The head of the Department of Environmental Quality was appointed by Governor Terry McAuliffe, a strong supporter of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Under the Clean Water Act, DEQ could block construction of the pipeline if it felt the quality of our water would be damaged, but as Sandy Hausman reports, the agency may not have the will to do that.
David Sligh can trace his family back to revolutionary times in Virginia. One of his ancestors is buried down the road from Reed’s Gap, just off the Blue Ridge Parkway. He sits on a rock overlooking the valley and ponders plans for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.
“Somewhere below us Dominion says they’re going to drill through the Blue Ridge Mountain 4,500 feet.”
He’s convinced that construction here and all along the 600-mile route will cause long-term damage to the environment.
“It’s going to take huge cranes and they can’t sit on the side of the mountain. They have to dig out benches to sit on, and it will cause huge amounts of erosion and scars on the mountain itself. You’re going to have these huge work areas that are scars, you’re going to have access roads, and there’s the noise involved.”
Dominion spokesman Aaron Ruby says the pipeline will involve taking down trees and moving earth around, but he claims the company will restore areas of disturbance and cause little harm.
“To clear and grade a relatively limited area on certain ridge lines so we have enough level working space to safely excavate a trench. That material that we grade is segregated beside the right-of-way, and then as soon as the pipe is installed and the trench is backfilled, we’re required by federal regulations to fully restore the ridge line back to its original contours.”
To review Dominion’s plans for preventing damage, Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality has hired a company, 3E Consulting, but critics discovered 3E also had a contract with Dominion.
At Public Citizen, a consumer watchdog group in D.C., Craig Holman was dismayed. “There’s almost no way 3E could say no to Dominion. It would risk losing its contracts with Dominion and any potential future contracts. This is a very, very grave conflict of interest.”
3E declined our request for an interview, referring us to the Department of Environmental Quality, and DEQ’s director, David Paylor, said his agency might cancel the contract.
“If that’s true, it is a concern. We have a no conflict clause in the contract. The only thing currently that I’m aware of is a contract for a cell phone tower that was in the past, and we are reaching back out to EEE to see what other contracts they have, and if there’s a violation of that no conflict clause, then we will have to regroup.”
Paylor himself has also been the subject of criticism. In 2013, he accepted a trip to the Master’s golf tournament on Dominion’s dime. Dominion’s Aaron Ruby says it was no big deal.
“That was several years ago, Sandy, and I think we’ve all moved on. David Paylor is a well-respected public servant. He’s a man of impeccable integrity, and I think this was just a gesture of hospitality to a career public servant, but we recognizing that the optics may not have looked so good, and for a number of reasons we changed our company’s policy a few years ago.”
But for David Sligh the incident is just one sign of the access Dominion has to public officials – access pipeline opponents lack:
“We don’t get to spend days with the governor, or the secretary or the director of DEQ and have them kind of soak in the arguments and the concerns that we have.”
And he doubts anyone at the DEQ dares to object.
“I used to work there, so I understand the way the organization works. Nobody can deny that when Governor McAuliffe came out in favor of ACP and then of MVP, that that had to influence what his people were going to do from that point forward. It doesn’t have to be some blatant thing where he calls down and says, ‘Hey, I want this result.’ Everybody in that agency knows that to come out with a regulatory decision that contradicts what he says he wants is going to be difficult if not perilous for them.”
But Molly Ward, Virginia’s Secretary of Natural Resources insists the ACP is not a done deal, and the good people at DEQ won’t hesitate to stop it if necessary.
“These people take their jobs very, very seriously. Many of them could have higher paying jobs in the private sector, and they choose to stay, because that’s how strongly they feel about what they do on a daily basis.”
In our next report we’ll look at whether the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is really needed.