Virginia’s Answer to the Snail Darter?

Photo credit: Gary Nafis
Photo credit: Gary Nafis

by James A. Bacon

The proposed route for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline runs through the mountain habitat of the Cow Knob salamander, creating a new rallying point for pipeline foes. National forest officials say the pipeline should be routed around salamander territory or even under it by drilling through Shenandoah Mountain, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

“Even the most minor habitat alteration can cause detrimental effects to these salamanders,” says Jennifer Adams, special project coordinator for the George Washington and Jefferson National forests.

For its part, Dominion, managing partner of the pipeline, says it is working with federal officials to resolve the issue. “We are currently evaluating potential options and are planning to meet with the Forest Service to discuss these options that provide the avoidance it has requested,” said Dominion spokesman Jim Norvelle.

Source: Department of Game and Inland Fisheries
Source: Department of Game and Inland Fisheries

Virginia’s mountains are literally crawling with salamanders, many species of which are rare due to the fact that mountainous terrain creates isolated gene pools. Three species — the Shenandoah, the Peaks of Otter and the Big Levels — live only in Virginia. The Cow Knob salamander, whose range overlaps Virginia and West Virginia, is described by the Virginia and West Virginia Draft State Wildlife Action Plans as facing “an extremely high risk of extinction or extirpation.” The species enjoys a variety of conservation protections in the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests, Virginia’s largest wilderness area.

The proposed pipeline would “kill numerous Cow Knob salamanders” by destroying habit directly through forest clearing and indirectly by exposing the forest edge to sunlight, wind and edge predators, says H. Thomas Speaks Jr., Forest Service forest supervisor, in a letter to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Further, by dividing the salamander habitat into southern and northern portions, the pipeline will limit gene flow between the two populations, potentially threatening the viability of the southern population.

Bacon’s bottom line: On the face of it, this sounds like a win-lose proposition. Either the pipeline people win and the salamander loses, or the salamander wins and the pipeline project faces horrendous additional costs. But could there be a compromise?

Speaks’ letter emphasizes that the salamander is threatened by the loss and fragmentation of its habitat. Especially detrimental are utilities, roads and other types of development that penetrate the forest, creating a new “edge” ecosystem inhospitable to the Cow Knob salamander, especially to predators such as raccoons. Two questions: (1) Can Dominion mitigate the impact of its clear-cutting the forest to build the pipeline; and (2) can Dominion offset the impact by mitigating negative impact elsewhere, much as road builders might offset the loss of wetlands by creating wetlands elsewhere?

The Speaks letter mentions some possibilities:

  • Restoration of currently disturbed habitats
  • Acquisition of more habitat
  • Permit vegetative cover of pipeline corridor suitable for Cow Knob salamanders

All of these measures will entail additional expense or inconvenience, which Dominion says will get passed on to pipeline customers. But that expense should be less than the cost of drilling 4,000 feet through Shenandoah Mountain or selecting a different, longer pipeline route.

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28 responses to “Virginia’s Answer to the Snail Darter?”

  1. The simple solution is not to build the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Better alternatives exist for providing a reliable supply of gas to the Virginia and North Carolina markets.

    Expansions of existing pipelines will provide more than twice the additional capacity projected for the Atlantic Coast pipeline. A pipeline extension (Atlantic Sunrise) from the Marcellus to the Transco pipeline as it passes through Pennsylvania will add 1.8-2.0 billion cubic feet per day (Bcf/d) of additional capacity to that pipeline system. Both the Brunswick plant and the Greensville plant will connect to the Transco pipeline. The Transco pipeline is designed to accommodate a flow of gas both from the Marcellus and the Gulf Coast to ensure the highest levels of service reliability. The WB Xpress development of the Columbia Gas pipeline requires only 26 miles of replacement pipeline and just 2.5 miles of new construction to add 1.3 Bcf/d of capacity. The Columbia Gas pipeline enters the state from West Virginia and passes through northern and central Virginia and connects to the Virginia Natural Gas pipeline serving the Hampton/Norfolk area.

