Chapter I: Losing Their Land
Ella Rose, a resident of Buckingham County, Va., at a Friends of Buckingham meeting. Attendees addressed their concerns about the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and a compressor station. (Photo courtesy of Chad Oba, leader of Friends of Buckingham)
Ella Rose fears the days of peace, safety and good health at her home in Buckingham County are numbered.
That’s because her property—in the historically black Union Hill community in the geographic heart of Virginia—is the closest home to the site Dominion Energy has chosen for an industrial size compressor station, which will pump natural gas through a 42-inch in diameter pipeline.
Rose said she and her neighbors have been neglected in the name of corporate greed.
“I will be forced to live with this, and there is nothing I can do to prevent my health from deteriorating,” she said. “This is not the plan I had for my retirement.”
The proposed 600-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline is the product of a collaborative effort by Richmond-based Dominion Energy, Atlanta-based Southern Company Gas, and Charlotte-based Duke Energy and Piedmont Natural Gas.
It would begin in northern West Virginia, climb 4,000 feet through the Appalachians, cross into western Virginia’s Augusta and Nelson counties, and dip into Buckingham and a half dozen other counties before it would finally bend at Hampton Roads into North Carolina.
It is one of several pipelines of its size under review by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). If approved, the project is expected to be completed by 2018, and pump 1.5 billion cubic feet of gas through the line daily.
Compressor stations are typically built every 40 to 60 miles along a pipeline. But Dominion chose Union Hill—a predominantly African American, low-income, historic Freedmen community—to house the only compressor station planned for Virginia.
Proposed site of compressor station in Buckingham County. (Photo by Lindsay Castleberry)
At this site, the Buckingham station would intersect the existing Transcontinental Gas Pipeline System (Transco), a 10,200-mile pipeline that was commissioned in 1950, and is still the largest pipeline in the United States.
Preservation Virginia last year listed Union Hill as one of the “Most Endangered Historic Places in Virginia” due to the number of post-emancipation African American settlements and burial sites in the community. The 68 acres allotted for the station once housed a large plantation called Variety Shades.
Chad Oba, leader of Friends of Buckingham, says the FERC has overlooked the historic significance of the densely populated rural neighborhood in its review of Dominion’s proposal.
“We submitted a lot of information [to FERC], and a lot of the information was by well recognized historical societies and organizations,” she said. “[FERC] gave us one short paragraph [in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement]. In other areas where the pipeline would cross, there were pages.”
Aaron Ruby, a Dominion spokesman, said the company has adopted all necessary measures to minimize the environmental impacts of the pipeline and protect public safety.
In January, Buckingham’s Board of Supervisors granted the Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s Special Use permit for the compressor station. Oba said it was a blow to many Union Hill citizens.
“We haven’t had any support from our local government, despite hearings that have indicated that almost 85 to 90 percent of the people who spoke at these hearings didn’t want to see this happen,” she said.
Oba said racial division in Buckingham continues to silence some residents.
“It’s a 90 percent African American neighborhood without access to Internet,” she said. “Historically, blacks stay here and whites stay there. Buckingham was one of the last counties to integrate its schools, so there is very much of a racial component going on.”
Dominion also plans to build a telecommunications tower in Union Hill to operate the compressor station. The tower will be constructed five feet away from Rose’s property.
“The tower is adding insult to injury,” she said. “How can I live with this so close to me? Would you want to live next door to a toxic, noisy industrial complex complete with a telecommunication tower shining down on you every night for the rest of your life? Everything I care about and enjoy is being threatened.”
(Photos by Lindsay Castleberry)
Rose and other Union Hill residents say the compressor station is a public health disaster in the making.
They said the operation would subject residents to constant exposure to a long list of chemicals produced in fracking, the high-pressure process of drilling into the earth and injecting water, sand and chemicals into rock to extract gas. The chemicals include nitrous oxide, carbon dioxide, volatile organic compounds, particulate matter and hazardous air pollutants.
“We’re getting the deadliest part of this whole pipeline,” Oba said. “People are going to be sick. The least of it is children wake up with nosebleeds, headaches, respiratory illnesses and cardiac problems."
But Buckingham’s Planning Commission included a set of conditions in its recommendation that the county’s supervisors approve the project.
For example, the size of the station cannot exceed 55,000 horsepower. Dominion must also comply with state regulations on noise, lighting, layout and air pollution.
Community members, such as Oba, say stress is already taking a toll on people’s health.
“I’m getting calls from people who are really upset and just worried,” she said. “I, myself, have many sleepless nights.”
