Randolph County landowner on the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline route: ‘It’s my land; it must be my choice!’
By Michael Barrick
MILL CREEK, W.Va. – Joao Barroso spent years looking for the perfect parcel of land on which to eventually settle his family and build a natural preserve for others to enjoy. Finally, in September 2011, Barroso, 57, found such a place in an approximately 500-acre forested tract near Mill Creek, a small community situated in a picturesque valley in Randolph County. Indeed, the stream for which the village is named roars through his land, full from spring rains and snow melt. It eventually feeds into the Tygart Valley River downstream from his land. The river has formed one of the most breathtaking valleys in this region of West Virginia. Its headwaters are in neighboring Pocahontas County. From there, it travels about 135 miles before eventually joining with the West Fork River to form the Monongahela River in North Central West Virginia.
Beginning in 2014, Barroso added extra acreage to his property, bringing it to a total of about 650 acres. This expansion, he pointed out, demonstrates his determination to acquire land to preserve its natural wonder and beauty.
Now, however, the home place he dreamed of having for more than 40 years is in the sights of Dominion Energy, which wants to cross his land with the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP). So, what started out as a dream may well turn out to be a nightmare. While the pipeline has yet to be approved by the appropriate regulatory officials, and the route continues to change, Barroso has been telling Dominion that he does not want the pipeline on this property, as it would compromise his dreams and plans.
He has been refusing the company’s surveyors access to his property for nearly a year, since they first contacted him demanding access to his land to conduct a survey for the ACP and threatening him with eminent domain. He shared, “I am dismayed.” He explained, “Communication with Doyle Land’s surveyor (a company working on behalf of Dominion) did not go well when they first contacted me. As a result, and given their lack of feedback and apparent unwillingness to engage in a dialogue, I ended up contacting Dominion directly in the hope that they would be willing to openly communicate with me.”
At the end of 2014, after months of emails and not much progress, Barroso said, “Dominion finally decided to send a team to meet me in Elkins. The meeting lasted more than four hours and I had some expert consultants with me, including a hydrologist, an environmental scientist, and a botanist.” He shared, “I would say the meeting went well. I had, in fact, received a letter from Dominion’s lawyers, Steptoe & Johnson, giving me 10 days to OK the survey, or face a lawsuit. But the gentleman who headed the team for Dominion told me not to worry; he said he would take care of it, and he did. He told Steptoe & Johnson to back off. That was a pleasant surprise. He also said that Dominion does not like surveyors, etc. to threaten landowners with eminent domain. That surprised me even more!”
Barroso questioned, “How can these people threaten landowners with eminent domain when they don’t have the right and don’t have a green light from Dominion to do so? I told him it’s the worst thing they can do. It’s really bad PR and there’s no better way to get everyone against Dominion.”
He has yet to grant the company permission to survey, and the borders of his land are dotted with “No Trespassing” signs that include the explicit wording, “No surveys.”
“It is insane,” proclaimed Barroso, standing along one of 14 ponds on his property. “I still hope that common sense prevails and Dominion decides to move the pipeline away from my land. If they end up using eminent domain, all I have to say is that it is unconstitutional,” he continued, adding, “the use of eminent domain may be justified in some cases, but in cases like this, it is certainly nothing else but abuse.”
Dominion Energy and its ACP partners claim on its website that “The Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) is an essential public utility project designed to meet urgent energy needs in Virginia and North Carolina.” Barroso dismissed that argument as nonsense. “This is a private company, and the ACP, if it is approved and built, has only one purpose: company profit. It will be a clear case of abuse of eminent domain.”
He continued, “There is a very clear difference between providing a service to the public and what is a public service. All businesses serve the public, but they are not public services.” After a pause, he added, “What is the difference between what they want to do, and someone stealing his neighbor’s property because he wants to open a restaurant to serve the public, while the neighbor just wants to live with his family in peace? None if you ask me. Both are encroaching on private property for the same motive – engage in a business and make money for private profit. Both are wrong! The only difference may be that the restaurant is an investment of $500,000 and the ACP is an investment of $5 billion.”
Tracing his finger on a map of the proposed ACP route, he observed, “Look. It is going to connect to the coast in Virginia. Why? I am hard pressed to believe that this ACP project has nothing to do with Russia starving Europe for natural gas, or the Japanese market craving natural gas they do not produce. This pipeline is most likely going to transport natural gas for export.” He then added, “Even if you give Dominion the benefit of the doubt that this gas will stay in the country, it is still for their private profit. The ACP benefits first and foremost Dominion, meaning the company’s shareholders. The number of jobs created will be negligible, most temporary during the construction phase, and the well-paid jobs are all for out-of-state technicians and professionals. And this has nothing to do with energy independence, or clean energy. Natural gas burns cleaner than coal, for example, but if you consider all that is involved, it is not clean energy – far from it.”
The ACP, as well as several other proposed natural gas pipelines, has yet to be approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which is charged with studying the environmental impact of the proposed pipelines. Barroso is skeptical. Recalling Dominion’s January 21 open house in Elkins in which Dominion and FERC representatives were present to speak to landowners, Barroso shared, “There was a FERC employee there that could not answer my questions. He was a nice young man, but had no answers to any of the questions I raised. Then, after I left the open house, I also wondered, why would FERC have somebody there if not because they are working for Dominion.” Barroso continued, “A regulatory commission should be independent and neutral. They should be objective. They should listen to landowners and property owners without bias. There should be no FERC employee there, especially if unable to answer questions. This is a very obvious conflict of interest, in my opinion.”