    The Atlantic Coast Pipeline might make business sense for the Dominion and Duke holding companies. They would prefer to pay themselves rather than someone else to transport the gas. However, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline provides no benefits to Dominion Virginia Power customers. It is possible that gas transport using existing pipelines might be less expensive for DVP since the expansion of the existing pipelines is projected to cost far less than the $5 billion needed for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Dominion could continue its firm commitment for gas supply through the Transco pipeline for the life of the Southside plants.

    There should be no consideration of an adverse effect on costs for Dominion Virginia Power if the application for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is denied.

  2. TomH gives a very well written explanation as to why the pipeline is not needed. Enough said.

    But if it was needed, the salamander story would show that the needs of people (many of whom are poor or in need) are subservient to forest people playing God with nature. If this particular salamander only exists in a tiny area, but there are many other salamanders which are almost the same exact species, the loss of the species ( a speculative loss, as it is) is of no great import, if any at all.

    The same political groups that support salamanders over people insist that Darwin and evolution are settled science. (I agree) Then follow the settled science.

    Every year scientists discover many species that we never knew even existed. Which means that many species have become extinct that we never knew even existed in the past. This salamander is such a species.

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    I’m not generally in favor of stopping projects over endangered species though. The net affect of doing that has led more legislators to considered repealing the endangered species act and that would be a terrible cost of using the Act as an excuse to stop projects.

    However, having said that – I do not believe that any company should be able to merely assert a “need” as proof they should be approved – especially when you have existing pipeline companies that could modify and expand with far less impact.

    We have a bad approval process when DVP can file papers asserting need and the regulators ready to go forward until someone brings in the endangered species act or similar.

    I think DVP is handling this stupidly and arrogantly and that gets people’s backs up and in the end – is harmful to all parties than if Dominion had gone about it the way the Rockies Express Pipeline (REX) did – i.e. their avowed intent to do a right-of-way with the least possible eminent domain possible… as much willing buyer/willing seller as they could.

    I also think DVP could have partnered with existing pipeline companies to much more quickly and cheaply get what was needed.

    When you get down to people threatening to sue over endangered species – you’ve failed.

  4. 180,000 acres of wetlands / 25million total acres in Virginia is about .0072. Even if my numbers are somewhat off my gut tells me the amount of wetlands (and remember the definition of a wetland is squishy and generous to begin with) is relatively miniscule.

    This is the bogus Rte 460 issue all over again. Its “de ja vu all over again” like the USA Corps of Engineers. The minute we get the feds involved be it EPA or whomever progress slows to a crawl (if it moves at all) and costs skyrocket

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      I could not agree with you more. These abuses of law and rule-making, and of the judicial and regulatory system, by the executive branch of the Federal government and special interests, done for political and ideological advantage, is far out of control, the resultant harm and cost to society incalculable.

  5. Guess these salamander fans have never been in that salamander’s country. Otherwise they would know there is an existing high voltage line running right through the middle of the habitat, from Mt. Storm, WV to a distribution center south of Harrisonburg, VA. It’s easy to find. Just look for the clear cut line in the Google map Sat. pictures.

    1. Clear cutting a swath and placing power lines is somewhat different than clearcutting, bulldozing, and blasting 125+ foot swath across a mountain ridge. Why doesn’t Dominion co-locate? Even better yet why are you so supportive a company that has been shafting Virginian’s and Virginia business’s for decades? I dare say your understanding of the ACP is limited to a few soundbites. I would like to see Virginia seize all of Dominion Power’s assets since everything Dominion owns in the state has already been paid for by Virginia rate payers. Having a government sanctioned monopoly with a guaranteed profit margin of 10+% that crushes all opposition and gouges their customers in Dominion’s fashion is an abomination.

  6. LarrytheG Avatar

    the presence of these critters does not automatically kill any project.

    it puts a tougher standard on it It requires the least damaging practical alternative and projects HAVE destroyed wetlands AND endangered species habitats many times if they demonstrate there is no practical or feasible way to accomplish something that must be done.

    We do have wetland mitigation banks and VDOT uses them all the time to replace lost wetlands.

    The Army Corp also, when invited, gets involved early to identify paths that are not going to pass muster.

