Private pilots, drone operators to patrol Atlantic Coast Pipeline for violations

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. .

They plan to deploy private planes, send in the drones and paddle canoes to remote locations along the Atlantic Coast Pipeline that no outsider was intended to see.

An all-volunteer army of citizen scouts, now being recruited by environmentalist organizations under the name N.C. Pipeline Watch, will be assigned to patrol the construction that is about to begin in North Carolina on the 600-mile interstate natural gas pipeline and spot environmental violations that could lead to fines or work interruptions.

The Sierra Club and several North Carolina river keepers organizing the citizen patrols say that a similar effort in Virginia generated more than 150 reports of violations to regulators there, culminating in a decision five weeks ago by Mountain Valley Pipeline to temporarily halt construction, for several weeks, of that 303-mile project. That effort has involved about 50 volunteers this year, who have staged four airplane flights and 66 drone missions, Sierra Club spokesman Doug Jackson said.

Citizen patrols are an increasingly common strategy by environmental activists at a time that state oversight agencies are hobbled by budget cuts and don’t have enough inspectors to send out into the field, according to environmentalists. So activists form and train their own reconnaissance teams to collect potentially harmful data on large-scale farming operations, industrial mining sites and energy projects that the environmentalists oppose.

The monitoring activities parallel a half-dozen state and federal lawsuits the Sierra Club is waging in the group’s all-out bid to block the pipeline that’s now under development by a consortium led by Charlotte-based Duke Energy and Richmond, Virginia-based Dominion Energy.

“Pipeline monitoring groups like NC Pipeline Watch are popping up because Duke has proven it can’t be trusted to monitor its own operations, so the people feel they have to do it themselves,” Jackson said.

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The surveillance is planned against a background of concerns expressed in a December report by state security analysts that the Atlantic Coast Pipeline could become a target of “domestic terrorists” and “homegrown violent extremists” who could take advantage of legal gatherings to carry out attacks on equipment, public safety officers or pipeline employees. The field analysis report, prepared by the N.C. Information Sharing and Analysis Center and the U.S. Transportation Security Administration’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis, was first reported by N.C. Policy Watch.

Jackson said that the citizen-observers will not enter private property without permission and expect to work with landowners who feel they were forced to lease their land for the project or will have the pipeline running through their land as a result of an eminent domain court proceeding.

Citizen monitors are expected not to trespass or interfere with construction work.

“Obviously, it’s not safe for the public to be wandering around in a construction zone, whether it’s a high rise, industrial plant or highway that’s being built,” Duke Energy spokeswoman Tammie McGee said. “The same precautions would apply to pipeline construction.”

Today’s volunteer monitors are enhanced by new digital technologies, such as Geographic Information System mapping, hi-resolution cameras and, in a pinch, an iPhone. They will largely be looking for deficiencies in filtration systems, fences and other measures pipeline crews need to put in to limit erosion, silt and other damage to waterways during construction.

“The consequences of missing or improperly installed erosion control measures is polluted runoff carrying sediment to our streams,” Jackson said. “Too much sediment can be harmful to aquatic life.”

Nearly one-third of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline will cross eight counties in North Carolina after traversing West Virginia and Virginia.

“In that region in particular,” Jackson said, “freshwater mussels are particularly sensitive to this type of pollution.”

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“This is an enormous project,” said Forrest English, the Pamlico-Tar Riverkeeper, based in Washington, about 100 miles east of Raleigh. “Some of the challenges are going to be getting to the sites and getting access to observe.”

English was part of a small group that took a preliminary scoping flight, lasting 3 1/2 hours, along the pipeline route several weeks ago. Their pilot, Jack Lynch, expects to volunteer at least once a month piloting surveillance missions until the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is completed late next year. The retired General Dynamics engineer previously spent a decade flying missions for the Civil Air Patrol, an auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force that searches for downed airplanes.

Lynch has spent the past 12 years volunteering for SouthWings, an Asheville group that has a roster of 55 volunteer pilots throughout the Southeast who volunteer for environmental causes. Lynch said he’ll ferry pipeline monitors at about 1,000 feet altitude, cruising at 185 miles per hour, as they log their observations and operate cameras.

Lynch, 78, said his goal on the pipeline is “at least to get it stopped where there’s potential hazard.” He said he’s seen plenty of environmental damage as a volunteer pilot, including the state’s waterways visibly discolored by pollution from chicken waste and hog waste flowing from farms and into rivers.

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The Atlantic Coast Pipeline will carry natural gas from fracking operations in Pennsylvania and West Virginia to run Duke’s power plants in North Carolina and South Carolina and for household cooking and heating.

“We respect the right of every citizen to be involved in the process,” McGee said by email. “Ultimately we must be accountable to the state and federal agencies that permitted the project. The agencies have the knowledge and experience to oversee our work and ensure compliance with the law.”

The Sierra Club and river keeper organizations announced the formation of their pipeline monitoring effort Wednesday, a week after the Atlantic Coast Pipeline received its construction permit from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The Sierra Club denounced the federal permit as a “green light to pollution in our water.”

McGee suggested the volunteers are not necessary, noting that dozens of state and federal inspectors will be “looking over our shoulder throughout construction,” in addition to industry inspectors supplied by the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

“The Atlantic Coast Pipeline is receiving the most rigorous regulatory oversight of any energy infrastructure project in North Carolina history,” she said. “More than 1,300 environmental and safety inspectors will be closely monitoring every stage of construction. They are there to oversee our contractors every step of the way to make sure they’re protecting the environment and complying with regulatory requirements.”

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Bridget Munger, spokeswoman for the state Department of Environmental Quality, said the agency values the help of volunteers.

“With any project that has the potential for environmental impacts, we welcome input from the public to alert DEQ to potential violations,” she said. “The information can often assist staff in their efforts to monitor construction activities and respond more quickly when violations occur.”

Despite the presence of inspectors, the pipeline was cited by Virginia regulators in March for felling trees in buffer zones near stream and wetland crossings at 15 sites along the pipeline route. The violations were self-reported by Atlantic Coast Pipeline employees.

West Virginia regulators have also cited the pipeline for failing to maintain erosion control devices, which allowed sediment runoff to flow off the work site. Pipeline spokesman Aaron Ruby said the the company received the inspection report last week and has addressed all issues.

The West Virginia state agency’s June “inspection report was a result of two citizen complaints regarding the project,” the agency’s report said.

John Murawski: 919-829-8932, @johnmurawski