The Virginia Senate’s Commerce and Labor Committee is Exhibit A in a case which exemplifies the influence of Dominion on the Virginia General Assembly. In its Committee hearing Monday, lawmakers first questioned whether Dominion Transmission is a “public service corporation” under Virginia law, during a brief discussion regarding SB 1166, which would have required Dominion to open its books if they used eminent domain in its projects.
Friends of Nelson President Joanna Salidis, during her remarks, held up Code Section 56-49, even offered copies to the Senators, and said if Dominion Transmission is not a public service corporation, then why are we here, why are they getting these special carve outs only utilities receive? Attorney Henry “Hank” Howell 111 told the Committee during his remarks that these companies are not public service corporations. SB1166 was referred to a committee studying the FOIA statute.
About 50 landowners and community activists (some who brought teenage children) from Nelson, Buckingham, and Augusta Counties made the trek to Richmond Monday morning to lobby all 40 senators regarding SB 1338, which would repeal a law Senator Frank Wagner introduced in 2004, known as the Wagner Act. Code Section 56-49.01 purportedly allows natural gas companies to send “survey” crews onto private property to complete surveys, borings, etc. without landowner permission. There is no time limit for these “surveys,” nor notification of a specific date to be given the landowner for when these teams of contractors will appear on their private property. This special exception is allowed only to natural gas companies and no other “public service companies” in Virginia.
The citizen lobbyists had previously set up morning appointments with legislators. When they arrived, they broke up into eight groups to ensure contact and discussion with each Senator. They ate lunch and then made their way to Senate Room B where the hearing was scheduled to begin at 1 pm.
After a lengthy two-plus-hour delay because the Senators were in session in the Capitol, the hearing finally began. Senators continued to saunter in after the hearing had been gaveled into session by Chair Senator John Watkins. Watkins, when meeting with one citizen lobbying group Monday morning said, “We need electricity, this isn’t going to happen,” referring to the repeal of SB 1338.
Senators Emmett Hanger and Creigh Deeds presented the bills, though Senator Deeds had to leave for another Committee hearing. Landowners, activists and lawyers were given the opportunity to present their arguments to the Committee members. As that testimony was given, Committee members “listened” while talking amongst themselves, or sitting in their chairs with their heads down while texting or, as in the case of Senator Dick Saslaw, leaving the dais to take a phone call. The last of the Committee members to arrive was Senator Frank Wagner, the author of Code Section 56-49.01.
None of this activity was missed by landowners and community activists. The lack of proper decorum by the Senators and their obvious disregard for the grievances being brought before them during the hearing set the stage for what was to be the most disgusting testimony of how our government is being influenced by corporate contributions to our lawmakers, while the legitimate concerns of citizens are thrown out with the wash water.
After the Committee “heard” landowner concerns, Senator Obensain said he empathized with the landowners because he had recently received a letter from one of the other pipeline companies and therefore would not vote because it would be a conflict of interest. Senator Watkins sang the same old tune landowners and activists have heard before… the landowners and Dominion just needed to get together and talk it out. Nevermind the Committee had just heard Buckingham landowner and cattle farmer, Carlos Arostegui, clearly state that he had simply asked Dominion to give him 15 days notice so he could adjust his cattle grazing plan to accommodate their survey. Dominion answered his request by filing a lawsuit against him!
Martha Smith, the daughter of 82-year-old Nelson farmer, John Ed Purvis, explained to the Committee that one of Dominion’s teams of surveyors would dig 1-foot square holes every 50 feet through a mile of her father’s pasture where cattle graze, as well as on the forested mountain slopes. Mr. Purvis had two meetings with Dominion representatives on his property. The answers to his questions were different, depending on which representative to whom he spoke. Mr. Purvis decided he couldn’t trust them, so now he and his wife are being sued.
Carlos Arostegui pleaded with the Committee that by repealing SB 1338, Dominion would have to talk to landowners instead of ramming the pipeline down their throats which is Dominion’s current modus operandi. But Senator Watkins just thinks landowners and Dominion should just get together and talk it out.
The Committee’s answer to legitimate landowner concerns and grievances was to ignore the question when Chair Watkins asked for a motion on SB 1338. Therefore, SB 1338 died in the Commerce and Labor Committee. Landowner Heidi Cochran said, “We came here with facts. I explained to them how it (the proposed ACP) impacted my family and home. This pipeline will come within 100′ of my house when the explosion zone is at least 1,100 feet. They disrespected us by not even making a motion and taking a vote. We came here with respect, and they gave us none.”
Sharon Ponton, an organizer with anti-pipeline group, Free Nelson, called them cowards saying, “They were afraid to have recorded votes in favor of their big dollar contributor, Dominion.”
Senator Jeff McWaters sought out the group in the lobby after the Committees non-action telling them not to give up the fight. “I want you to understand how it works up here. I want you to try to strike some kind of balance. Don’t be discouraged. Keep fighting your fight.” Amy Webb replied, “How can we be encouraged by what just happened? They wouldn’t even make a motion?” Former Navy Captain and landowner Craig Vanderhoef recalled the old adage, “It was like watching sausage being made. I am disappointed our elected officials decided to do nothing instead of making a motion and recording their votes.”
A side note: the Koch Brothers-funded group, Americans for Prosperity, also had a presence at the General Assembly on Monday. Several from this group confronted two of the teenagers who had traveled to Richmond with the Nelson contingent. Seventeen-year-old Chris Ponton and 15-year-old LeAnne Johnson were wearing “no pipeline” shirts and buttons, and the AFP folks didn’t agree with their position. LeAnne Johnson is the niece of landowners John and Joana Clarkson, and Chris Ponton is the son of Free Nelson organizer, Sharon Ponton. Chris Ponton is also a volunteer firefighter, with state certifications in firefighting and hazmat. When engaged by an elderly bearded man, Ponton explained his safety concerns about having a 42″ natural gas pipeline running for 25 miles through rural Nelson County, where emergency services are volunteer and fire companies have limited equipment. The bearded AFP member sarcastically replied, “So you want to go back to horse and buggy days?” After a second encounter in an elevator with members of the AFP group, Ponton and Johnson were told they were just “stupid kids.” Later that afternoon a GA staffer who must have overheard one of the conversations approached Ponton and his mother saying Ponton had done a great job explaining his concerns regarding the pipeline.