — the final EIS will provide a strong foundation for final approval of the project later this summer or in the early fall,” stated Diane Leopold, CEO of Dominion Energy, the pipeline’s managing partner, in a press conference this morning.

But foes of the pipeline have raised an issue they hope will derail ACP’s plans. The pipeline will cross 38 miles of mountains in Virginia and West Virginia that would require 10 feet or more of their ridge tops to be removed — up to 60 feet in places, they claim. Comparing the pipeline construction to the coal industry’s practice of mountaintop removal, Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, said in a dueling press conference today that the pipeline would cause “irrevocable harm” to the region’s environment.

Creating flat space on steep mountaintops to provide room for trench digging and construction activity would require removal of an estimated 247,000 dump-truck loads of excess rock and soil, asserted Dan Shaffer, spatial analyst with the Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition. Finding somewhere to place the massive volume of this “overburden” even temporarily without causing runoff into rivers and streams will be a huge challenge, he said, And, even though ACP would be required to restore ridge lines to their “approximate original contour,” breaking up the rock causes the volume to swell, creating a large amount of spoil that must be permanently disposed somewhere.

Pipeline foes raised these concerns about “mountaintop removal” with FERC in comments submitted during the draft impact statement. The draft document “failed to address this important issue,” noted Ben Luckett, an attorney with the Appalachian Mountain Advocates. He contends that the pipeline requires a new draft EIS and a new public comment period.

Even if FERC declines to re-open the draft process, anti-pipeline forces plan to raise the issue in state “401 certification” water-quality reviews. In Virginia the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has promised to allow extensive public input. Given the potential for massive runoff, erosion and sedimentation, said Luckett, “states cannot reasonably make a determination that the pipeline won’t lead to violations of clean water standards.”

Dominion spokesman Aaron Ruby strenuously objected to the comparison of pipeline construction with coal-mining mountaintop removal, which “conjures up images of mountains that have been completely flattened. … We’re not removing the tops of mountains. That is total misinformation.”

Building pipelines in rugged mountain terrain “is not new to us,” said Leslie Hartz, vice president-pipeline construction for Dominion Energy. Only “small clearings” will be required for construction purposes on ridge lines. Contractors will restore the terrain with native material to its original contours, as required by FERC. There may be a “small amount” of spoil left over, but ACP has identified ways to employ it usefully for other purposes.

In describing the construction process, Hartz said the project would be broken into 17 “spreads,” or construction units, each of which will be built simultaneously in linear fashion. Mountainous terrain would have shorter lengths, perhaps 15 to 20 miles. Some blasting would be required to remove rock, she said. Material left over after the mountain contours are restored will be used to re-establish habitats and create protective barriers to restrict access to right of way.

Pipeline foes question whether ACP fully comprehends the challenges it faces. The Friends of Nelson, contracted with Blackburn Consulting Services LLC to walk the route along Roberts Mountain. The soil there is thin, and construction will require extensive blasting to remove enough bedrock to dig pipeline trenches eight feet deep. Some slopes along the route are precipitous, as much as 65°. (Forty degrees qualifies for a black diamond ski slope.) Creating 125-foot wide rights of way would require removing enormous amounts of rock.

States an issue brief released by the pipeline opponents:

Numerous engineers who have looked at this issue have asked the obvious question: What does Dominion plan to do with the tremendous amount of overburden? Dump it into surrounding valleys as companies do with mountaintop removal for coal? Truck it off the mountains with massive dump trucks? And take the massive amounts of rock and soil to what location?

While ACP has vowed to restore the mountains to their approximate original contour in line with FERC requirements, foes say there is a qualifier. ACP will restore the mountain ridges to the extent practicable “taking into consideration cost, existing technology, and logistics in light of the overall purpose of the ACP.”

Ruby retorted that ACP understands the challenges far better than the pipeline foes. For starters, he said, there is no need to flatten a 125-foot-wide area on the ridge line, he said. The company will carve out just enough space to excavate the trench, which will be “significantly narrower” than 125 feet.

Further, he said, the company has “one of the most protective programs ever used by the industry, specifically designed to provide enhanced protection of soil erosion. We have site-specific plans for every steep slope we encounter, based on the unique conditions and characteristics of each slope.” These plans take into account the soil type and depth, the grade of the slope, the depth of the bedrock, the width of the ridge line and the types of vegetative cover.

ACP also disputed the Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition estimate of construction impact.

