This is the first of a two-part story about the potential impacts of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline on people and the environment. The second story, dealing with the environmental ramifications, will run Monday.
Belinda Joyner rode shotgun and stared out the window at the fertile farm fields ripening with cotton. She pointed to the tidy brick ranch houses and modest modular homes that flanked U.S. 301 north of Garysburg: “African-American. African-American. African-American.”
We headed north about five miles to Pleasant Hill, near the Virginia border. Past the State Line Lottery and the Georgia-Pacific wood products plant, we crossed the railroad and pull onto Forest Road. Soon it turned to dirt. “Somewhere back there,” Joyner said, sweeping her hand toward a thicket of trees. “That’s where they’ll put it.”
The Atlantic Coast Pipeline would begin the final leg of its 600-mile journey here, in North Carolina. If approved by federal regulators, the $5 billion project, co-owned by Dominion Energy and Duke Energy, would start at a fracking operation in West Virginia. The ACP would then transport natural gas across rugged terrain and federal lands in Virginia.
In North Carolina, from a compressor station, built somewhere in these woods of Pleasant Hill, the 36-inch diameter pipeline would continue underground. It would braid itself around I-95, cutting through wetlands, rivers and valuable farmland — even near homes — in seven more counties in eastern North Carolina: Halifax, Nash, Wilson, Johnston, Sampson, Cumberland and Robeson. Through communities of color, including former routes of the Underground Railroad, and Native American tribal lands. Through some of the poorest areas in the state.
Finally, the ACP would end in the town of Pembroke, where it would connect with a Piedmont natural gas line and run through Scotland and Richmond counties to the South Carolina border.
The pipeline is subject to approval by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Known as FERC, it regulates the interstate transmission of electricity, natural gas and oil. Utilities must file an application with FERC, which issues Certificates of Public Convenience and Necessity for construction or extension of natural gas lines. FERC can also elect not to issue a certificate, but that rarely occurs. Last December, FERC issued a legally required Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the project. The DEIS, as it’s known, ostensibly lays out the economic, environmental and social justice impacts of the ACP.
Yet even at 1,000-plus pages, the DEIS gives short shrift to the environmental justice implications of the ACP. FERC acknowledged that census data shows that compared to state averages, a higher percentage of low-income and minorities live near the route. In Northampton County, for example, 58 percent of residents are African-American. In adjoining Halifax County, that figure is 53 percent.
However, in just a three-page section on environmental justice, FERC concluded there would be “no disproportionate share of high and adverse” environmental justice impacts on any group as a result of the pipeline.
Demographic makeup of pipeline counties
|County||Population||Poverty Level||Median annual household income||% African American||% Latino||% Native American|
*In the % Poverty Level, and % African American, Latino, and Native American populations categories, BOLD denotes above the state average. For Median Annual Household Income, BOLD denotes below the state average.
Proponents of the pipeline, largely local chambers of commerce and elected leaders in the eight counties, view the ACP as a key to economic growth in a deprived part of the state. Although a few large natural gas customers could connect to it, primarily the ACP would provide natural gas to Duke Energy, which would use it to fire its electricity plants. In turn, that could provide more energy to accommodate North Carolina’s population and economic growth.
Perhaps the natural gas would meet an overall greater demand in Dominion and Duke’s service areas. But opponents argue, and the DEIS confirms, that the pipeline would create fewer than 20 permanent jobs in North Carolina. Natural gas, although cleaner than coal, still produces large amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas and driver of climate change.
And it would not necessarily serve the specific communities that would bear the brunt of the potential injustices associated with the pipeline — things like the potential safety hazards of a natural gas pipeline, the cumulative impacts of other polluting industries (like the wood pellet plant in Northampton County, where a private company also wants to build two coal ash landfills), and and the loss of land to eminent domain and with that, the loss of heritage.
“We were like family,” said Joyner, who was born in Northampton County 63 years ago. Gin Loop Road, where she now lives, was known as Kid Street, she said, “because every house had children. She moved to New Jersey at age 9, but later returned to Northampton County to work as a teacher. “I can sit out on my porch and everybody is looking out for each other. This is home.”
An hour south on I-95, in Wilson County, which is on the ACP route, federal regulators hosted a listening session on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement.
In Nash and Wilson counties, the pipeline would run west of I-95, grazing the towns of Nashville and Sims, as well as Buckhorn Reservoir, the primary drinking water source for the town of Wilson.
Wilson and Nash counties are more than half white, but 18 to 19 percent of all of its residents live below the federal poverty level.
Joe Poland, who is white, lives in Nashville. The pipeline would run 700 feet from his house, but less than 50 feet from the back door of several neighbors.
He’s worried about the safety of the pipeline, which will carry 1.5 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day, under high pressure.
Natural gas pipeline explosions are uncommon, but not unheard of in the U.S. From 2010 to 2015, there were 200 incidents involving natural gas transmission lines, according to the Pipeline Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. Ten people died; 84 people were injured.
Dominion, which operates about 7,800 miles of pipeline in a half-dozen states, was responsible for four incidents, but none involved injuries or fatalities. The company has been fined by the pipeline administration at least $250,000 for safety violations during that five-year span, according to federal records.
“A natural gas explosion,” Poland said, “can melt the siding off a house a half-mile away.”
