Pipeline a boon or bust?

DEP hosts stormwater permit hearing in Buckhannon

TENNERTON — The question remains the same — will the Atlantic Coast Pipeline be a boon or a bust for local residents, businesses and communities?

Speakers at a public hearing hosted by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection debated that issue for nearly two hours at Buckhannon-Upshur High School Monday evening. Monday’s hearing gave proponents of — and opponents to — construction of the 42-inch natural gas pipeline an opportunity to comment on whether they think the DEP should issue an oil and gas construction stormwater general permit.

However, comments often turned back to the basic question of whether or not ACP should be built in the first place. The permit’s purpose is to regulate the discharge of stormwater runoff resulting from oil and gas related construction activities. If issued to Atlantic Coast Pipeline and Dominion Energy, the stormwater construction permit would authorize discharges of stormwater associated with pipeline construction to empty into West Virginia’s waters, according to the DEP’s website.

While supporters of the pipeline pointed to the creation of jobs and economic development growth, opponents cited concerns about water contamination, the future of tourism in the Mountain State and the affect out-of-state workers will have on community life.

Anne Blankenship, director of the West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association, said the stormwater permit should be issued because it goes above and beyond regulatory requirements.

“This permit contains requirements that other states may not impose and mandates the same full protection the EPA construction stormwater permits general water permits do on non-pipeline projects,” Blankenship said. “In addition to being protective of our waters, this permit will be a tremendous boost for our state both in terms of making our rich natural gas supplies extracted in West Virginia more available to growing energy markets in the Southeast and in terms of creating thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars of economic activity during its construction phase.”

Other pro-pipeline speakers said they were sure Dominion Energy ­— which will be the primary owner and operator of the pipeline — would construct and run the pipeline in a responsible manner.

Larry Cavallo, a former Dominion employee, said the company prioritizes safety and the environment.

“I have seen firsthand the importance Dominion places on safety and environmental stewardship,” Cavallo said. “Those core values are deeply ingrained in the culture and they permeate the daily thought process of every Dominion employee. I’m certain that Dominion has the mindset, the experience and the expertise to build this pipeline the right way — safely and with minimal impact on the environment.”

Jamie Metz, the director of the Harrison County Economic Development Corporation, called Dominion “a great corporate citizen” and said the pipeline will reverse the outmigration of young people from West Virginia to other states to find well-paying jobs.

“Outside companies are looking to come to West Virginia because of the economic bubble they see forming here,” Metz said, noting that young people have been leaving the state in increasing numbers for the last 15 years. “This could be an opportunity for many of our young people that have had to leave West Virginia to come back to good quality jobs that will provide a great impact for them and their families.”

Sherry Rogers, executive director of the Lewis County Chamber of Commerce, also praised Dominion.

“Dominion has always been an excellent steward and neighbor in this county by supporting our local businesses and our educational systems,” Rogers remarked. “They employ our residents and Dominion employees live where they are employed.”

But some speakers, like Justin Raines, weren’t convinced.

Describing himself as a sixth-generation West Virginian, Raines said he’d worked in the oil and natural gas industry for more than a decade.

“I’ve heard a lot of talk about jobs, jobs, jobs,” Raines said. “I don’t know if you have ever seen a staging area for one of these pipelines … [At] the RV courts, the license plates there don’t say West Virginia. They say Pennsylvania, they say Louisiana, they say Alabama, Texas and Oklahoma.

“They’re going to be here for about eight months maybe, and then they’re gone and we’re left with the destruction they’ve left behind.”

Raines said many of the same people present Monday had attended a July 31 public hearing, also held at B-UHS, on the issuance of a Section 401 Water Quality Certification permit. The Section 401 permit is designed to make sure a construction project doesn’t violate the state’s water quality standards. On Dec. 6, the DEP announced its decision to waive the permit.

“[At the July 31 hearing], we made some genuine suggestions to the DEP about how to pursue this in an environmentally safe manner,”  Raines said, pausing to crumple up a piece of paper, “and what did they do? That’s what happened to all those comments. They threw that all in the trash. Nothing’s going to change until (DEP cabinet secretary) Austin Caperton is out of there.”