In explaining how he calculated miles of ridge-line impacted and thickness of overburden to be removed, Shaffer said that he was forced to rely upon publicly available information. He used the centerline depicted on Dominion Project Facility Maps submitted to FERC (here & here), generated a 125-foot Right of Way from that and overlaid them with topographical and elevation data. He estimated the thickness of the mountain that would be removed by creating transects across the Right of Way at periodic intervals and sampled the elevation value along each transect. The methods, he conceded, were “fairly simple.” While acknowledging some room for error, Shaffer said there was no escaping the conclusion that the impact would be significant.

The assumption that ACP will cut away a full 125 feet is wrong, Ruby said. Without the assumption, the rest of the analysis falls apart.

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16 responses to “Pipeline Approaches Approval, but Foes Still Full of Fight”

  1. […] Ridgeline Case Study – Volumetric Analysis (RESPEC) Pipeline Approaches Approval, but foes Still Full of Fight (Bacon’s Rebellion) Dominion confident in Pipeline Approval, but Opponents Warn of Dangers […]

  2. LarrytheG Avatar

    Pipelines are far safer to move liquid energy resources than any other method even with the leaks they do experience – there would be far worse with other forms of transport.

    the basic problem is that opponents fall into two basic groups. The property owners who don’t want it on their property -and the green types who oppose burning fossil fuels – even gas – and advocate conservation instead. The two groups have little affinity for each other -they’re allies of convenience.

    Most of the same property owners would not be involved if the pipeline went somewhere else… but the enviro folks would – and they’d ally with the property owners wherever a pipeline was proposed – whether in Va or South Dakota or elsewhere.

    Having said that – Dominion has misused the ED law for a for-profit company instead of necessity that justifies the taking of land from others.

    The fact that Dominion has obtained 85% of the land needed pretty much indicates that apparently not everyone is opposed!!!

    Having said that – I am dismayed that Dominion plans to burn that gas to generate baseload electricity primarily rather than meld it with solar to burn it when they must but not when solar is can be used.

    so a POX on them all!

    no wonder our politics are such a mess these days!

  3. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    Gee, Larry, you mention the two camps of opponents, claim they have no natural affinity, and then you agree with them both! You are upset over the use of eminent domain for a pipeline project, and you believe gas is a bad fuel for base load….Actually I’m not sure that this particular pipeline is all about base load generation. There will also be other industrial users. Down in Hampton Roads there are discussions underway about using it in cars and trucks that run on CNG – far more clean than gasoline engines.

    It has become increasingly clear that most of these groups would oppose the transportation of any fossil fuel under any method, even if fairies used magic to get it from one terminal to the next. They don’t give a damn about the landscape, which will recover nicely at the end of construction. It is the fossil fuels they oppose. If they could stop the trains or the trucks, they would, but they can fight (and maybe stop) any pipeline.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      Steve – how do you get that I AGREE with them when I say a POX on them?

      on the base load – yes… Dominion has built two new gas plants and plans to operate them BOTH for base load.. and on the extra gas left over – for CNG – that’s FINE but that’s a for-profit business like any other.. how do you justify taking people’s land so that someone can sell gas at a competitive market price ?

      If Dominion wanted that gas solely to operate gas plants in tandem with solar so that they used solar when available and natural gas when not – I’d support them.

      but that’s not what they are doing. They going to sell that gas to the highest bidder… AND that includes themselves – they will use a fuel price adjustment when the price goes up.

      Dominion doesn’t give a rat’s behind about moving to a more efficient grid.. what they want is to sell gas and electricity – at a profit and as much profit as they can… that’s quite fine as a for-profit corporation – but not as a monopoly.

      The truth is that Transco has more than enough capacity to meet Hampton and other parts of Virginia needs and Dominion has used it’s position as a monopoly to subsidize the pipeline through Eminent Domain to essentially become a competitor. They are building infrastructure that is duplicative and unnecessary – on the backs of others.. for their own gain.

    2. vaconsumeradvocate Avatar

      In addition to environmental concerns, the biggest problem is export of the fuel. For years we’ve searched for energy independence for the US. Now it appears these pipelines are being proposed to export the gas – or in Hampton Roads, export fertilizer made from the gas, so same difference. We’ll give away our energy independence quickly and deprive future generations of the opportunity as we increase climate change with the accelerated use.

      I DO care about the landscape, which will not ever return to its prior condition, and more than that, I care about safety. The ACP will put all of the buildings on the farm business my family has nurtured for over 100 years in the blast zone just 4 miles after a huge compressor station. Rural areas are held to lower safety standards – thinner pipe, cut off valves 20 miles apart rather than 3, less frequent inspections, and only 10% of welds that are every 40 feet are tested in rural areas vs 100% in urban areas, for a few examples. I cannot imagine spending even a night in the shadow of that risk, and anticipate I will have to break my promise to take care of the property that is my heritage and pass it to the next generation in as good or better condition than I received it. I should not be forced into this position so others can make money at our expense!

