by Jonathan Sokolow, an attorney and activist from Reston, Virginia
In a massive show of force, more than 500 Virginians packed a standing-room-only hearing in Harrisonburg on Monday night, August 7, to protest Dominion Energy’s planned Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Farmers, landowners, mothers and community members from areas in the path of the proposed pipeline joined concerned citizens from as far away as Fairfax, Loudoun and Albemarle counties, as well as Southwest Virginia, to demand that the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and the State Water Control Board do a site by site review of the impact of construction and operation of the proposed pipeline, as required by Section 401 of the Clean Water Act. The hearing was the first of three public hearings on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline scheduled this week, in addition to two other hearings planned for the Mountain Valley Pipeline.
More than 130 people signed up to speak at the hearing, which lasted over four hours. At 10 pm, with more than 25 speakers still lined up to speak, Water Board member Heather Wood abruptly terminated the hearing, despite vocal protests. Wood stated that “we don’t have any more time,” an ironic end to a hearing at which virtually every speaker demanded that DEQ not rush the review process through but instead do what state law requires it to do – assess the impact this project would have on Virginia’s environment and waterways.
Speaker after speaker at the hearing implored DEQ and the State Water Board, appointed by the Governor, to “do your job” and protect the environment against the inevitable damage that would be caused to the more than 1,000 stream and river crossings that would be impacted by construction of the pipeline in some of the most pristine locations on the east coast. Farmers from rural counties whose springs and well water supplies would be destroyed by construction were joined by doctors and nurses who detailed for DEQ the adverse health effects of the chemicals used in extracting fracked gas and the chemicals that have been proven to leak from natural gas pipelines.
An elderly farmer in Bath County talked about the impact the pipeline would have on his 123 acre farm and told the Board “It’s gonna destroy everything I have.”
Many speakers pointed to the fact that karst, a water soluble limestone that is a dominant topographical feature in Augusta and other counties on the proposed pipeline route, allows for the flow of contamination and the creation of sinkholes. One landowner noted that she did some construction on her property and an hour later her neighbor’s well had been destroyed by mud. Another farmer testified that Dominion officials told him that the six springs on his property would be destroyed by construction of the pipeline and “you’re going to have to get your water elsewhere.”
Lee White, a Charlottesville resident, testified about the recent “Walking the Line into the Heart of Virginia,” a ten day, 150 walk along the pipelines’ proposed route to draw attention to its potential impact. White noted that he was wearing a “water protector” t-shirt but that he longed for the day that DEQ and the Water Board would do its job of protecting Virginia’s water so that he did not have to do so.
In one of the more dramatic moments at the hearing, a Board-certified surgeon urged state officials to consider the health effects of the proposed pipeline. He pointed to two recent peer-reviewed publications produced by Physicians for Social Responsibility that are “easily navigated” and voluminously footnoted” from more than 700 sources: a Compendium of Scientific, Medical and Media Findings Demonstrating Risks and Harms of Fracking and Too Dirty, Too Dangerous: Why Health Professionals Reject Natural Gas. Those two studies, together with the doctor’s full testimony, should be required reading for Dr. Ralph Northam, a pediatric neurologist, who has claimed repeatedly that “science should dictate” whether the pipelines are built. The doctor testified:
Physicians have turned their attention in the last couple of years to the dangers of fracking, the industry and the science behind it, which has a much larger literature of peer reviewed science than most people are aware of…Many of the chemicals used in fracking and liberated from the earth’s crust and released into our environment are toxic, radioactive and carcinogenic. They include things like arsenic, mercury, radon, benzene and methane and hundreds of others, Many are especially harmful to children and cause childhood leukemia in particular. Pipelines all over this country leak with astonishing and depressing regularity and the land and waters affected by these leaks will never return to normal in the lifetime of anyone in this room or their children or their grandchildren…
Summing up his testimony, the doctor stated, “the science is as clear as a mountain stream.”
A licensed professional engineer with 30 years’ experience in water quality management noted that erosion and sediment control plans have not been completed and that the impact of construction of the proposed pipeline on the state’s waters – which DEQ is required to review – cannot possibly be evaluated without completion of those studies. “It takes eight months to one-year average time to review these plans and that’s for a standard average site plan. These plans are much larger.”
Kay Ferguson, a pipeline activist from Albemarle County, testified that she has studied these pipelines and “what I see is a story of corruption. I understand that the DEQ is under a great deal of pressure politically and economically from Terry McAuliffe and Dominion to hurry this up and get it done before the election.” She asked that the Water Board members not succumb to the political pressure and noted that their determination would be a defining moment, but not only for the DEQ:
“This is a moment that is going to define the Democratic Party of Virginia if their leader sells us out to fossil fuel. DEQ and Terry McAuliffe will be defined by whether they are people who stood up and protected us against fossil fuel or whether they sold us out. Right now I feel sold, I feel that McAuliffe’s been bought and I’ve been sold and DEQ has abdicated its job and its responsibility. They are holding these hearings as quick as they can, they are a sham and you need to slow down.”
One speaker noted that Virginia’s own Hazard Mitigation Plan, which was drafted in 2013 – one year before Dominion announced its planned pipeline – directly warned about the risks of pipeline leaks. And she appears to be correct. The section of the Mitigation Plan dealing with the problem of Karst contains this damning statement under the heading Karst Risk to Energy Pipelines: “Pipeline infrastructure, underlain by karst terrain, can be damaged by a collapse in the supporting soil.” The Mitigation Plan’s discussion of flood risks elaborates on the specific risk posed to pipelines:
Transmission pipelines and supporting infrastructure are vulnerable to damage during flood events. Increased stream flow rates during flood events can erode banks at places where pipelines cross streams, potentially undermining the structural supports of the pipeline, and causing the pipeline to sag or break. Flood waters that inundate pipelines may also be carrying debris or watercraft which can impact the pipeline, resulting in damage. Damage to pipelines could result in spillage of the pipeline’s contents, potentially resulting in environmental and human health impacts.
Before the hearing, hundreds gathered outside to protest the fact that these hearings have been scheduled without first requiring Dominion to release detailed information regarding the impact that pipeline construction would have on the more than 1,000 waterway crossing proposed for the pipeline and, in particular, without completion of the soil and erosion surveys that are vital to determining the impact on the land and water. Organized by C’ville Rising and Walking the Line into the Heart of Virginia, pipeline opponents maintained that “This is not a hearing. This is a Robbery” and sang Sow’ Em on the Mountain, Reep ‘Em in the Valley, which is fast becoming the anthem of this growing movement to protect the water in Virginia.
Their hope, which everyone in Virginia should share, is that science, in fact, will dictate whether these pipelines are built. As taxpayers and voters, we are entitled to demand that state officials charged with protecting our environment and our water actually do their job.