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Environmental review favors Atlantic Coast Pipeline development

AP file photo
Hydrologist William K. Jones walks up a mountain near the route of the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline in Bolar, Virginia, in June. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which oversees interstate natural gas pipelines, released its final environmental impact statement Friday for the proposed 600-mile pipeline, which has broad support from political and business leaders but is staunchly opposed by environmentalists and many affected landowners.

A final environmental impact statement released Friday for the proposed 600-mile long Atlantic Coast Pipeline concludes that, while its construction would have adverse effects on adjacent streams and forests, underlying caves and sinkholes, and habitat for seven endangered species known to live along its route, “most, but not all of these impacts would be reduced to less-than-significant levels” if its developers implement their own mitigation and restoration plans and follow federal construction standards.

“The favorable environmental report released today provides a clear path for final approval of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline this fall,” said Leslie Hartz, vice president for engineering and construction for Dominion Energy, one of four energy companies partnering in the project.

With the final environmental impact statement, prepared by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission staff, now complete, FERC commissioners could act on allowing the project to move forward at any time. But four out of five seats on the commission are vacant and, in the absence of a quorum, a vote cannot be taken until the U.S. Senate approves at least some of the four nominees selected by President Donald Trump.

While Hartz views the FERC staff’s final environmental impact statement as “one of the most thorough and exhaustive environmental reviews that has ever been performed for a project of this size,” opponents of the pipeline say it fails, among other things, to make an independent assessment on whether the $5 billion project is even needed.

According to Lew Freeman, director of the Allegheny-Blue Ridge Alliance, recent studies have shown that the gas and utility sector is overbuilding natural gas infrastructure and that electricity demand is expected to grow much less than the pipeline developers’ projections.

The FERC staff’s environmental review “is an affront to American democracy,” Freeman said, “ignoring the thousands of citizens who participated in the public comment process and handing over private property rights of hundreds of families to corporate interests.”

The FERC staff, he said, glossed over permanent harm to water resources, forest ecosystems, public land and endangered wildlife and plant species that could result from construction of the pipeline.

Within hours of the final environmental review’s release on Friday, the U.S. Forest Service’s regional headquarters announced the issuance of a draft record of decision authorizing the pipeline to cross through 5.1 miles of the Monongahela National Forest, in West Virginia and 16 miles of the George Washington National Forest, in Virginia.

Friday’s preliminary authorization “recognizes Forest Service efforts to provide for multiple uses, minimize impacts to natural resources, and to support federal policies that encourage energy infrastructure, jobs and economic growth,” said acting Eastern Regional Forester Mary Beth Borst.

The proposed pipeline would carry natural gas from the Appalachian Basin to markets in Virginia and the Carolinas, starting from a point in Harrison County just south of the Doddridge County line.

From there, the pipeline would travel eastward through Upshur, Randolph and Pocahontas counties, before entering Virginia and veering south into North Carolina, reaching its terminus near the South Carolina border.

A spur would depart from the main pipeline in south-central Virginia and terminate near the Hampton Roads area. The pipeline is a joint venture of Dominion Energy, Duke Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas and Southern Company Gas.

According to the environmental impact statement’s executive summary, the pipeline would cross over 84 miles of slopes, with gradients of 20 percent or more, in addition to 71 miles of terrain in which caves, sinkholes and springs are common.

Pipeline developers have worked with state and federal agencies and design consultants to develop plans to reduce damage while crossing such fragile terrain, and the FERC staff has added additional recommendations to further minimize risks.

Even so, “long-term but minor cumulative impacts would occur on forested wetland and upland forested vegetation and associated wildlife habitats as well as on waterbodies, special status species and visual quality,” according to the summary. “Impacts on vernal pools, rocky outcrops, and subterranean features could adversely affect habitat of wildlife species with limited mobility and home ranges,” and certain cave-dwelling species known to exist only in known locations and are vulnerable to changes in water patterns or quality could face “population level effects.”

According to the environmental review, the pipeline developers are urged, but not required, to use a narrowed construction right-of-way when crossing Seneca State Forest and the Monongahela National Forest in Pocahontas County, to prevent “long-term to permanent impact” to forest ecology, and to maintain only a 50-foot right-of-way along the pipeline’s mainline elsewhere through West Virginia and parts of Virginia.

In Virginia, conduits would be bored to carry the pipeline under the Appalachian Trail and the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Hartz observed that after reviewing more than 150,000 pages of regulatory filings and 75,000 public comments, more than 300 route changes were made to the pipeline’s path.

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-5169 or follow @rsteelhammer on Twitter.

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