Virginia’s Director of Natural Resources has warned Dominion that state regulators will not be swayed by company requests or suggestions when deciding whether to issue permits for construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. That’s good news for pipeline opponents, but they say Dominion is using other questionable tactics at the local level as Sandy Hausman reports.
Charlie Spatz is with a non-profit in Northern Virginia called the Climate Investigations Center. He’s heard about public hearings In Buckingham County that attracted large crowds to speak against the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.
“Buckingham County is the site of a 57,000 horsepower compressor station, and I’ve heard concerns about noise levels and pollution,” he says.
And when the board of supervisors voted unanimously to allow the project, Spatz heard complaints from residents who wondered how that was possible.
Here, for example, is Pastor Paul Wilson, whose church sits near the pipeline’s proposed path. He attended a public hearing and left feeling angry.
“I guess over a hundred people spoke against the pipeline," he recalls. " The board of supervisors and the people on the planning commission – they never listened to us. It was obvious from the very beginning that Dominion manipulates the whole process!”
So Spatz sent a Freedom of Information Act request to the county, asking for all correspondence with Dominion. What he found was a cordial relationship between local officials, the town’s largest employer, Kyanite Mining, and Dominion.
As early as June of 2015, Dominion was meeting with Buckingham officials at Kyanite to plan for the pipeline, followed by lunch at a local restaurant. The firm, which mines industrial minerals, could profit from a cheap supply of natural gas, and Pastor Wilson says it looks the like Kyanite will get that.
“Dominion has promised that they would give the county a tap," Wilson says. " A tap costs five to six million dollars.”
It’s not clear who will pay for that connection, but Chad Oba, who heads a group opposed to the pipeline in Buckingham, says it’s clear that elected officials were influenced by Dominion’s team of professional persuaders.
“You know they put these people in these positions to convince people that we’re on your side, we’re good neighbors, we want the best for you, and they get schmoozed,” she says.
Environmentalist Charlie Spatz’ FOIA request also revealed a member of the county board doing a favor for Dominion, which was hoping for approval from the Virginia Outdoors Foundation to build its pipeline across ten properties in permanent conservation easement. He reads from a letter to Supervisor Donnie Bryan from Dominion’s manager of external affairs:
“The Virginia Outdoors Foundation staff indicated that it would be helpful to hear from some of the localities to better understand the need for the project.”
To make life easy for Bryan, Dominion had written a letter for him in support of the pipeline. He was asked to put it on county letterhead and sign it. Then, Dominion would swing by to pick it up in time for the public hearing. Company spokesman Aaron Ruby sees nothing wrong with that.
“These leaders and public officials have supported the project because they believe it’s important for the economic and environmental future of the region, and of course we’ve collaborated with them in their efforts," he says. "Every company and corporation involved in the political process works with their elected officials to achieve shared goals. That’s how the political process works.”
Maybe so, says Andy Wicks, but that doesn’t make it right. Wicks heads the Olsson Center for Applied Ethics at UVA’s Darden School of Business, and he says public officials shouldn’t be signing letters written by corporations seeking favors.
“They’re supposed to be representing us.”
And when things like this happens, he adds, people begin to wonder – is this public official being paid off in some way? What benefit will he get for doing this favor?
“They’re busy, just like everybody else, but when you take shortcuts like this, it invites the kinds of questions that you’re asking, and I think they’re legitimate to be raised," he explains. "On the one hand there's nothing overtly wrong with sharing a letter and saying, 'If you believe in this letter, communicate it with somebody else.' On the other hand, why would they not themselves just send this letter. Why do they need this intermediary? It's absolutely fine for them to take steps, but they should write what they believe. That's why they're being elected."
The Virginia Outdoors Foundation had no comment on the fact that Dominion wrote a letter on behalf of a Buckingham supervisor but it got hundreds of notes opposing the pipeline – most of them form letters, presumably drafted by environmental groups. At Dominion, Aaron Ruby says that proves his point.
“Every company and organization that’s involved in the political process does this,” he says.
But Charlie Spatz thinks it’s different when Dominion asks politicians to sign a letter it’s written.
“What we’ve seen here is nothing like a non-profit group organizing its members to get a message to elected officials. Dominion is a private, a for-profit corporation worth billions of dollars, that needs no help getting its voice heard,” he says.
We called Buckingham Supervisor Donnie Bryan several times to ask about the letter Dominion wrote on his behalf. He did not get back to us, and no organization in Virginia tracks campaign contributions for county elections, but Dominion has something called the Atlantic Coast Pipeline Community Investment Program which gives away hundreds of thousands of dollars each year.
“We want to be a good corporate citizen," says Dominion's Aaron Ruby. "We want to contribute positively to all of the communities where we do business.”
Already, the program has given $10,000 to the Boys and Girls Club of Buckingham, and the firm has been known to give money to other cooperative communities through the Dominion Foundation, which gives away $20 million a year.