Organizations and individuals fighting Dominion and its partners express satisfaction, but caution that the battle is far from decided
By Michael M. Barrick
CLARKSBURG, W.Va. – Opponents to the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) are expressing delight about a decision by the United States Forest Service (USFS) to reject the proposed ACP route because it would jeopardize what the USFS calls “sensitive resources.”
Despite the decision, opponents are also advising caution, saying that it could only delay, but not stop, the proposed 550-mile natural gas pipeline that is a project of Dominion Resources, based in Richmond, Va., and its partners, including Duke Energy of Charlotte, N.C. As currently proposed, the ACP would originate in Harrison County, W.Va. and terminate in southeastern North Carolina. Ultimate approval for the ACP will be up to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).
For now, though, the USFS decision has put the brakes on the proposed route.
In a letter and attachment to Leslie Hartz of Atlantic Coast Pipeline, LLC, USFS officials explained the decision and provided an “Assessment of Inconsistencies with Forest Plan Direction and Other Directives.” The letter was signed by Kathleen Atkinson of the USFS Eastern Region and Tony Tooke of the Southern Region.
Hartz and Tooke wrote, “We have determined that the proposed route does not meet minimum requirements of initial screening criteria … .” They explained, “The Land and Resource Management Plans for the Monongahela and George Washington National Forests contain standards and guidelines to protect highly sensitive resources, including Cheat Mountain salamanders, West Virginia northern flying squirrels, Cow Knob salamanders, and red spruce ecosystem restoration area.”
They continued, “Therefore, alternatives must be developed to facilitate further processing of the application.” They directed, “The status of the species in terms of risk for loss of viability on the National Forests, consistency with protections in the Forest Plans and other directives, and the uniqueness of ecosystems such as the spruce ecosystem restoration areas must be considered in the development of alternatives.”
Among the most vocal opponents to the ACP have been residents of Nelson County, Va. Marilyn Shifflett of Free Nelson said, “Those of us in opposition to the ACP have been extremely impressed at the work the USFS has done on this project for many months now. They have worked tirelessly to insure that regulations are followed and key sensitive areas are protected for future generations.” She cautioned, however, that citizens remain concerned about FERC’s review. “We remain hopeful that the FERC will take the USFS’s concerns seriously and that FERC Commissioners will review all of the USFS submissions by taking one step further, and consider the sensitive areas adjoining National Forest lands with a more critical eye. We have seen similar misrepresentations and incompleteness in the Resource Reports submitted for the ACP’s formal application and we will continue to ask that the FERC review these submissions very carefully.”
Friends of Nelson President Joanna Salidis offered, “We greatly appreciate the Forest Service’s tenacity in ensuring that federal laws and regulations pertaining to our national forests are enforced. We are grateful that they are working to protect the biodiversity, water, and recreational resources that so many people depend on. We are thrilled about the difficulty and delays the necessity of coming up with a new route will likely cause Dominion.” She, too, expressed concerns about the FERC review, saying, “We also note that the Forest Service’s advocacy for our public property highlights the absence of a similar watchdog agency for private property and impacted communities and individuals. The rest of us are left with FERC, bought and paid for by the industry.”
Jared M. Margolis, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity who focuses on the impacts of energy development on endangered species, said, “We are very pleased that the USFS has agreed that the project as proposed would have adverse impacts on vital habitat areas for imperiled species, including the Cow Knob salamander, which the Center has proposed for listing under the Endangered Species Act, as well as habitat for the Cheat Mountain salamander, which is listed as threatened.”
He added. “While the Forest Service stated that alternative routes must be found to avoid these sensitive habitats, it found that the route variations that have been proposed do not resolve the concerns. It therefore remains unclear whether alternative routes are even possible through this region that would not have such unacceptable impacts.”
He was also blunt in his assessment of the ACP. “This pipeline would be an unmitigated disaster for rare wildlife like the Cow Knob salamander, and would intensify climate disruption by increasing fracking and continuing our reliance on fossil fuels. While it is heartening to see the Forest Service step up to ensure that vital habitats on the George Washington National Forest are protected, we do not need alternative routes for this project. What we need is to stop creating dirtier fossil fuel infrastructure and keep it in the ground.”
Elise Keaton with the Greenbrier River Watershed Association insisted, “This would not have happened but for the constant work of citizen groups and coalitions forcing the Forest Service to conduct more stringent reviews of these proposed routes.” She added, “My hope is that the other national forests that are projected to be impacted by the Mountain Valley Pipeline will follow suit in protecting critical habitat. Further, the cumulative impact of two export pipelines through these parts of the state need to be reviewed to determine if they are at all necessary.”