      This will not be out of sight out of mind. We will have to consider the pipeline every day we drive across our land to work our business. Our future plans will be affected by the presence of this risky infrastructure. We will not even be allowed to park equipment on top of the right of way and we have no way to know what limitations on use will surface over time as these larger and under higher pressure pipelines get more use/experience.

      If the company doesn’t make enough money, they can sell it – to anyone in the world and we get no say. Company folks can come on our land any time, 24/7 and are not even required to notify us – but before we do anything near the pipeline, we’ll be required to get company approval – to do even routine things on OUR land.

      Funds for safety and health oversight are increasingly cut and Congress has directed that urban areas be prioritized over rural areas in terms of safety focus and spending. That happened long before the methane rule, needed to measure losses that are estimated to be between 2 and 8% across the gas system, the current proposal to gut EPA, or further cuts to PHMSA that has never been funded adequately to meet its mission.

      The compressor station will be in the middle of a historic freed slave original landowner community of direct descendants who are mostly aging and in poor health. They will be subjected to the pollution, etc. of the compressor station and get nothing for the devaluation of their property because for most, the infrastructure is next to it, not through it. The company has decreed that there is no historical significance either in the Union Hill community or related to our farmhouse built in 1804 that is still largely unchanged and even has original out buildings (ice house, smoke house, etc.). The pipeline infrastructure is segmented in such a way that existing pollution protections are not triggered on our behalves.

      Why should I be forced to give up peace of mind and life to live in the blast zone of a pipeline I don’t want, for no benefit to my business or family, with no guarantees of safety and without any tools to protect my life or my property, just so stockholders can make a big profit at our expense?

      Sorry Steve, the opposition to the pipelines is far deeper than you think. I’d like to see how those who belittle our concerns would be reacting if they were in our shoes. There is no proven need for the ACP – just a dream of what “might” come if it’s built, with guarantees to the builder of high returns no matter what happens. It’s stealing from us, dead wrong, and unfair. Not what I thought happened in a democracy.

  4. A crucial issue in this debate is how to calculate the amount of overburden to be removed from the ridge-tops: whether or not to assume that Dominion will be cutting a flat 125-foot swath along the entire route. Dominion says it won’t, which means that the Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition’s calculations are grievously flawed.

    In a blog post today, Rick Webb with the DPMC responded:

    In response to publication of the mountaintop removal fact sheet, a Dominion public relations spokesman stated to the press that: “The assumption that ACP will cut away a full 125 feet is wrong . . . . Without the assumption, the rest of the analysis falls apart.“

    But Dominion has repeatedly indicated that the width of the construction corridor will be at least 125-feet, and in many place it will be wider, depending on the need for “additional temporary work space“. As stated above, the public has not yet had access to the actual construction plans for the ACP in Virginia; so we are still waiting to see. We have, however, seen the plans for West Virginia, and the depicted construction corridor width on ridgelines is indeed 125 feet or more.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      all of this is blather.. he said, she said.. and the truth of what actually happens won’t be told until after… and I don’t doubt for a minute that it won’t be exactly what they say it will be – right now.

      I had one curiosity though.. why can’t tunnels be bored ? I note that
      right now there is an existing tunnel under the Blue Ridge Parkway that had at one time been considered for a pipeline.. but that was abandoned and now it’s on track to be a rail-trail..


      so why not a bored tunnel that does not scar the surface or endanger streams and karst?

  5. 125 feet, or 41 yards, is not a lot of width for heavy equipment. And this will be cleared not only for construction but also for permanent removal of trees. But how much will actually be dug up, as opposed to merely driven over? The regulations haven’t changed recently and the same contractors do most of this work in the same areas — so I’d judge what this is going to look like mainly by what existing, already (but recently) built pipelines over the mountains look like.

  6. LarrytheG Avatar

    Indeed, bored tunnels for gas pipelines DO EXIST:

    A look at the final stages of construction of Corrib Gas pipeline tunnel


  7. LarrytheG Avatar


    ” Rockies Express Pipeline (REX) is one of the United States’ largest pipelines and is transforming into the nation’s northernmost bi-directional natural gas header system. With 42- and 36-inch diameter lines, REX taps major supply basins in the Rocky Mountain and Appalachian regions and serves energy markets across a vast segment of North America.
    The Rockies Express Pipeline (REX) is a 1,679 mile long natural gas pipeline system that spans from Rio Blanco County in Colorado to Monroe County in Ohio. REX is the largest natural gas pipeline built in the United States in more than 20 years, and is one of the largest ever built in North America. Construction of the REX was completed in November of 2009 at a total cost of approximately $5 billion.

