Protesters march outside Dominion Resources in Charlottesville on May 3, 2017. (Photo by Abby Thornton)
With its dark brown fur and nine-inch wingspan, the Indiana Bat is easy to overlook within the vast beauty of the George Washington National Forest. That’s because for much of the year, these creatures live underground, where hundreds of them cling to the ceilings of caves during hibernation.
The Indiana Bat is one of 50 species in Virginia listed under the federal Endangered Species Act, and it is one of several animals that experts say would be threatened by the construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.
It isn’t the only one. Two other species of bat—the Virginia Big-Eared bat and the Northern Long-Eared bat—are also on the hit list. They were identified in the Environmental Impact Statement that was issued by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in December 2016.
The statement outlines all the potential environmental hazards posed by the pipeline project. It lists numerous species that would be displaced from their habitats, or worse, destroyed, if engineers and builders fail to take precautions.
The excavation process that is required to bury the pipeline will threaten the homes of many animals that live above and below the ground. But the sensitive nature of the terrain that dominates the route of the pipeline poses an extra risk to cave-dwelling creatures like the Indiana Bat, who live beneath the terrain's surface.
Local caver Mark Hodges stands at the entrance of Armstrong Cave in Bath County. The cave is one of many in the county, where the proposed pipeline would cross miles of delicate karst. (Photo by Abby Thornton)
Karst terrain, as it’s called, is a type of limestone geology characterized by pockets of loose soil and interconnected underground caves and streams. In Virginia, karst is home to hundreds of rare species, and a host of issues can occur when it is dug up.
Blasting through karst can lead to water contamination, landslides and sinkholes, and threaten the animals and people who live on—and in—the terrain, says Barbara Walsh, executive director of the Rockbridge Area Conservation Council.
So far, Dominion has not explained how it would protect the endangered species during and after construction of the pipeline.
David Sligh, an environmental scientist for the pipeline opposition group Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition, said Dominion also has not explained how it would protect the dozens of streams and brooks that the pipeline crosses from toxic runoff.
“The forest service asked for a whole body of specific information and analyses, and Dominion hasn’t provided that,” Sligh said. “So, we’ve got these officials who have said that there’s real concern, real risk … and we’ve shown that [Dominion’s] methods of erosion control, those methods of pollution control, won’t work.”
A final impact statement for the project is expected in June 2017, and federal approval could be granted as soon as September. But opposition groups are relying on agencies like the United States Forest Service and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality to put a stop to the pipeline. Contractors cannot break ground until the agencies issue separate permits.
The forest service has been the most active in pushing back against Dominion’s plans. In 2016, the agency forced Dominion to re-draw the original route so that it no longer cuts through the habitat of another endangered species, the Cow Knob Salamander, which lives in the George Washington National Forest.
The current proposed route crosses parts of the Monongahela and George Washington National Forests, giving the U.S. Forest Service some jurisdiction over the pipeline. (U.S. Department of Agriculture)
The change-up caused FERC to delay the release of its draft impact statement, and pipeline opposition groups hope the forest service continues to push back against Dominion.
If it doesn’t, groups like the Sierra Club and the Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition, which was formed in response to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline proposal, say they are prepared to sue the forest service.
Kirk Bowers, pipeline campaign coordinator for the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club, says he is trying to obtain the construction plans from Dominion to determine whether they comply with certain requirements, called minimum standards, listed under Virginia state law.
“What I can do as an engineer is review the erosion and sediment control plans for the project.” Bowers said. “We, the Sierra Club, will make sure that [Dominion] submits that information.” He said the Sierra Club is prepared to take legal action if the state or the forest service grants Dominion the permits that it needs to go ahead with the project.
But the bad news seems to keep coming for Bowers and other leaders of pipeline opposition groups.
The project would require what Bowers calls “ridgeline scalping.” Nearly 40 miles of ridgelines would have to be shaved down for contractors to operate their heavy machinery on the mountaintops, according to a paper released by the Chesapeake Climate Action Network in April 2017.
The paper says up to 60 feet of soil and rock would have to be shorn off in some places along the Appalachian mountain chain. The soil would then be repacked once excavation is complete.
Dominion spokesperson Aaron Ruby said that while some ridgelines would have to be smoothed down, the company would comply with federal regulations and ensure that the mountains are restored to their original contours.
Bowers isn’t satisfied.
“That’s a serious issue—it’s mainly damage to our mountains,” Bowers said. “They’re going to put the dirt back, but you’ll see a big strip of dirt or grass up there on the tops of these mountains where we used to have forests, and that’s not going to look good.”
