State regulators have not yet approved construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, although they have signed off on removal of trees along its proposed path. More than 160 people have volunteered to keep an eye on crews, and those monitors are already mobilizing and calling attention to possible violations in three counties.
With the help of volunteer pilots and drones, the Pipeline Compliance/ Surveillance Initiative or CSI has been keeping watch around the Wintergreen Resort and Sherando Lake. Spokesman David Sligh studied high resolution aerial images and thought he saw unauthorized construction.
“We’ve seen some activity from our aerial surveillance where it appears there’s been heavy equipment used," he says. "There has been kind of a parking area, staging area with timber matting, probably some temporary bridges, and we’re not absolutely certain, but we believe that activity may have exceeded the company’s approvals at this time."
Dominion spokesman Aaron Ruby says he respects Sligh and other CSI monitors, but in this case they’re wrong.
“What we’re doing on this property in Augusta County is performing geologic surveys. Basically we’re taking core samples of the underlying geology so that we can prepare for construction later this spring or summer,” he explains.
Ruby admits gravel was added to an access road, but says there’s no new bridges.
“That is not correct. It’s actually a culvert," he says. "The landowner built the culvert on the property and it was already there when we arrived to do the work. We did lay down some truck mats on the culvert to just provide some additional structural support.”
Ruby also dismisses the suggestion that Dominion is building a staging area, but CSI’s Rick Webb is not convinced.
“They’ve got bulldozers in there. They’ve got drill rigs in there. They’ve got other equipment," he says. "They’re moving timbers in and out. They’ve paved part of the access road that would go to the construction corridor, and they’ve put down timber matts for equipment. It looks like a staging area that they’ve created.”
He and Sligh met with officials from the National Forest Service and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. Those agencies promised to investigate. Meanwhile, DEQ has issued 15 notices of violation to Dominion for cutting trees along rivers and wetlands in Nelson and Buckingham Counties. That increases the risk of water pollution and could result in fines. Critics say fines are no big deal for builders – just a cost of doing business, but Aaron Ruby insists Dominion cares about the environment and will make every effort to follow state and federal regulations.
“Once we get to the peak of construction, like in the summer time, we’re going to have more than 1,300 environmental inspectors that we’ve hired who are going to be looking over our shoulder every step of the way through the construction process to make sure we’re complying with all the permits,” Ruby says.
Meanwhile, pipeline opponents were pleased to hear that Governor Ralph Northam had signed two bills allowing the state to shut down construction if it threatens water quality, but they were dismayed to learn that the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is asking for more time to cut down trees. The federal government required crews to stop in mid-March to accommodate migratory birds. Now, Dominion is asking the feds to allow another two months of work, promising to check all trees along a 60-mile route for nests and to protect those where birds are in residence. That story in our next report.