The Failed Mountain “Decapitation” Narrative

Schematic filed with West Virginia regulators of a two-mile stretch of the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline near the Virginia state line.
Schematic filed with West Virginia regulators of a two-mile stretch of the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline near the Virginia state line. (Click for larger image.)

Environmentalists say the Atlantic Coast Pipeline will “decapitate” pristine mountaintops in western Virginia. They have no evidence to back the claim.

Last week foes of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) leveled their most rhetorically heated charges against the 600-mile pipeline project yet. Construction teams would have to excavate some 247,000 dump-truck loads of rock and soil as they blasted a path across steep mountains and ridge lines. Describing the “decapitation” of pristine mountains, opponents likened the process to highly destructive mountaintop removal by the coal industry.

There was just one problem. The environmentalists’ calculations were based on the assumption that the ACP would flatten a 125-foot-wide construction corridor through the mountains. That assumption was inaccurate, Aaron Ruby, a spokesman for Dominion Transmission, managing partner of the pipeline project, responded at the time. On ridge lines, the company would carve out just enough space to excavate the trench, which will be “significantly narrower” than 125 feet. Without the 125-foot assumption, the rest of the “decapitation” analysis falls apart.

Ruby’s comment seemingly constituted a devastating rebuke. But pipeline foes are sticking to their guns. Building on the “decapitation” theme, the Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN) is planning a rally today in front of Governor Terry McAuliffe’s office to demand that the governor use his regulatory power to “halt Dominion’s proposed mountaintop removal plans.”

A CCAN briefing paper asserts that “the choice to build along ridgelines is part of Dominion’s preferred and deliberate design. Working on these ridgelines will require creating a wide and flat surface to allow Dominion’s earth-moving vehicles and deep-trenching machines to operate and maneuver. The federal government’s report on the environmental impacts of the pipeline declares that ‘narrow ridgetops’ [will] require widening and flattening in order to provide workspace in the temporary right-of-way.”

What proof does CCAN have to back up such claims? None at all.


In a follow-up email distributed to members of the media late last week, Rick Webb with the Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition (DPMC), a CCAN ally, attached a document that included the schematic above, which Dominion had submitted in a West Virginia regulatory filing. The schematic shows an elevation profile and a top-down view of the pipeline route on a two-mile section of the proposed pipeline near the Virginia border. A report by RESPEC, a geoscience engineering consulting firm hired by Appalachian Mountain Advocates, another anti-pipeline ally, estimated that construction would remove 130,000 cubic yards of material in that one segment alone.

That report, “Atlantic Coast Pipeline and Supply Header Project Volumetric Analysis,” made several assumptions. Among them, the firm created “typical cross-sections” to facilitate the computation of the volume of excavated material. One of the four cross-sections — “Ridgeline – Steep” category (shown below) — was applied to topography located on a ridgeline with an overall slope of greater than 20%.

Source: “Atlantic Coast Pipeline and Supply Header Project
Volumetric Analysis.” (Click for larger image.)

The graphic clearly shows the assumption that the top of the ridge-line will be removed in its entirety.

But the assumption is invalid. As ACP spokesman Ruby elaborated in an email: “We will not need to grade the entire 125-foot-wide construction right of way on every ridgeline. We may need to clear the entire ROW so we have room for our equipment, but we will only grade enough space so we can safely excavate the trench and install the pipe.”

There is nothing in the Dominion schematic to contradict Ruby.

In an interview with Bacon’s Rebellion, Webb acknowledged that pipeline foes were making assumptions for the purposes of their analysis, and he shifted the burden of proof to Dominion to prove their analysis wrong.

“We’re taking the information we have and saying, ‘It can be this bad,’” said Webb. “If Dominion says this is an exaggeration, show us the details to prove otherwise. Informed decisions can’t be made,” he added, until more information is made available.

Dominion has yet to file detailed construction plans for the route, Webb said. “The only detailed plans in Virginia we’ve seen is a one-tenth of a mile section in Highland County using high-tensile steel mesh nailed into the ground with six-foot nails. We want to see what they’re planning to do with the rest of the pipeline. Dominion has presented a concept. … We want to see solutions now.”

