Juggling umbrellas in the afternoon rain, 16 Johnston County landowners joined hands Tuesday to protest a proposed natural gas pipeline.
Francine Stephenson gathered the group on her family’s land, which falls in the planned pathway of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. If approved by federal regulators, the $5 billion project would lay 550 miles of underground pipe in West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina, including the Stephenson land on Oak Forest Road south of Four Oaks.
While she doubts opponents can stop the pipeline, Stephenson said she wanted to show the unity of those who oppose the project. Stephenson lives in Clayton nowadays, but she still cherishes the family farm and wants to preserve it for future generations, she said.
Standing at the site of the protest, Stephenson could point to the pecan tree under which she was born.
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“It’s a very sad time,” she said. “We know we’re up against an obstacle that we can’t fight, but it still feels good to express our voices.”
Like many of the demonstrators, Stephenson said she objects most to the government using eminent domain to take her land for a private company. Federal rules allow the taking of land for natural gas pipelines through a “certificate of public necessity and convenience.”
Dominion – the Virginia-based energy company that plans to build and operate the Atlantic Coast Pipeline – will apply for a certificate later this summer, according to Dominion’s website for the project. The company expects to get the green light next summer, spend two years in construction and have the pipeline transporting natural gas by the end of 2018. Upon completion, Dominion, Duke Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas and AGL Resources would jointly own the pipeline.
With the move toward renewable energy, Stephenson said she sees no “public necessity” for the pipeline. Rather than taking new land, she said, natural gas companies should focus on fixing the nation’s existing infrastructure, which leaks about 24 percent of what it pipes.
Easements through people’s property would last forever, Stephenson said, and the terms often restrict landowners from building or farming on top of the pipe. Dominion could also sell those rights one day, she said, meaning a new company could transport who-knows-what through the pipe.
“It’s legal, but it’s not just,” Stephenson said.
Jimmy Casey, who has a farm just east of Smithfield, said the pipeline would disrupt his crop production. Casey brought photos from a neighbor’s farm, where one natural gas line was installed 20 years ago and a second was buried 15 years later.
The photos showed a soybean field that the newer pipeline cuts through. Far fewer plants grow above the pipe, he said, and those that do reach just a third of their natural height. The ground above the older pipeline, Casey said, has only recently started to yield crops.
The pipeline will decrease property values, Teresa Rhodes said, and she doubts it will create as many jobs as promised. Rhodes shared Casey’s concerns about the pipeline reducing the fertility of the land it crosses.
“Farmers have a hard enough time as it is,” she said.
The protest in Johnston was one of many demonstrations across North Carolina and a half-dozen other states on Tuesday, said Therese Vick of the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League. In North Carolina, several gatherings took place along the proposed path of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which would roughly track Interstate 95 from Virginia and stop just short of the South Carolina border.
The activists used social media to coordinate their protests, and using the hashtag #HandsAcrossOurLand, each group posted to social media a photo of demonstrators holding hands. Most also held up signs bearing the “Hands Across Our Land” slogan, and Johnston was no exception thanks to Vick, who brought a big yellow banner.
Among other reasons, Vick said, the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League opposes the pipeline because it would lead to more exploration for natural gas using hydraulic fracturing, known commonly as fracking. The group also stands against corporations being able to take private land in order to boost their bottom lines, she said.
“That’s not fair, it’s not just, and it can terribly disrupt agricultural land,” Vick said.