    Phillips & Jordan was contracted to support clearing of eight spreads of the REX. In total, Phillips & Jordan performed vegetation clearing and grubbing of more than 450 miles of pipeline right-of-way which measured 125 feet in width


  8. djrippert Avatar

    Where are the candidates for Virginia governor on this issue? Seems like a good issue for the Dems. Everybody hates Dominion (well … except Jim Bacon). A lot of center-middle voters are sick of big companies trashing the planet. Given Perriello’s appearance on the scene, Little Ralphy Northam may want to come out hard against the pipeline and (by extension) Dominion. At the same time he’d better start reaching toward the middle since Perriello has cut him off from the left.

  9. LarrytheG Avatar

    I don’t hate Dominion – I hate their behavior and arrogance. Whether it’s powerlines over the James, coal ash, pipelines or solar .. they have a fairly obvious disdain towards those who disagree with them.

    They don’t present options from which to compare impacts and benefits – nope – the only option is what they want. Everything else has a “flaw” that makes it not acceptable. The ONLY place they can possibly cross the James is where they want to. They can ONLY TRUCK coal ash to lined landfills – at great expense even though every coal ash site has rail access.. and the pipeline? they can’t use existing rights-of-ways or transit through the river gaps or existing rail right of ways – nope – it’s gotta be up and over the mountains… no other alternatives!

    Having said that – it would be a mistake for Northam to come out against the pipeline – McAuliffe has it right… The rules allow DOminion to do what they are doing… and aligning with the green-weenies and NIMBYs is bad karma.

  10. […] Dominion Resources wants the public to think the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline is a done deal. So, in a classic “fake news” move, company execs held a tele-press conference yesterday where they basically said as much. […]

  11. The developers of the ACP have stated in their application that 80% of the capacity of the pipeline will be used to carry fuel to natural gas-fired power plants. This is the primary purpose that they claim justifies a new pipeline.

    What is not widely discussed is that none of the 11 proposed power plants that will attach to the ACP in VA and NC have been approved by regulators. The SCC and PJM have questioned Dominion’s load forecasts that identify the need for two new baseload gas-fired plants and a peaking unit in Virginia over the next 15 years. PJM’s current forecasts show that future demand in Virginia will require two less baseload power plants than Dominion proposes. So the traditional case for a new pipeline to supply new power plants in Virginia has not yet been made. North Carolina is not a member of PJM but it is likely that Duke is also greatly overestimating future load growth.

    Even if all of these plants are necessary, they can be supplied by existing pipelines in the region that have more available capacity than is provided by the ACP. Existing pipelines will also transport the gas much cheaper than the ACP.

    These issues should be addressed before a new pipeline that has the potential for significant impacts is authorized. What those impacts might be should be rigorously analyzed by the DEQ before a water quality permit is issued. We have been operating so far on limited information and general assurances that “there won’t be any problems”. The citizens of this state deserve to have that fully disclosed and reviewed by experts before a decision is made that might considerably degrade the resources of Virginia.

    I am not an expert on mountaintop removal but I do have some experience with other types of utility projects on steep slopes. Soil in these regions is usually thin and has taken thousands of years to develop. When the soil is disturbed and its associated rock is blasted and replaced with different material, even if the contour is returned to a somewhat similar situation the soil is not nearly as stable as it was previously (not held by well developed root systems and attached to stable rock)so that it is much more susceptible to erosion and landslides.

    This is a serious issue and can potentially threaten lives and structures as well as water quality. It deserves in-depth evaluation and should not be approved purely on a “trust us” response.

  12. vaconsumeradvocate Avatar

    TomH you are right. Also the existing power plants Dominion is using as the reason for the pipeline have 20 year contracts for gas delivered via the existing Transco line. There is no known need for the duplicate supply. The company is likely to force the ratepayers to pay for the expensive new pipeline and to sell the extra Transco delivered gas abroad (Transco takes it to Cove Point anyway) for a lot more than they could get for it here – while driving up the price for the gas used here.

    Once the pipeline is installed, we’ll have no recourse when it does turn out that we were lied to and key information was withheld. In fact, it is likely that the company will start building before the court cases are resolved. They have a system of going forward with the process, letting nothing get in their way. FERC helps them. It has only turned down one pipeline in its history. It won’t consider the overbuilding that is underway and believes the company, not the affected citizens/communities. Our very lives will be turned over to the companies discretion/ risk tolerance with no concern for us no matter how long we’ve owned and nurtured the land ACP will take from us for only a pittance.

  13. vaconsumeradvocate Avatar

    ACP is using 125 feet for a construction easement across the rest of the project even flat lands, with extra space required to store the removed topsoil during the process. How can it do the job in less space along a ridge?

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