Atlantic Coast Pipeline opponents say state ignored minorities' civil rights

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline will carry natural gas through eight N.C. counties when it is completed in 2020, but a federal court ruling could delay construction for months.
The Atlantic Coast Pipeline will carry natural gas through eight N.C. counties when it is completed in 2020, but a federal court ruling could delay construction for months. .

A coalition of environmental organizations opposed to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline filed a complaint Tuesday claiming Gov. Roy Cooper's administration failed to protect residents' civil rights when it issued permits for the project.

The environmentalists are calling on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's civil rights division to require the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality to rescind the permits and conduct a more thorough analysis.

Duke Energy, which is one of the partners in the pipeline project, disputes the allegations.

The complaint is "rife with misinformation and reflects basic misinterpretation of complex and thoughtful federal and state processes," Duke spokeswoman Tammie McGee said in an email.

Megan Thorpe, communications director for the state environmental agency, defended state regulators.

"DEQ conducted an extensive public outreach in communities along the ACP route," Thorpe emailed. "The public input we received allowed us to strengthen our decisions within the scope of our authority."

The complaint is the latest legal tactic environmental groups have used to stop or delay the interstate pipeline. It comes in the form of a letter to the EPA by an attorney for 13 groups from seven counties where the natural gas pipeline is planned. The public-interest groups allege the state failed to consider the disproportionate impact the pipeline will have on communities where a large number of people of color live.

They contend the state regulators relied on a flawed analysis conducted by the Atlantic Coast Pipeline that took too narrow of an approach. The state considered the demographics of those who would live within one mile of the pipeline compared to the rest of the county. A broader comparison, such as statewide, would show a more disproportionate impact on people of that color, they say.

"I think it raises one of the fundamental questions with the pipeline," said John Runkle, the Chapel Hill attorney representing the environmental groups. "It will have a tremendous impact on families along the route. Until you’ve looked at them in terms of race and color, you haven’t done an analysis."

The civil rights compliance office in the EPA has the authority to investigate complaints and take action under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits recipients of federal funding from discriminating on the basis of race, color or national origin. According to the complaint, North Carolina state agencies received more than $71 million from the EPA in the latest fiscal year.

The project has been vetted over more than three years, one of the most thorough reviews ever for a project of this scope, McGee said. That should reassure those who live near the pipeline that their concerns have been taken into account, she said.

Communities along the path of the pipeline will reap millions of dollars in property taxes to use for schools, hospitals and other services, Duke says.

"We view the ACP as restoring a level playing field to eastern North Carolina and allowing it to compete with the rest of the state and other southeastern states," McGee said. "Mostly importantly, the pipeline will actually help restore social justice, providing opportunity and paving the way for prosperity for some of the most disadvantaged counties in North Carolina."

The 600-mile pipeline is being built by an energy consortium led by Duke Energy and Dominion Resources. It will carry fracked natural gas from Pennsylvania and West Virginia into North Carolina to provide fuel for power plants, business and residential customers.

DEQ divisions issued permits for the pipeline earlier this year. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approved the pipeline project in October.

Craig Jarvis: 919-829-4576, @CraigJ_NandO