Following Monday’s hearing, DEP public information officer Jake Glance gave media outlets a press release claiming that the DEP’s decision to waive the Section 401 permit wouldn’t result in the ACP being less stringently regulated. According to the release, it will still be subject to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nationwide Section 404 permit, which mimics the state’s 401 certification.

Andrew Phipps, a Buckhannon resident, agreed with Raines’ sentiments, likening the relationship between West Virginia and the natural gas industry to an abusive, toxic relationship.

“[Energy industry officials] say we need them and most people jump on board, but like an abusive parent, they destroy everything that might lead to the ones they abuse having better prospects,” Phipps said. “What I’m talking about here is land, water and people. When this industry fades, when clean energy technology becomes too cheap for them to compete with, we’ll be left with nothing here, as usual. It’s always the same with the extraction industries.”

Phipps said tourists and people thinking of relocating to West Virginia won’t want to come to a wasteland ravaged by fracking — and neither will businesses.

“Who’s going to come here when fracking makes our land and water unsafe? Who’s going to want to bring their kids here?” Phipps questioned.

Several speakers offered more concrete suggestions to tighten the proposed stormwater construction permit, if issued.

Abigail Benjamin, a locally practicing environmental attorney, said she’s opposed to the permit being issued because of a lack of stormwater monitoring during construction.

“I have heard a lot of people talk about environmental protection, and one of the things that stuns me, this permit ­— there is no monitoring activities associated with this permit at this time,” Benjamin said. “I’m just going to repeat that to you: there are no monitoring activities when construction is going on.”

Benjamin said that while she appreciates environmental protection standards being applied to the project, she believes DEP should mandate that water monitoring be conducted during construction.

And Blaise Hollot, a WVU educated engineer, said he was “deeply troubled” that DEP wasn’t working harder to protect residents, land and property from damage associated with stormwater runoff. Hollot said best management practices would likely fail, and in that event, the extraction industry should be required to contribute to an emergency escrow fund. The money in the account would be doled out to affected residents and businesses in the event of a pipeline failure or stormwater-related flooding.

“Another (mitigation) measure is the establishment of continuous monitoring of water quality and stormwater mitigation measures over streams which will be crossed,” Hollot said.

One speaker opposed to the ACP said he was wary of the societal dangers pipeline construction would attract.

Calling West Virginia a “national sacrifice zone,” Michael Kline questioned the wisdom of bringing in out-of-state workers.

“Not only will they bring sections of pipe, they will bring crews of young, single predatory workers with them — all young men are predators — and during their hours off, they will be stalking our gymnasiums, out football fields, the aisles of Walmart looking for entertainment with our young girls and young women,” Kline surmised. “This is the character of pipeline crews… it’s a terrifying thing to think about.

“And there’s no easy way to talk about this, like saying, ‘Dominion is a reliable company,’” Kline continued. “Have we all drank the Kool-Aid? What’s going on here?”

Yet, a pipeline supporter, Ryan Hauser, of J.F. Allen Company, said infrastructure projects that might seem unnecessary often become more critical as time passes.

“Our organization, the J.F. Allen Company, has created hundreds of miles of roads and highways since our inception in the 1940s,” Hauser said. “The general public … travel these roads we built without a second thought to the investment that it took many decades ago. Infrastructure, when done properly, enhances quality of life.”

Hauser said unless someone can cite a “major legitimate concern” that the DEP needs to address, issuance of the stormwater permit and construction of ACP should proceed as planned.

In fact, the stormwater permit is one of the last obstacles ACP and Dominion Energy — which will be the primary owner and operator of the pipeline — must clear prior to construction, which is slated to begin next year. ACP will extend about 600 miles from Harrison County, West Virginia to Greensville County, Virginia, before heading south into eastern North Carolina, where it will end in Robeson County.

A second hearing on the stormwater construction permit will take place at 6 p.m. Thursday at Pocahontas County High School. The DEP is accepting comments on the permit through Dec. 31, 2017, Glance said.

“We are required to address all concerns and comments in our decision [about the permit],” Glance said Tuesday.

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