It’s one thing for pipeline foes to demand Dominion to make more information available to the public. It’s a very different thing to claim that the company intends to engage in mountaintop decapitation with devastating environmental consequences. Dominion insists that it won’t, and pipeline opponents have offered no tangible evidence to indicate otherwise. Perhaps proof will turn up in future filings to support their view. But it hasn’t yet, and pipeline foes undermine their credibility by trumpeting claims with no basis in demonstrated fact.

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18 responses to “The Failed Mountain “Decapitation” Narrative”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    Dominion clearly has a choice. They can explicitly say what they will not do or they can supply information about what they will do and by not doing that – there becomes a concern about what they won’t say what they will and will not do.

    So they defend themselves by saying that because they won’t actually disclose what they will do that it’s wrong for others t speculate?

    Dominion is the one who wants to build the pipeline and it WILL have impacts and it’s on them to honestly disclose those impacts.

    It takes a lot of chutzpah to say you want to condemn land and dig up mountains and not say how you will do it.

    If they’re not willing honestly and voluntarily disclose this – then people have a right to be concerned. Dominion owes the public information about
    what they are going to do.

    If this were a highway – NEPA would require that info – in detail.

  2. Larry has it right. The NEPA process typically goes this way (this is a very abbreviated summary):

    An applicant files an application for a project and submits the necessary information to the regulatory agency, if the information is not sufficient to complete an accurate assessment of impacts – more details are provided.

    The public has an opportunity to review the information and ask questions, and the applicant is typically required to answer the questions.

    A final environmental assessment is made with supposedly complete information. That document is usually reviewed in an adjudicatory proceeding under the supervision of an administrative law judge where the agency staff and intervenors have the ability to cross examine the applicant’s witnesses under oath to get at the true facts of the matter.

    This is not the process that FERC uses. Applicants are allowed to submit incomplete information. For example, the U.S. Forest Service has not been able to complete its statutory duty to review the impacts of the pipeline in National Forests because, despite repeated requests for information and promises by Dominion to provide it, adequate information has not been provided in order to make accurate determinations of the impacts.

    The Head of Dominion’s Gas Division had the temerity to complain in testimony to FERC that the process is being delayed because participating agencies are not timely in doing their job and are slowing down the permitting process.

    Dominion is allowed to ignore legitimate requests for information. For example, in order to properly review the need for the pipeline, we have asked, on multiple occasions, that Dominion provide an analysis of the peak requirements for natural gas use in the region for traditional uses of natural gas (as provided by the Local Distribution Companies) and the added demand for natural gas supply caused by the potential construction of new natural gas-fired power plants. Once the demand forecast was available, it could be compared to the capacity and planned expansions of the existing pipeline network in the region to determine if it was adequate to provide the necessary supply.

    This was accomplished by an independent consultant, who found that existing pipelines had the capacity to serve all of the new power plants. Why couldn’t such an analysis be produced by Dominion to prove their contention that a new pipeline is necessary? All we have heard is that they have customers (their own subsidiaries) who are willing to pay more to use a new pipeline (and pass the extra costs on to the ratepayers).

    The Dominion pipeline Monitoring Coalition is asking the same question. So far, Dominion’s application and the DEIS has identified a 125′ wide construction corridor. Now Dominion is claiming something a bit different but has not provided the detailed engineering information to make it clear what is really going to occur. The best way to resolve the situation is to provide the detailed drawings that accurately show what is really going to happen in the field. It would not be possible for the DEQ to make an accurate determination of the effects on water quality without such information, so why withhold it?

    We don’t have the chance to cross-examine witnesses in this proceeding. We can only rely on the good faith of Dominion to provide it. FERC is not doing the typical job of a regulator in demanding it, so who is protecting the public’s interest?

    For years Dominion has supported the arts and other community activities throughout Virginia. Why do farmers, outdoorsmen and tourism-based communities not deserve the same consideration from the leading energy enterprise in our state? Is it right to incompletely assess the possible effects on water quality that might affect many of the watersheds that supply much of Virginia?