Aside from sleeping 700 feet from a pipeline, Poland said he’s worried about the rate hikes that would certainly be levied on customers to cover costs for the $5 billion project. “We’re going to pay for this,” Poland said. “And we don’t need the gas. We don’t have industry that needs it.”
That’s precisely why Linwood Parks, mayor of Four Oaks in nearby Johnston County, wants the ACP. He hopes that once the pipeline is built, industry will follow. “I want to make sure eastern North Carolina won’t be boarded up,” said Parks, who has been mayor for 14 years. “And it’s cleaner than coal. If people have the resources that comes with good jobs, the environment will be better protected.”
That’s not necessarily the case, as industrial pollution is the primary culprit in hazardous waste sites. And the DEIS notes that the direct economic impact to communities along the pipeline would be “minor to moderate.”
Nonetheless, Parks, a hunter and a fisher, is also concerned about the environmental impacts. He also supports solar power — there are three such farms in Four Oaks — as part of an energy mix. “But solar can’t power a manufacturing plant,” he said. “This is kind of like a pig-pickin’ cake, there’s a little bit of everything. But there’s no perfect solution at this point in time.”
State Sen. Angela Bryant is a Democrat representing five eastern North Carolina counties, including three affected by the ACP. At an environmental summit last fall in Whitakers, she said she supports clean energy, but “the pace of renewables is much slower. People want something dramatic to happen. I represent people who want jobs, who want to feed their children and themselves.”
Pipeline opponents have the same goal, albeit through clean energy jobs, such as factories to build solar panels. “We want to stop industries that have created the conditions we’re living in,” said Naeema Muhammad of the NC Environmental Justice Network, who lives in Rocky Mount. “We have to stop saying we want a job at any cost.”
There is one item that Duke and Dominion need for the pipeline that the residents have: land. It’s common for utilities to hire land agents, to contact property owners and negotiate a sale for rights of way and easements. Some of the easements are temporary — for construction equipment, access roads — and others are permanent.
If property owners refuse to sell, Duke and Dominion can take the land by eminent domain as long as they pay just compensation. (Utilities are among the agencies, including governments, that have eminent domain power.) However, in reality, a fair price is rarely paid.
And if owners balk, the utilities are backed by the power of their institutions, their high-paid attorneys, even regulators. Meanwhile, the property owners, particularly those who are elderly, or who are land-rich but cash-poor, may not be able to afford a lawyer at all.
At least a half-dozen property owners have told stories of intimidation by land agents, of low-ball prices offered for their property. The threat is, they say, sell now or get even less if the utilities have to invoke eminent domain.
Barbara Exum of Wilson County said a land agent approached her family, which owns a farm that is nearly 100 years old. “They call and call and call,” said Exum, who is African-American. “They see cash on the other side of your house,” Exum said, “and they’re going to build a road to get there.”
She said a land agent offered her $4,000 for an acre of land, far below what she said it’s worth. After splitting the money with her siblings, they each would get about $200 — “once for the rest of my life, to sleep next to a pipeline. They’re devaluing our property.”
Duke and Dominion did not respond to written questions about their land agents’ practices.
But court documents show that Dominion has taken at least one family to court, not to buy their land, but to get access to survey it. Martha Solomon and her family, who are African-American, own property in Halifax County, but live in Virginia.
Attorney Chip Lollar, whose specialties include land law, said that a state statute allows “condemnors,” which include utilities, to survey private land with 30 days’ notice. However, only projects that originate in North Carolina are covered under current law. Since the ACP originates in West Virginia, the forced survey might not be legal.
That could soon change with the introduction of House Bill 3, which would add an amendment to the state constitution regarding eminent domain. The words “originate in North Carolina” would be struck from the statute. At a hearing of the House Judiciary I Committee this week, bill sponsor Chuck McGrady, a Henderson County Republican, said “it made no sense to say where it originated from.” He added that the change to the language had already been incorporated before the ACP. “There was no effort to come down one way or another on the pipeline.”
On a warm November day in Pembroke in Robeson County, demonstrators gathered to protest the pipeline. Robeson County is one of the poorest counties in North Carolina. It is nearly 40 percent Native American, primarily Lumbee, one of four tribes, including the Haliwa-Saponi, the Coharie and the Tuscarora, whose lands will be affected by the ACP.
Ericka Faircloth, a member of the Lumbee tribe, is a community organizer with Clean Water for North Carolina. Faircloth grew up in Robeson, Cumberland and Scotland counties. She says instead of a pipeline, clean energy industries could fill the empty factories in the area. “Let’s build our solar panels and our wind turbines here,” she said, “and create meaningful and safe jobs.”
Tribal members are mapping burial sites along the route to determine what plots could be harmed by the ACP.
“Land loss has greater implications because your identity is linked to your sacred land,” Faircloth said. “People of color had to earn their land. You’re running away your whole life and your family can finally get land.”
FERC is taking public comment  on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement  through April 6, 2017. These comments will factor into the Final Environmental Impact Statement.
Once the final EIS is issued, the FERC Commissioners will consider staff’s recommendations in their decision.
Construction could start as early as fall 2017, but that date depends on several factors, such as President Trump’s appointment of a new FERC commissioner. The former commission chairman resigned on Feb. 3. That leaves FERC with just two members, one short of a quorum, and unable to issue decisions until a third commissioner is named