Bay Journal

PA approves one natural gas pipeline; VA agency questions another

Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline nears construction, while Atlantic Coast project said to pose potential for spring contamination, harm to rare species

  • By Donna Morelli and William H. Funk on September 02, 2017
State hearing in Lancaster County on Atlantic Sunrise pipeline drew large crowd.  (Donna Morelli)

A controversial natural gas pipeline through a portion of Pennsylvania’s Bay watershed cleared a major hurdle last week, not long after another contentious pipeline proposed through Virginia drew expressions of concern from that state’s conservation agency.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) issued two permits on Wednesday to the builder of the Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline, bringing the controversial 180-mile pipeline project closer to breaking ground. The Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, meanwhile, expressed reservations about the potential impact of the 550-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline proposed to traverse that state.

The Pennsylvania project required permits to cross 388 streams, rivers and other water bodies and earth-moving permits for 3,700 acres of land, according to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which has already approved the project. The $3 billion pipeline would pass through 10 Pennsylvania counties from north of Scranton to south of Lancaster. It’s planned to bring gas from the Marcellus shale region in northeastern Pennsylvania to states to the south as well as to the liquefied natural gas export terminal in the Chesapeake Bay at Cove Point, MD.

“DEP undertook a thorough review of these permit applications, and factored in thousands of comments from Pennsylvania residents,” DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell said in a statement. “DEP’s technical staff reviewed the comments in evaluating the revised plans and final permit conditions that must be met throughout the construction process of this pipeline.”

But the Atlantic Sunrise project has met with fierce opposition in Lancaster County, where at least 1,000 residents have joined a grassroots group, Lancaster Against Pipelines, and vowed to put their bodies between the bulldozers and the land once construction starts.  Group members have attended public meetings and staged protests, and a few have been arrested.

“We didn’t hold out too much hope that DEP would do its job and protect the environment,” said Malinda Clatterbuck, a co-founder of the group. “And it’s not going to change until masses of people stand up and say you cannot do this.”

In August, a federal judge gave the company the go-ahead to use eminent domain to seize land from five holdout landowners, including the Adorers of the Blood of Christ, an order of Catholic Nuns who say their mission is to protect the earth. The nuns have erected a chapel on their land in the path of the pipeline and were hoping the court would decide in their favor to protect their religious freedom.

Williams can begin construction as soon as it receives an air-quality permit for construction in Lancaster, and a formal notice to proceed from FERC, said William’s spokesman, Christopher Stockton. The pipeline is expected to be fully operating by mid-2018.

The DEP is requiring Williams, and the operator of the pipeline, Transcontinental Gas Pipeline Company, to adhere to new state rules meant to protect private drinking water wells.  The new requirements were imposed in August in response to contamination of 15 families’ wells by construction of another Pennsylvania pipeline, the Sunoco Mariner 2.

“Transco is required to implement new protocols for alerting homeowners of activities near their homes and water supplies,” McDonnell said. “In addition, Transco must offer to pre-test private water supplies along the pipeline route so that any impacts from construction can be quickly identified and remediated.”

In Virginia, the state’s Department of Conservation and Recreation wrote FERC Aug. 21 calling for a significant detour in the Atlantic Coast Pipeline to avoid areas prone to ground-water contamination, and urging additional surveys along the project’s path to avoid impacts to rare plants and animals.

The conservation agency’s stance appears to differ with that of its sister agency, the Department of Environmental Quality, which has declared it has “reasonable assurance” the Atlantic Coast Pipeline can be built without harming water quality in the state.

Under the federal Clean Water Act, Virginia’s DEQ must certify that the 42-inch diameter pipeline meets state water quality standards before construction can begin. It is reviewing comments received on the project and expects to make a recommendation this fall to the State Water Control Board on whether to permit it.

Opponents of the project say they’re heartened that at least one state agency has expressed reservations about the controversial project.

“The DCR is explicit in stating that the current route threatens springs and water supplies,’’ said Rick Webb, with the Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition. He said the conservation agency’s stance “directly contradicts” state regulators’ assurance that water resources will be protected.

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline has been contentious since it was announced in September 2014 by Gov. Terry McAuliffe, with officials from Richmond-based Dominion Energy at his side. Environmentalists concerned about the ecological and climate impacts of the project have been joined in opposition by some rural landowners, who object to the law allowing the company to take private property for the pipeline over the owners’ objections.

The FERC approved a final environmental impact statement for the project on July 21, finding the construction posed no unmanageable risks of harm to air, water and wildlife habitat. The same day, the U.S. Forest Service also issued a permit for Dominion to build the pipeline through the George Washington National Forest.

Opponents view the state’s review of water-quality impacts as a last best chance to derail the $5.1 billion project. Hundreds of streams and other waterways would be impacted by the proposed route, which stretches from West Virginia to North Carolina. 

The state conservation agency’s letter expresses concern over laying the pipeline through mountains underlain by karst, a porous, fractured limestone through which water and air pass quickly.  The agency urged rerouting 12 to 18 miles of the pipeline, saying the current route was likely to result in contamination of nearby springs.

If a gas leak were to occur in a karst zone, contamination of the groundwater would be immediate and far-reaching, and would impact the area’s freshwater springs, “many of which are used for agricultural and/or domestic water supply purposes,” according to the DCR letter.

The department also reiterated its concern about rare and declining species, including salamanders, bats, fish, mussels, and most importantly the rusty-patched bumblebee. The wild bee was added to the federal endangered species list earlier this year. DCR urged additional surveys to ensure compliance with the protections offered rare plants and animals under the Endangered Species Act. The agency further identified three stream areas along the pipeline’s route that it said harbor rare plants, animals or communities; it called for new or enhanced surveys to assess the risks to these sensitive areas and the need to change the pipeline’s route.

DEQ spokeswoman Ann Regn said the state regulatory agency is “coordinating closely” with the Department of Conservation and Recreation on its concerns about the project’s routing through karst topography. Dominion did not respond to requests for comment.

About William H. Funk
William H. (Bill) Funk is a freelance environmental journalist whose work for the Bay Journal centers on wildlife, forestry, rivers, farming and other land use issues in the Allegheny and Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah Valley. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).
Read more articles by William H. Funk
About Donna Morelli
Donna Morelli is a staff writer for the Bay Journal based in Harrisburg. She's the former director of the Pennsylvania office of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).
Read more articles by Donna Morelli


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Jacob Humm on September 05, 2017:

I don't understand how the acquisition of land through eminent domain is legal here, because I don't understand how laying down a pipeline owned by a private company is considered "public use". Can anyone help me with this?

William H. Funk on September 05, 2017:

Mr. Humm, Thanks for your comment. Under Virginia Code Sec. 56-49, public utilities (businesses providing basic services) are given the power of eminent domain--the right to condemn private property--so long as the condemnation is for a "public use" approved by the State Corporation Commission. Under VA Code Sec. 56-265.2:1(A), the SCC has to consider environmental and public safety issues as well as those related to economic development. On July 13, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled against an Augusta County landowner, Hazel Palmer, whose land had been in her family since 1880 and who had contested Dominion's right to condemn her property for the ACP. Even though a 2012 amendment to the Virginia constitution proclaimed "that the General Assembly shall pass no law whereby private property, the right to which is fundamental, shall be damaged or taken except for public use," and even though Dominion is technically a "foreign body" as it's based in Delaware, the court ruled that "foreign natural gas companies that do business within the commonwealth," such as Dominion, have carte blanche to condemn property against the will of the landowner. What Jefferson or Madison would have made of this curious aspect of Virginia law is I think obvious. Thanks again, --Bill--

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