Keaton concluded, “This decision is positive in that it reflects the Forest Service’s willingness to protect the ecology within the National Forest which many residents of West Virginia and Virginia have worked hard to preserve. However, re-routing the proposed pipeline through another area does not necessarily mean that these same species won’t be impacted.”
Allen Johnson of West Virginia-based Christians for the Mountains shared, “I am surprised, but pleasantly so, by the decision of the U.S. Forest Service to protect the very sensitive areas of the northern flying squirrel, sensitive streams, and a tremendous 2,000 feet vertical climb over and down Cheat Mountain.” He admitted, “I tend to be jaded by politics and felt the USFS would roll over for the pipeline.”
He warned, however, “On the other hand, the likely alternative route would be very close to where I live, within three miles at some point, I think. It would still transgress some of the Monongahela and George Washington National Forests, and would also impact more private landholders. At this point, the alternative routes have had little public input, so I would push for another FERC scoping process.”
Executive Director Angie Rosser of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition shared, “This decision affirms that the USFS is taking their responsibility to protect sensitive resources and endangered species seriously. The ecological significance of the headwaters and forested land in this region cannot be overstated. We celebrate the Forest Service stepping in to defend it.”
Still, Rosser argued, “It’s not over. Dominion will undoubtedly look to alternative routes and there will be the same important questions to examine about forest fragmentation, headwater streams, rare species habitat, and more. And the big questions remain in the context of several proposed pipelines in this region – is there a need for them all, and what would be the cumulative impact to this special area of the country?”
April Keating, the chairperson of Mountain Lakes Preservation Alliance, a grass roots movement in several central West Virginia counties, shared, “This is certainly a necessary first step in protecting our communities from gas infrastructure buildout, and shows that our forest service is on the ball and watching. Having a federal agency backing up what the citizens have been saying is also encouraging.”
Yet, she added, “I do not think environmental arguments are going to be enough to stop, slow, or re-route the pipelines. Though the threat to our environment is real from this industry, we have to make sure our public officials and agencies consider all the effects on our communities: public health and safety, economic drag, slowed progress in renewable energy development, protection of historical resources, and even things like cultural attachment. There is a strong connection between the water and public health, but somehow public officials don’t see the emergency such projects constitute.”
She argued, “Citizen action in West Virginia is the only way we are ever going to see progress in a ‘business as usual’ state whose economy has always been based on extraction. It is time to diversify the economy, do something new. The job opportunities are plentiful, if we could only get our leaders to see it. Some days I am discouraged, some hopeful, but in the end, I believe our efforts will push us forward, if only a tiny bit, and that in itself is progress.”
Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC) Executive Director Janet Keating remarked, “OVEC is pleased that the U. S. Forest Service has rejected the proposed route of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline through the Monongahela National Forest because of concerns over the impacts upon the Cow Knob salamander as well as the restoration efforts for the northern flying squirrel. Yet our concerns regarding this massive pipeline don’t end here.” She explained, “This issue is about much more than unique salamanders and flying squirrels. The larger issues that loom are not only the direct threats to our forests and attenuate wildlife – and private property impacted by the construction of this massive pipeline – but also how building this infrastructure promotes more drilling for deep shale gas and oil, which increases the risks associated with climate change. The overarching concerns that FERC, other government entities and all our politicians should have are the threats that continued use of fossil fuel extraction and burning has upon the very existence of humans, other life on earth and our home, planet earth.”
She asked, “Why should West Virginia’s politicians allow our state to bear all the environmental costs, especially threatening our precious and vital water resources, for the construction of the ACP and then ship natural gas to North Carolina or overseas? Beyond short-term economic gain, how do people here really benefit?” She concluded, “It’s time for our state and nation to get serious about clean, renewable energy and energy efficiency, approaches to energy production that create jobs, decreases risks to human health and water, and stems the tide on climate change.”
OVEC’s Project Coordinator Vivian Stockman added, “It’s great news that the Forest Service has denied ACP’s application for a Special Use Permit based on endangered species and ecological health. Now, ACP will have to propose a new route or system alternatives. Now, we need to consider human health. We say there’s no proposed route that will protect communities, air, water and land.
“We simply don’t need this pipeline. We don’t need to waste all the money on shoring up fossil fuel infrastructure. We say the alternative, for the sake of human and planetary health, is decentralized renewable energy.”
© Michael M. Barrick, 2016.
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