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Debate rages as Atlantic Coast Pipeline nears construction

Marvin Winstead stands in a field near where the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is slated to go through his farm in Nash County. Winstead has refused to sign an easement agreement with the pipeline developers.
Marvin Winstead stands in a field near where the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is slated to go through his farm in Nash County. Winstead has refused to sign an easement agreement with the pipeline developers. McClatchy

Marvin Winstead Jr. grew up on 70 acres of Nash County farmland, first purchased by his family in the 1930s.

“It’s not like land to some people, where it’s just a commodity, something they buy and sell for speculation or hopes of making a profit or whatever,” he said. “It’s part of the family livelihood, the family tradition.”

In nearby Johnston County, Tommy Naylor owns his own 42-acre farm. It’s been in his family for about 30 years, long enough for him remember when the construction of Interstate 40 cut the property in half.

About three years ago, both men received letters from Dominion Energy saying it intended to run the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a proposed 600-mile natural gas transmission line, through their farms. The controversial pipeline, which originates in West Virginia and would run through eight N.C. counties, crosses the land of about 2,900 people – 1,000 in North Carolina.

Both men were on hand Thursday at Nash Community College at a N.C. Department of Environmental Quality public hearing. The DEQ is deciding whether to issue the pipeline a permit – one of the final steps in the long approval process of the hotly contested pipeline.

Dominion offered Winstead, Naylor and the other landowners easement agreements – one-time payments so the company can construct and operate the underground pipeline on their land.

Naylor says he “did his homework” before deciding to sign the easement with Dominion. Winstead did some research of his own – and now is fighting the pipeline tooth and nail.

The proposed pipeline

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline, if approved, would originate in the heavily fracked and natural gas-rich Marcellus Shale in West Virginia. The proposed route runs south through eight N.C. counties – Northampton, Halifax, Nash, Wilson, Johnston, Sampson, Cumberland and Robeson.

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In this 2016 photo, Tommy Naylor stands next to a line of cut Fraser fir trees on his farm. He has signed an easement allowing the Atlantic Coast Pipeline to cut through his family farm. Abbie Bennett abennett@newsobserver.com

Advocates of the pipeline call it a vitally important infrastructure project that will provide energy for the region’s booming economic growth, new jobs and tax revenues for poor areas, and a cleaner-burning fuel alternative to coal.

The economic potential has attracted bipartisan support from state legislative leaders.

For Linwood Parker, the 14-year mayor of Four Oaks in Johnston County, the pipeline represents an opportunity for Eastern North Carolina to experience the economic success enjoyed farther west. Parker has seen the stagnation in eastern North Carolina. Seven of those eight counties where the pipeline will be built have higher poverty rates than the state average, and five have experienced population decline since 2010.

Parker co-wrote a letter with six other mayors in support of the pipeline.

“It is time for our young people to have a hopeful outlook on the future, where jobs and economic opportunities no longer pass us by,” read Parker’s letter.

In North Carolina, the natural gas will flow to Duke Energy, which plans to generate electricity at new gas-fired power plants. People and companies can pay to tap into the pipeline as well.

The pipeline approval process has lasted two and a half years. One of the final remaining hurdles, approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, was cleared Friday after FERC released a positive Environmental Impact Statement.

The N.C. DEQ is tasked with measuring the project’s impact on the 453 acres of wetlands and 326 streams and rivers the pipeline crosses in the state. A permitting decision is expected Sept. 18.

Dominion spokesman Aaron Ruby is optimistic that the project will be ready to break ground by the fall, after receiving final state and federal permits.

“It’s just crazy as hell”

But opponents of the pipeline say the environmental consequences are too severe and the project rationale too thin for the DEQ to approve the permit.

“It’s a huge impact on the waters and wetlands in Eastern North Carolina, and the way these pipelines are often permitted, these impacts just aren’t considered,” said Geoff Gisler, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center.

Questions persist about the justification for the project. Jim Warren, executive director of environmental group NC WARN, said scientists believe the Marcellus Shale’s natural gas is running out – rendering the pipeline useless in the long-term.

“It’s just crazy as hell for our society to be going along with this incredible expansion of fracked gas,” he said.

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A map of the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline route. The natural gas pipeline would cut through eight counties: Northampton, Halifax, Nash, Wilson, Johnston, Sampson, Cumberland and Robeson. Courtesy of the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality.

Warren said this calls into question the economic benefits of the pipeline, saying Dominion overstates both the amount of gas and the amount of jobs that will be brought to the region. And both he and Gisler say the pipeline isn’t even necessary in the first place, when energy companies could be investing in renewables.

Aaron Ruby, a Dominion spokesman, calls opposition groups “a vocal minority.”

But pipeline opponents were in the majority at the DEQ hearing on Thursday – wearing red, brandishing signs and presenting a laundry list of environmental and ethical concerns.

Barbara Exum was the first to address DEQ regulators and the about 120 in attendance in Rocky Mount. Her family farm is on the path of the pipeline in Wilson County. Exum said she is concerned that pollution could contaminate the county’s water supply, alluding to the water crisis in Flint, Mich.

Belinda Joyner said the pipeline targeted poor minority communities such as hers in Northampton County, whose residents are 58 percent black and 27 percent below the poverty line. And Marvin Richardson, a member of the Haliwa-Saponi Indian Tribe in Halifax County, said the pipeline could disturb American Indian historic sites.

“ACP sees us as poor, uneducated and not able to fight back,” Exum said. “They see our lives as a low risk for their business practice.”

Winning the lottery?

In the middle of the debate are landowners, who are divided on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

Ruby said about 70 percent of landowners across the three states have agreed to easements.

Naylor is part of that group. After initial trepidation, Naylor decided the pipeline won’t decrease the value of his property, affect his farming or hurt the local environment.

“It’s going to come,” he said. “I feel like it needs to be here, in this part of the state, for the economy to grow.”

Winstead said Dominion likens the easement payments to “winning the lottery without buying a ticket.” But he says he is in a losing situation.

If Winstead doesn’t sign, Dominion can take him to court, which can determine a fair payment under the state eminent domain laws. Winstead thinks these laws are unjust; Ruby said the use of eminent domain is an absolute last resort.

Initially, Winstead was most worried about the pipeline stunting crop growth. Then he found out that the pipeline would pass within 75 feet of his home. What would happen if a gas leak caused an explosion? “My house would be gone and I would be too,” he said.

For Winstead, there are just too many risks involved with the pipeline to justify its construction.

“These people are forcing a risk on me that I did not choose to take,” he said. “I refer to it as pipeline roulette. Sooner or later, there’s going to be some damage from this pipeline somewhere.”

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Be heard

The N.C. Department of Environmental Quality Division of Water Resources is accepting public comments on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, now through 5 p.m. Aug. 19.

Send written comments to: 401 Permitting, 1617 Mail Service Center, Raleigh, N.C., 27699. Written comments may also be submitted by email to PublicComments@ncdenr.gov. Be sure to include “ACP” in the email’s subject line.

To learn more about the DEQ permitting process, visit deq.nc.gov/news/hot-topics and select Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

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