    Not sure if there is such a thing for endangered species but as I said earlier – it’s been “abused” in the view of some – and enough “some” that some folks would get rid of the Endangered Species act itself all together

    But again – when VDOT or VDP (or others) are perceived as pushing folks around – those folks start looking for any/all options to throw sand in the gears.

    And NIMBY’s are not without their own warts also

  7. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    The idea behind the Endangered Species Act is essentially good – we should not be destroying habitat for animals on a casual basis, especially when a species is rare or endangered. But unlike reality, every action does not have a single result. Clear cutting for a pipeline may have a negative effect on this particular salamander, but it could also have a positive effect on other species. The creation of another open path for migration may well help more species than it harms. Life is full of balancing and tradeoffs. But our environmental laws generally are not. I’m not arguing for any particular result, but just pointing out how screwed up the federal government is.

  8. The problem with the “salamander defense” is that it inures people to real ecological problems. People start to see the EPA, the Forest Service, etc as having an anti-development or anti-business agenda. So, when the EPA makes the effort to do something major like cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay unscrupulous politicians use references to snail darters to stir up resistance to the EPA’s real ecological efforts.

    1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

      I’m still not persuaded the EPA’s burdens on the Chesapeake Bay are fairly allocated. Fairfax County residents and businesses are doing considerable lifting with higher fees for sanitary sewer, a rising storm water tax and substantial improvements in storm water management connected with any rezoning. The County is also taking over maintenance of certain residential storm water facilities. VDOT includes storm water management facilities in any significant transportation project.

      But what is the Port of Baltimore doing? It’s a giant collection of impervious and dirty surfaces. What is occurring there in connection with land use and transportation changes?

      1. Sounds like Fairfax is actually doing something about stormwater. I’m not holding my breath for most Virginia jurisdictions to do anything beyond imposing the new requirements on developers. Such is the case with these unfunded mandates, at least until a funding source is identified. Richmond has a stormwater tax but its finances are a black hole, so who knows what they spend it on.

        Your point about the Port of Baltimore is spot on but I doubt the feds would go after the ports, as tone deaf as they are. There’s also the problem of all the failing stormwater infrastructure in the ground already. If this stuff isn’t maintained properly it doesn’t matter what you do down the line.. not sure the regulators really understand this.


        Fairfax County’s extremely enlightened attitude toward stormwater management was catalyzed by the federal government’s stormwater management requirements. Even with that, Cuccinelli used a loophole to avoid meeting those requirements with the fiasco that is Farifax’s mis-management of Accotink Creek.

        My clear sense is that Maryland is far more focused on cleaning up the bay than Virginia. However, the true pigs are in Pennsylvania.

        1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

          Don, how do you explain the Port of Baltimore? Maryland is doing nothing to address the Port’s impact on the Bay.

  9. LarrytheG Avatar

    I don’t think the Federal govt is “screwed” up. I point out what happened BEFORE we had ANY law and that many states never did protect anything.. until the Feds did.

    One can argue – and maybe should – that not all wonderful things came from the ESA (or other Federal agencies and laws) but as TMT opines about the “tradeoffs” of changed habitat – such is true about rules and regulations…

    are you better off with absolutely NO ESA?

    or are you willing to say you need it but you donj’t want it implemented badly?

    pick your poison!

  10. LarrytheG Avatar

    re: dirty cities

    it’s two steps forward, one step back.

    Many cities NOW are going back and retrofitting CSO facilities at huge expense.

    I don’t know where Baltimore is on this but I do know many cities are in various stages and all still have their challenges.

    I’m pretty convinced, we’re never going to fix all of it … trying to get the last few percent is ungodly expensive…

    building giant tunnels under cities is not cheap.

    1. This is another problem caused by bad design. Our storm water problem exists because we paved everything over with parking lots and roads. Rather than build hugely expensive storm water drains which collect all of the road salt and toxins in a concentrated stream; we should build permeable sections of parking lots and crosswalks from bricks, instead of asphalt. This would allow the water to percolate into the ground where the rains falls, recharging aquifers and filtering the water. This is much less expensive than storm water collection systems and protects our rivers and bays.