    We might not agree on which option is best. However, we should have an informed discussion about it. It is a dereliction of duty to not have the necessary information on the record to properly assess the options.

    This can be easily remedied if FERC and Dominion do their job to require and provide the information necessary to make an informed assessment of the impacts of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and whether it is truly needed.

  3. The more transparency the better. If the Chesapeake Climate Action Network wanted to pursue a legitimate issue, it should have pushed for Dominion to reveal more information in a more timely manner. Unfortunately, it chose to push claims that made good sound bites but cannot at this time be supported with any data.

    CCAN and DPMC blew a good opportunity. DEQ will hold erosion & sediment control hearings relatively soon, and the public will have a chance to comment. Public comment will be neutered without access to Dominion’s detailed plans. If they were smart, environmentalists would have hammered that issue instead.

    1. “The more transparency the better.”

      Thank you, Jim you said it far better than I did. That is the point I was trying to make. You don’t have to pick sides to believe that having the necessary information is a good idea.

      Part of my frustration in dealing with this FERC process has been that I have never experienced such a loose standard about the quality of information. I have dealt with many types of utility projects at both the state and federal levels, some involving billions of dollars and many years of construction. Never have I encountered such a non-NEPA conforming process as the approval of natural gas pipelines. It is a puzzle to me why we would not hold projects that involve hundreds of miles of construction over thousands of acres to the same standards that we hold our local contractors to.

      It is not the quantity of information. Dominion has submitted thousands of pages. It is the quality, or more accurately, the completeness of the information. This has also puzzled me because projects such as this always have detailed drawings to guide the contractor and to estimate prices. Why they are not submitted as part of the application, as is typically the case is a question. I know that many alternative route segments have been considered and you don’t do detailed engineering until you pick a route. But you cannot assess environmental impacts in a DEIS until you pick a route. Otherwise the agency is just drawing conclusions without adequate analysis and that opens the process up to legal challenges.

      1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

        ” You don’t have to pick sides to believe that having the necessary information is a good idea.”

        Indeed. And burying the parties with information is not transparency. We need to see what Dominion is proposing, where, when & how. The filing should be subject to challenge, as should the submissions of other parties. The administrative system can work if allowed to do so.

    2. LarrytheG Avatar

      re: ” it should have pushed for Dominion to reveal more information in a more timely manner. ”

      totally bogus Jim – it is the RESPONSIBILITY of DOminion to provide that information – it’s THEIR responsibility – not those who seek the info.

      How can you screw this part up? are you so aligned with Dominion you are unable to see what a legitimate process is?

      1. Are you so aligned with anti-Dominion forces that you can’t see that Dominion is adhering to state and federal guidelines? I suppose — unlike anyone else in the real world — it could voluntarily go above and beyond those guidelines. I wish it would. But if you don’t like the rules, change the rules. Don’t castigate people for hewing to the rules.

        DEQ has a series of public hearings coming up. Pipeline foes should be working on DEQ to work on Dominion to publish more complete data so the public can critique it. If they stick with this ridge-top decapitation rhetoric on the basis of the evidence they have right now, no one in a position of authority will listen to them. If they shift strategies and press for more transparency, how can anyone reasonably argue against them?

    3. ” it should have pushed for Dominion to reveal more information in a more timely manner”

      This comment does not square with my experience with the FERC process. There have been early and frequent requests for information from many involved in the process. The problem is the submission of the requested information by Dominion is only partial or non-existent.

      Rick Webb addressed this issue as it relates to the topic of mountaintop removal. He responded:

      1) DPMC has repeatedly asked for detailed construction plans, beginning when the project was first announced.

      The first post on the DPMC website, for example, was titled Looking for Answers (

      It includes the following:

      “We seek an open and transparent process, with timely access to applications and site plans and a meaningful opportunity for public review and input to the regulatory agencies.”

      It lists what we have been and are still seeking, including:

      “Will Dominion prepare site-specific erosion and sediment control and stormwater management plans for ACP construction, and what information will be provided with such plans? Will Dominion submit such plans to FERC, the Forest Service, state environmental agencies, and county governments? When will such plans be submitted, and can Dominion provide public access to these plans prior to regulatory authority approval in order to allow public review and input?”