Indeed, recently, preservationist groups from Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia accused FERC of not properly informing the public regarding the construction of proposed natural gas pipelines throughout the region. Pointing to public comments by FERC Chairman Cheryl LaFleur, the groups argued that FERC is not providing the independent oversight required of it. Furthermore, Ernie Reed, president of Wild Virginia echoed Barroso’s arguments that the concept of eminent domain is being perverted. Reed argued, “These pipelines serve no public benefit as all current and proposed users are currently served by existing pipelines. FERC cannot ignore that these pipelines will massively increase gas extraction in the shalefields of West Virginia and provide huge volumes of natural gas for export.”
In addition to passionately arguing that his liberty will be trampled on by Dominion and whoever will sign off on the ACP if it ends up being approved, Barroso also pointed to the damage that will be done to the spectacular beauty of his land. Indeed, if the ACP should cross his land, it will disrupt the pristine ponds – a native brook trout hatchery under development. Also endangered are countless underground springs, the Gooseberry Cave – listed as hibernacula for the endangered Indiana bat – the bubbling springs, and other habitat for threatened and endangered species, the creek itself, and other features, including an old family cemetery on the property dating back to the 1800s.
“This is a very unique property,” said Barroso. “This ACP business will literally destroy it. Dominion told me they were considering alternate routes, but it has been two months since the last open house that took place in Elkins, and I am still waiting for feedback.”
Standing between the ponds and the creek, pointing to where the ACP corridor is set to cross his property, Barroso asked, “How are they going to go through that creek?” He continued, “Look at it. It is over solid rock. They cannot do horizontal drilling because they hit the side of the hill!” Additionally, from the valley floor on which he stands, at about 2,050 feet, he points to the two ridges that rise hundreds of feet – virtually straight up – on each side of the creek. One of the ridges is owned by various lumber companies, the other ridge is on his property. “Look at how steep and high those are,” he said. “How are they going to traverse that? On that side that belongs to Coastal, the ridge is 3,300 feet high according to topographical maps I have; on my property, that ridge is almost 2,900 feet. How do they intend to put a 42-inch pipeline up and down these hills, through the creek, and beyond? How safe is this going to be? There are accidents all the time, explosions. I don’t want my family living close to this thing.”
Referencing a list of pipeline accidents in the 21st century, Barroso offered, “It’s pretty scary to say the least. It’s almost 50 pages long if printed out! Take the time to follow the links, and you will find out that these accidents and explosions plague both old and new pipelines and in most of them, they never know what caused them! People die, property is destroyed, and lives are changed forever. As a property owner, I have the right to say, ‘No thank you! I don’t want a pipeline on my property.’”
Indeed, those are some of the questions that Barroso has asked of Dominion officials and their surveyors. “What about safety? Explosions? Response time, impact? Dominion promised to get back with me with data and more information, but so far, I have yet to hear from them.” He recalled, “At the open house, one of the Dominion officials that came to meet me in Elkins told another Dominion official, ‘In his case, we have made a mistake. We should not go over his land. We were not aware of all the features on his property.’” Barroso continued, “We had a pleasant exchange that day. They were quite open to admit that the way the routes are traced is based on nothing but maps, topography and often not very clear satellite photos, so they are hardly ever aware of what’s on the land and what landowners are doing with their properties.”
Of course, the mountain ranges extend in both directions far beyond his land. So even if Dominion should pick a route that does not include Barroso’s property, it will still have a 300-foot-wide survey corridor, and care out a 75- to 125-foot swath up and down countless mountain ranges to construct the pipeline, including some in nearby Monongahela National Forest and George Washington National Forest. Depending upon the route chosen, if approved, the pipeline could go through Kumbrabow State Forest, which has the highest elevation of any West Virginia state forest.
“It’s just insane,” repeated Barroso.
Following a long hike up a trail to the family cemetery on the property, Barroso stood in the warm afternoon sun, with patches of snow stubbornly refusing to melt at the high, shaded elevation. He acknowledged that he is talking to Dominion not only to defend his property rights and individual liberty, but also based upon his faith. “Nothing I have belongs to me. This is a stewardship. That is how I see things. I am here for a reason. God is in all this. We came here without anything and we will leave without anything. But what we are entrusted with, we have the responsibility to care for and leave a legacy to our posterity. I am not an environmentalist. There is too much negativity and pseudo-science associated with environmentalists these days, in my opinion. But I consider myself a steward over the land as an ecologist. From all the research I have done so far, the ACP will be, ecologically speaking, a disaster. There is no other way of putting it, and my opinion is that there is no way to mitigate the damage it will cause.”
He continued, “I want to leave my children something. And my grandchildren, and their children. It is a stewardship for them also.”
Walking back down the trail towards the creek, Barroso stopped to get a drink of water out of a natural spring tumbling down rocks. Wiping his mouth with his sleeve, he looked at the waterfall, then down to the creek. His eyes piercing and glistening, he proclaimed, “Water is life. It is my responsibility to protect it. One man’s liberty ends where his neighbor’s begins. This principle applies to private companies as well. The government is supposed to protect citizens, private property, landowners and businesses. If the government sides with the companies, developers and investors, and lets them use eminent domain to encroach on other persons or their property and condemn private property, something is utterly wrong.”
He concluded, “What is at stake here are private property rights. If private property is compromised, then nothing is safe in this country anymore.”
© Appalachian Preservation Project, LLC, 2015. The Appalachian Chronicle is a publication of the Appalachian Preservation Project. The Appalachian Preservation Project is a social enterprise committed to preserving and protecting Appalachia. If you wish to support our work, please consider becoming a member.
The Appalachian Preservation Project is also handling planning for the “Preserving Sacred Appalachia” Earth Day conference scheduled for April 20-21 in Charleston, W.Va. Learn about it here.