Others along the path of the pipeline share concerns about their health and safety.
“What happens if you have a 42-inch pipeline natural gas explosion in the middle of George Washington National Forest,” said Chuck Burke, a Bath County property owner whose land would be cut in half by the pipeline. “That’s my biggest concern, the safety of my family. I can recover from the economic stuff.”
Landowners say threats to air and water also keep them up at night.
Leslie King, another Bath County landowner, said water is vital to the area’s tourism and her family’s livelihood.
“We all depend on wells for our drinking water,” she said. “[Runoff] will come right toward us and all of our neighbors. The likelihood that our wells will survive what [Dominion] does here is not necessarily good.”
Mary Jane Hoffman, a paraplegic widow in Nelson County who owns property in the pipeline’s path, says protecting the area’s water quality is her number one priority.
The pipeline will cross over 17 acres of Hoffman’s land, which sits at the edge of the Rockfish River in Nellysford. It has been in her family for five generations.
“I have said from the very beginning that the Atlantic Coast Pipeline should not cross this farm,” she said. “I feel that this Earth is fragile. This is a very small valley and we are living at the foot of a lake.”
Ruby said Dominion engaged in an extensive process for determining the pipeline’s path.
“A lot of routes were taken out of consideration because of unacceptable levels of environmental impacts, unacceptable impacts to cultural and historic resources, unsuitable terrain for safe construction, and a number of other considerations that we have to look at,” he said. “We thoroughly studied the entire route to minimize the environmental impacts and minimize the individual impacts to landowners.”
Private property rights are a central theme in the pipeline debate. Landowners say Dominion and its partners are trying to get rich, and not provide for the public good, as the law of eminent domain requires.
Burke and his family purchased 794 acres of farmland in Bath County in 2012, and a few months later, learned of Dominion’s plan to re-route the pipeline through their backyard.
A map of Jane and Chuck Burke's property in Bath County, Va. (Photo courtesy of the Burkes)
“Our plan was to have a place where Jane and I and the boys can go now, spend summers, and things like that, but it was also to preserve the farm and bring it back to its original state,” Burke said.
The family put a conservation easement on the property in 2013 through the Virginia Outdoors Foundation (VOF). Conservation easements are voluntary legal agreements between landowners and land trusts that limit uses of the land to protect it.
“We were willing to accept those limitations because we wanted to make sure that something like [the pipeline] didn’t happen,” Burke said.
There are 11 conservation easements along the pipeline’s path. According to state law, Dominion has to prove the project is in the best interest of the community in order to place its pipeline on these properties.
Ruby, speaking for Dominion, said the company is paying a significant amount in property taxes to Augusta and Nelson counties. He said the company hopes the additional revenue would be used for public service projects, such as schools and transportation infrastructure.
Dominion recently purchased 1,100 acres in Highland County, called Hayfields Farm, for nearly $4 million. It plans to create a conservation easement and turn it over to the VOF in exchange for approval to build on existing easements.
Burke says he hopes to stall Dominion’s progress by utilizing a U.S. Treasury Department regulation that guarantees tax deductibles for easement owners. He said he’s already applied for the deductibles this year, and he hopes this will put another obstacle in Dominion’s way.
“I always respected Virginia because I felt they took a great deal of pride in being able to preserve their history as well as their environment,” Burke said. “When I see a public corporation like Dominion, who has a lot of influence in Richmond, at the state’s capital, both at the governor level as well as the legislature, that’s very disappointing.”
According to state law, public utility companies like Dominion have the power to use eminent domain to seize property for approved pipeline projects. Eminent domain is the process by which the government seizes property in the name of progress.
Ruby said Dominion would use eminent domain as a last resort.
Pink ribbons mark the proposed route for the pipeline. (Photo by Lindsay Castleberry)
“We’ve looked very closely with the directly impacted landowners to survey the property, address their concerns where we can, where it’s feasible, and try to come up with the best possible route on their property that has the least impact on their use of the land, on any sensitive environmental resources on the property or any other special features that are of concern to them,” he said.
Ruby said Dominion has reached agreements with 65 percent of landowners so far.
The company has also adjusted the route over 300 times to avoid potentially adverse impacts on public and private drinking water sources, and to address concerns expressed by individual landowners.
“I think our founding fathers of our country, if they were aware of what was happening, they would be spinning in their graves,” Jane Burke said.
She said her family’s dream, to have a place to decompress and be inspired, has become a nightmare.
“To think that Dominion can claim eminent domain, they don’t have to have a certificate of necessity, they can just seize our property, I can’t even express into words the anger, the frustration,” she said. “It’s just overwhelming.”