      We have asked over and over again for construction details. The DEQ until very recently would not even commit to requiring submission of Erosion and Sediment Control Plans for the ACP. It was only on April 6th of this year that we finally had an official statement from the DEQ that it would even conduct an individual review of the project rather than issue a blanket approval for all future pipeline projects.

      2) Despite what Dominion has said, it has never built a pipeline as large as the ACP across mountains as large and steep as those of the Allegheny and Blue Ridge Mountains. The example photo provided by Dominion for Jim Bacon’s use is a much smaller pipeline, the Appalachian Plateau mountains in Kanawah County are smaller, and there is no karst.

      The main point is – it is essential for the necessary information to be disclosed. Until it is, Dominion, FERC and DEQ can only claim that the impacts will be minor, but not prove that they will be.

      The skilled professionals involved in the public review of the project also deserve to have sufficient data to provide an informed opinion. This issue of mountaintop removal should be an intensive data-driven analysis based on engineering drawings not a generic description of what might happen.

      I can only assume that Dominion’s convictions about limited impacts are based on detailed knowledge of the plans. Sharing the details with the regulators and the general public should only increase the consensus around that point of view, if the facts support it.


    Aaron Ruby provided this photograph of restored right of way along steep ridgelines in Kanawha County, WV, with this comment, “This is very typical of the ridgelines we’ll encounter on the ACP. Anyone who calls this mountaintop removal is just not telling the truth.”

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      most pipeline rights of ways look like this:

      they have these posts..

  5. This is a typical construction corridor for a 42″ pipeline. There should be an explanation how all of this is going to work for materials staging, vehicle access, erosion control, etc. on a narrow ridgetop with a 60-80 degree slope. They have 125′ wide corridors for a reason – they need it. If the contractors have an innovative design for how this can be accomplished, put it in the public record for all to see for every segment along the 38 miles where it is required.

  6. LarrytheG Avatar

    I will agree that calling it “mountaintop removal” is not accurate.

    At the same time – Dominion has a responsibility to disclose what they plan to do and the impacts it will have.

    Dominion is one arrogant son-of-gun.. They’re worse than VDOT used to be!

    they complaint about delay – when they themselves are stonewalling the information that is required – for the process to move forward.

    then argue that others speculating is not correct and has not “proved” what Dominion really intends to do. When does Dominion provide what they are going to do so the speculation will stop and the public knows?

  7. ahavemann Avatar

    As an author of the briefing paper, I’d like to weigh in on a couple of points.

    First, if FERC grants approval to Dominion, it will be granting approval for an 125-foot-wide ROW. That’s what FERC’s DEIS contemplates, it’s what Dominion has told the Highland County Board of Supervisors it will need. Unenforceable assurances from Dominion spokespeople just aren’t that convincing in comparison.

    Second, the quote taken from the briefing paper–the one the post says we have no evidence to back up–is taken directly from the DEIS and thoroughly footnoted.

    “The choice to build along ridgelines is part of Dominion’s preferred and deliberate design.”
    -Cite: DEIS at p.5-2: “The proposed pipelines have been cited [sic] to maximize ridgeline construction.”

    “Working on these ridgelines will require creating a wide and flat surface to allow Dominion’s earth-moving vehicles and deep-trenching machines to operate and maneuver. The federal government’s report on the environmental impacts of the pipeline declares that ‘narrow ridgetops [will] require widening and flattening in order to provide workspace in the temporary right-of-way.’”
    -Cite: A direct quote from the DEIS at p.4-36.

    How big is that right of way? According to FERC, at p.2-19:

    “For the AP-1 mainline [the portion that runs through the mountains], the construction right-of-way in non-agricultural uplands would measure 125 feet in width, with a 40-foot-wide spoil side and an 85-foot-wide working side.”

    The point of the DEIS, and the National Environmental Policy Act in general, is to provide citizens and public officials with a full understanding of the environmental consequences of a federal action before decisions are made. We got the information on the 125-foot-wide ROW directly from the DEIS–the document that’s supposed to provide a complete picture of the environmental impacts of the project. If Dominion disputes that, the burden is on them to prove otherwise.