      1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

        Fairfax County is looking to use permeable surfaces when it makes sense, but has learned the expensive cost of cleaning them yearly makes them infeasible in many locations. A plugged surface quickly becomes impermeable.

        Big rezonings are generally required to hold the first inch of storm water in an on-site receptacle that can slowly release the water. And from what I’ve observed, VDOT is doing a good job at addressing storm water in any significant project.

        1. Several parking lots in our downtown areas have been paved with permeable bricks. There was some initial concern that they might heave and catch a snowplow blade, but no problems so far. I have not heard about anything regarding cleaning or clogging. Several of the parking lots in our parks have added borders of special beds of plants that hold and slowly release the water. There is no longer a problem with parking lot runoff contaminating the river that runs through the park and the plants require almost no maintenance and add visual appeal.

          It doesn’t take much to find cheaper and better solutions. Just a change of mindset.

          1. LarrytheG Avatar

            TMT is right… the permeable pavers clog up with “stuff”.

            Local environmental group convinced developer to put them in – and a couple years later – they ended up having to clean them then ultimately pave them over.

            the fundamental problem is that humans and their cars deposit “stuff” on surfaces – impervious and otherwise and from that point on – it’s a question whether they soak into the soil or runoff with water.

            the irony is – the more people you have – the more density – the more intense the more “dense” the accumulation of “stuff”.

            No all land is created equal. Some land is porous and can absorb the “stuff” and gradually filter it – much like a drainfield in the right soil can do that.

            but just like a drainfield on soil that does not “perk” human density on soils that don”t “perk” (which does include impervious surfaces) don’t “work” either.

            bottom line – it’s a messy conundrum… and most places with dense human concentrations will have to treat storm water like they would sewage .. because all storm ponds really do is sequester the pollutants until the next big storm hits and flushes it out into the rivers and bays.

            no easy answers.

        2. VDOT does fine today. However, it seems to have no interest in cleaning up the fiascos it created in the past. The problem is that those disasters of old still gush runoff into the bay and harm the property rights of others.

          1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

            The law does not require retrofitting. VDOT is held to the same standard as everyone — gushers and gushes alike.

          2. LarrytheG Avatar

            geeze Don – “harms people’s rights”… you don’t sound like a Conservative! Most Conservatives believe property rights include the right to pollute!

  11. As for the salamanders – send me some along with a check from Dominion. The little lizards are welcome in the woods I own around my house.

    1. That sounds like a dangerous comment. You apparently don’t know Dominion. Dominion’s method of operation is to relocate the salamanders on your property and then demand that you leave as you pose a risk to them. Dominion doesn’t pay they only take. And they take by any means necessary.

  12. LarrytheG Avatar

    re: retrofitting – well.. if the law is going to require tax-funded storm water authorities to retrofit existing development – does it matter if it is private or public infrastructure?

  13. LarryG – Real conservatives believe in property rights. Whereas the government should have very limited rights to intrude on my property rights, so too should private concerns not have a right to intrude on my property rights. Fairfax County’s inept and incompetent history of storm water management impinges on the property rights of others. TMT writes, “The law does not require retrofitting.” That’s because he is a CINO – Conservative in Name Only. Were he a real conservative he would not tolerate the ongoing taking of property right from one group vs another. Instead, he is a “conservative” until his beliefs cost him money.

  14. Businesses such as Dominion have consistently been placed above the law or had laws written to give them an overwhelming advantage when they abuse the rights of the little guy. I am all for free market principles and capitalism. However what is occurring with the ACP and dominion power is as good of an example of capitalism as the elections in North Korea are of Democracy. America has become the land of Crony Capitalism. Businesses use their money to elect politicians who are beholding to them who in turn pass laws giving said business a competitive advantage or in Dominion’s case a complete monopoly. Have laws passed to prevent individuals from installing solar panels because it will reduce Dominion’s profits. Have laws passed to allow the company to trespass and ultimately steal privet property at fire sale prices. Then some of these ill-gotten gains that were saved, stolen, or made via favorable laws are reinvested in more corrupt politicians. Yes the public elects our representatives, so they tell me, but then again the public has the insight of a gerbil.

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