Property owners without conservation easements have an even harder time fighting the process of eminent domain.
The pipeline will cross 110 acres of 83-year old widow Hazel Palmer’s property in Augusta County. The land has been in her family since 1880.
Dominion sued Palmer when she refused to let Doyle & Wachtstetter, Inc., the contracted surveying company, on her property.
“They want the land, and they don’t care whether you can sell it or not,” she said. “Nothing can be built over the pipeline and certainly we wouldn’t want to build close to it either because of the danger of it. It will just leave a scar on the mountain.”
In 2013, an Augusta County Circuit Court judge ruled in favor of the pipeline company, clearing the way for Dominion to survey Palmer’s land without her consent. She appealed the court’s decision, and took the case to the Supreme Court of Virginia in April. A decision is pending.
Palmer says she is optimistic that she will win and the pipeline will be rerouted. The Court granted her appeal, despite rejecting other cases filed by landowners making similar arguments.
“I have grandchildren that some time or another wanted to build up there on the mountain, but they won’t be able to,” she said. “A lot of people’s dreams have been shattered because of this.”
(Photos by Lindsay Castleberry)
Back in Bath County, Judy Allen is fighting for a piece of land that defines who she is.
Unlike the Burkes, who said they could move if need be, Allen sunk her life savings into her home.
She remembers how hard her late husband worked to save the money to buy 140 acres of land, which Dominion now plans to use for its pipeline.
“My husband worked three jobs back in the sixties to get that little piece of land for us,” she said. “It’s heaven. It’s a piece of heaven.”
Allen and her husband, who passed away last month, moved to the area for its natural beauty. She said they wanted to escape the pressures of the modern world, but she’s worried the pipeline will take all of that away from her.
“It’s going to destroy my life and my home,” she said. “I might not have a lot of money, but I’m going to fight it.”
Fort Lewis Lodge, a country retreat in the Blue Ridge Mountains, is a short drive from Allen’s property. The Cowden family launched the resort 29 years ago.
David Cowden is one of three children who was born and raised on the property. A year ago, he and his girlfriend, Erin, left their careers in New York City to move home and help out with the family business.
“What my parents have built takes a lot of work, and we recognize that, so we wanted to keep it going and contribute however we could,” he said. “This couldn’t be anything farther from what I want to happen to this area.”
Cowden said the original route for the pipeline crossed the main section of the property, where guests stay and dine, and would have forced his family to close the business.
“We’re selling an outdoor experience,” he said. “If you have big excavating equipment, and helicopters flying overhead, that doesn’t really fit in line with a nice, relaxing weekend in nature.”
The Cowdens met with one of Dominion’s route engineers, and convinced the company to relocate the project to the northern part of the property.
The new route is no longer immediately visible to guests, but it would still impact a section of lodging and a picnic shelter along the river, which Cowden says his family would likely tear down.
Dominion also has plans to place a water impoundment on the family’s land. It would be used to pump water out of the Cowpasture River and used to pressurize the pipeline.
“They claim that the impacts will be minimal, but that’s just impossible,” Cowden said. “It’s physically impossible to go through that river without doing damage, and that’s what scares us.”
(Photos by Lindsay Castleberry)
Cowden said there’s no amount of money that would justify this project.
“I moved here, and I want to run this business until the day I die,” he said. “I want to give it to my kids, so the whole issue of compensation is a weak attempt to buy people out, and disguise what they’re really doing.”
The Cowdens met with various groups, such as the Sierra Club, to learn more about the project.
“You realize how powerful this thing really is and how small you feel,” Cowden said. “That right away helped us, to know that our neighbors were going to fight it with us, and it wasn’t just us against Dominion.”
Back in Nelson County, Hoffman says she’ll also fight to protect her property and her family’s heritage.
“My home, as I said, was built in 1771,” she said. “I have a revolutionary soldier buried in the garden; I have one confederate soldier buried on top of the hill. It is going through the pass I have in the hill where the pre-historic Indians made the pointers for their arrows.”
Hoffman is holding tight to the last tangible connection she has left with her family.
“I just loved being here in the country,” she said. “I loved the cows, and I loved the chickens and the pigs, and there were dogs, and a lot of land to run around in. And just the freedom of being here on the farm is what I loved.”
Rose, who is bracing for the construction of a compressor station and telecommunications tower in Buckingham County, says she’ll miss the simple pleasures that accompany life in rural Virginia.
“Lives and home values are being sacrificed for this project,” she said. “Our lives count. Our lives should not be sacrificed.”