Livable Planet

Drinking Water and Native American Land Threatened by Proposed Pipeline Cutting Across Virginia and North Carolina

A 600-mile underground natural gas pipeline in the Southeast has communities divided and is prompting everyday residents to take action before the deal is done.

by Kimberly Lawson
Dec 12 2017, 3:30pm

Image via Flickr user NPCA Online

Berkeley Laury is a 74-year-old African-American man who’s lived his entire life in Buckingham County, Virginia. In a video produced by the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), a nonprofit environmental justice organization, Laury says he loves it. “All that fresh air, you can come out here and do anything you want out here on your own place.”

But Laury’s peaceful way of life could be shattered if the utility developers behind the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP), a 600-mile underground natural gas pipeline, have their way. If the project gets all of the necessary federal and state approvals and begins construction next year as planned, developers will build a massive compressor station about half a mile away from Laury’s home. These noisy stations are important for maintaining pressure along the pipeline—and also are known to emit large amounts of methane and other toxins in the process.

“It’s bad for your health,” Laury says in the video, one of a series of clips sharing the stories of the people who will be most impacted by this project. “The pipeline people, they’re not going to tell you. I don’t think they would want nothing like that to come right through their property or yard or front door.”

“Just like the rest of the country, there’s this tremendous potential for renewable energy in the Southeast."

The ACP, which would ultimately transport natural gas from West Virginia to Virginia and North Carolina, has already been approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. A spokesperson for Duke Energy (one of the companies spearheading this project) says that the pipeline will “increase consumer savings, enhance reliability, enable more renewable energy and provide a powerful engine for statewide economic development and job growth.”

According to the Manhattan for Policy Research, pipelines are the safest ways to transport oil and gas. Developers also point out that natural gas burns cleaner than coal, producing about half as much carbon dioxide. And in terms of economic benefits, the ACP developers believe the surplus of natural gas they can bring to the area will ultimately help lower energy costs for consumers.

More than 50 consumer and environmental advocacy groups, however, have raised concerns about whether this massive $5.5 billion initiative is even needed. A majority of the pipeline’s primary consumers would be new gas-fired power plants, but at least one expert believes the increased demand for electricity isn’t there.


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“There’s a lot to not like about this pipeline,” Gudrun Thompson, a senior attorney and leader of SELC's Energy Efficiency Program, told VICE Impact.

Among the biggest concerns are the ACP’s potential impact on nearby communities’ access to clean water. It’s one of the reasons activists protested the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Keystone XL project, two oil pipelines that got the go-ahead from President Trump earlier this year. According to documents recently obtained by Reuters, the existing Keystone system has had three significant leaks in the U.S. since it began operating in 2010, including a 5,000-barrel spill earlier this month in South Dakota.

Although the ACP will transport natural gas, it still comes with significant risks. “This is a pipeline that would cross a number of major rivers and a lot of creeks and streams in Virginia and North Carolina,” Thompson explained. “Some of those are drinking water sources for the communities, so there’s the risk of contamination during the construction phase and leaks if this pipeline actually fails.”

Air quality is another concern, what with the potential of the pipeline and its support systems to leak toxic organic compounds, such as formaldehyde and benzene. What’s additionally concerning, according to a recent report from the NAACP and the Clean Air Task Force, is that the proposed route of the ACP would disproportionately impact communities of color and low income—and “African Americans are [already] exposed to 38 percent more polluted air than Caucasian Americans.”

“The Southeast as a region is already overly dependent on fossil fuels. Our region makes an outsized contribution to global climate change, which is affecting everybody, not just those in the states where this would go."

Thompson also pointed out that there are a number of Native American tribal communities that will be affected by this pipeline, including the North Carolina-recognized Lumbee Tribe in Robeson County and the Haliwa-Saponi in Halifax County. “The pipeline would go through their communities, but the federal agencies have not consulted with those tribes because they’re not officially recognized by the federal government,” she explained.

Critics also raise issues about safety and the fear of an explosion; developers using the power of eminent domain to seize people’s property against their will; and, as Thompson put it, the worry that this will ultimately turn out to be “a $5 billion boondoggle that’s going to be very lucrative for the energy companies that are partners in the pipeline and that would ultimately be paid for by the captive retail customers of those company’s subsidiaries.”

Recently, the editorial writers at Raleigh’s News and Observer came out against the ACP, writing that the project “takes North Carolina’s and the nation’s energy development in exactly the wrong direction.”

Thompson agreed. “The Southeast as a region is already overly dependent on fossil fuels. Our region makes an outsized contribution to global climate change, which is affecting everybody, not just those in the states where this would go. The bulk of the gas transported through this pipeline would go to fuel gas-fired power plants. This is a time when we need to be making decisions that start to transition this region and our country away from dependence on fossil fuels, and this multibillion dollar investment entering a new gas pipeline is just going to lock us into decades more of reliance on fossil fuel.”

“Just like the rest of the country,” she continued, “there’s this tremendous potential for renewable energy in the Southeast. Solar is really starting to take off. There’s potential for wind and other resources as well. We need to be putting our investment into developing those resources, not into a project that will perpetuate this dependence on fossil fuels.”

If you’d like to express your opposition to the Atlantic Coastal Pipeline, you can reach out to state officials in North Carolina and Virginia, who are still considering the project. For more information about the efforts to stop this pipeline, check out the SELC or the Allegheny-Blue Ridge Alliance .

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