  8. J. Abbate Avatar
    J. Abbate

    As a Buckingham, VA resident and manager at Yogaville in line to be impacted by the proposed ACP, I would like to weigh-in as a participant in this FERC certification process.

    Without an honest determination of domestic need for this monstrous $5 billion fossil fuel installation of over 600 miles, discussing how much should be taken from exquisitely beautiful mountain tops seems odd. It is true that all through this process, we have had to rely on information provided by Dominion to FERC to research, analyze, and determine the honest impact of this project. This is one of numerous times that Dominion supplied-data has changed from submission, processing, and analysis, as well as from corrections and challenges from critics of the project. This has been some of the sloppiest proposal development work that I have seen in over 30 years of federal contracting experience.

    So proper analysis points to a lack of need for the ACP at all. Additionally, we know from research and analysis that the U.S. is experiencing a natural gas supply glut, while current demand is flat or down. As Tom Hadwin has noted, the demands of industrial, residential, and electric generation can be supplied by numerous existing pipelines that supply the same regions that the ACP intends to supply. In fact, those regions already have supply agreements in place for supply with Transco or similar pipelines. With some minor connection additions, more gas could be supplied at much less of a cost from these paid for pipelines than from the ACP, where the extra cost of building the ACP is applied as an increase in price upon the ratepayers.

    But if we want to understand what could happen to mountain tops, roads, farms, private property if a crack, leak, explosion, and fire could occur from this hazardous fuel pipeline…we can supply a picture of the crater and burn radius of the 2008 Appomattox, VA pipeline explosion. The formal report states, “The failure resulted in the release of an undetermined amount of gas which ignited producing a large fireball and resulting in a 37-foot wide, 15-foot deep crater and a burn zone approximately 1125 feet in diameter. Emergency responders including the Appomattox Fire Department, Virginia State Police, and Appomattox County Sheriff responded to the scene and evacuated approximately 23 families and closed nearby roads including Route 26 and Route 460. Five individuals were injured requiring hospitalization and two houses were destroyed in the fire.”

    I have some interesting pictures to show you once I figure out how to upload a picture here to the discussion.

    Thanks for the opportunity to participate in the discussion that involves an unnecessary pipeline that impacts so much beautiful VA land, hundreds of VA citizens’ precious private property and businesses, and the health and safety of so many.

    1. J. Abbate Avatar
      J. Abbate

      Here’s the info and pictures of the Appomattox gas pipeline explosion:

  9. LarrytheG Avatar

    well… unless I don’t understand.. it appears that the information that the “foes” provided comes directly out of the DEIS itself and Jim is quoting Dominion as saying it’s not true…

    Dominion is disputing what is in the DEIS?

  10. vaconsumeradvocate Avatar

    I think anyone who reads this conversation can tell that we have a major problem with how pipelines are sited/approved. Landowners are not given the respect of full and accurate information and although it has not been said in this conversation, company land agents are relentless in pressing landowners to accept easements without providing information. It is all done in a “trust the company” sort of way.

    As a landowner I have no faith that we will be safe or our environment will not be damaged as it appears to me that the process allows the company to hide critical information until it is too late to do anything about it. FERC needs to be redesigned – changed from a signer of an industry blank check of approval to a true regulatory entity that balances the needs of all and fairly involves all parties equally. It must stop allowing companies to hide or not fully explain critical information in written documents and in the way it conducts the process. For example, each round of public meetings for the ACP should have been held in Buckingham County since it is the most impacted as site of the compressor station. Instead, night meetings were held in winter months in neighboring counties but never in Buckingham itself. As a result, many affected citizens still do not know they will be affected and many others faced difficulties getting to meetings.

    Unfortunately, the US House Energy and Commerce Committee is already considering draft legislation to make the approval process even more streamlined for the industry. I only saw the announcement after the fact, but check out the committee website to see the draft legislation and testimony at the hearing. Sadly, none of the people struggling against these companies was included among the testifiers. Our perspective is not being heard.

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