Sligh, who works for several organizations including Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition and the environmental conservation group Wild Virginia, said disturbing the mountains’ natural foundations could increase the risk of landslides in an area that is historically prone to them. He said the threat would be exacerbated by the removal of trees on the mountainsides, which have slopes steeper than 50 percent in some areas.
Sligh said removing trees from steep mountainsides also would make it difficult for contractors to keep diesel fuel and other toxic waste from draining into streams where creatures, such as a rare species of brook trout, live.
“Dominion will claim that they can control the runoff, and the erosion and all those types of things such that those [streams] will be safe,” he said. “But we contend that because of the terrain and because of the challenges they’ll face, that’s just not the case, and we’re prepared to prove that.”
Ruby said Dominion would have no problem safely building across the difficult terrain.
“Our company and our lead construction contractor have more than 200 years of experience safely building pipelines through steep mountainous terrain all across the country,” he said. “We have decades and decades of experience safely building pipelines in very similar terrain.”
Another concern is water contamination. The nature of karst terrain means that a leak or spill in one area along the route can show up in a private well, or in a river in another county.
It’s why the Rockbridge Area Conservation Council—a nonprofit group committed to preserving natural resources in Rockbridge County—opposes the pipeline. Barbara Walsh, the group’s executive director, said the pipeline threatens the county’s primary water source.
The proposed route will run directly through the nexus of the Calfpasture and Little Calfpasture rivers, which feed the Maury River. If a leak or explosion occurs in Augusta County, Rockbridge County’s primary water source could become a hotbed of noxious gases, Walsh says.
“We have a direct potential to be impacted by any accidents or spills or erosions that will happen because of this project,” she said.
To build the pipeline, Dominion must obtain certification from the states of West Virginia and Virginia that the project plan complies with the Clean Water Act, a federal law that regulates the discharge of pollutants in rivers, lakes and other bodies of water.
The pipeline will cross dozens of streams and brooks like this one in Bath County. (U.S. Geological Survey photo)
So far, Dominion has not detailed how it would safely build the pipeline without polluting the dozens of rivers and streams that it would cross—another area of the draft impact statement that opposition groups say is incomplete.
Ruby says that Dominion has surveyed the bodies of water that the pipeline would cross, and would use different erosion and pollution control methods when building across each of them. But Dominion has not specified what those methods would be.
“During the survey process, we thoroughly studied all the water bodies that we’re going to cross,” Ruby said. “Based on those studies, we’re going to decide which method is the least impactful to each water body.”
Usually, a company must obtain a separate permit for each stream or river that an infrastructure crosses. But Dominion is seeking a blanket certification from the state of Virginia to build across every stream that the pipeline would cross.
“We hope that (the state) does not do that, and that they consider each of these individual circumstances the way they should be processed and evaluated,” Walsh said.
The excavation of delicate karst is also a recipe for sinkholes, said Bowers, who serves as an environmental engineer for the Sierra Club.
“We have stories of people’s cows sinking in the middle of the night never to be seen again,” he said. “We’ve had numerous sinkholes form on Interstate 81 in Augusta County over many years. If one of these sinkholes appears and is created rapidly, it could create a problem where the pipeline could explode.”
Anne Bryan, who owns land in Bath County with her husband Joe, stands in the middle of a massive sinkhole. (Photo courtesy Anne Bryan)
The project also invokes a larger debate about the necessity of building natural gas pipelines when cleaner forms of energy are becoming cheaper and more prevalent.
While natural gas is considered cleaner than other forms of energy, like coal, it still emits carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere. Methane is over 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide, and escapes from fracking sites during the production of natural gas, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
The Sierra Club commissioned a study that found that the Atlantic Coast Pipeline would increase greenhouse gas emissions by Virginia from 49 tons a year to 94 tons a year, nearly double what the state currently emits.
Bowers said another big pipeline could make things worse. Once it is built, the Mountain Valley Pipeline will emit another 58 tons of greenhouse gasses a year. Construction on that pipeline, which will run from northwestern Virginia to the southern part of the state, is scheduled to break ground in November 2017.
“That’s a significant increase at a time when we can’t afford to be producing more greenhouse gases,” said Bowers.
Sligh, the environmental scientist for Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition, called FERC “friendly” towards power companies and said that opposition groups are bracing for the pipeline’s approval.
“We don’t expect FERC to make the right decision—they rarely do,” he said. “But we're prepared to go to court to challenge their wrong decision."
Sligh said stopping Dominion is the only good outcome for groups like his that oppose the pipeline.
“I don’t think there is a best-case scenario,” he said. “The best-case scenario is to stop it.”