Category Archives: Steep Slopes

2017 in Review

2017 was a busy year in the pipeline fight. Here are some highlights – there are a lot!

On December 30, 2016, FERC released the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline. In response to requests from numerous elected officials and organizations, FERC extended the usual 45-day period for public comment so the deadline was April 6, 2017. Over January-March 2017 FERC held public hearings on the DEIS, where the majority of speakers (once beyond Dominion’s front-loaded supporters) pointed out omissions and inaccuracies in the DEIS, as well as numerous instances where Dominion had not provided required information. Thousands of groups and individuals, some property owners along the route and others not, filed comments with FERC.

On January 5, 2017, the Buckingham County Board of Supervisors ignored their constituents so thoroughly that after five hours of testimony almost totally opposed to the ACP compressor station in Buckingham County, they read a PREPARED statement approving the station, having obviously reached their decision well ahead of the meeting. On February 2 a complaint for declaratory relief was filed against the Supervisors and Dominion asking that the special use permit for the station be vacated.

FERC Commissioner Norman Bay resigned on February 3, and with only two remaining commissioners, FERC no longer had a quorum and could not issue decisions.

Judge Michael T. Garrett ruled in Nelson County Circuit Court on February 6, 2017, that Dominion may have access to survey for the proposed ACP on the property of landowners who had steadfastly denied access. The landowners filed a joint notice of appeal with the Virginia State Court of Appeals in early March.

On February 15 Oil Change International released two studies finding that if built, the controversial Mountain Valley and Atlantic Coast pipelines would together contribute as much greenhouse gas pollution as 45 coal-fired power plants — some 158 million metric tons a year. ACP basic facts: http://priceofoil.org/2017/02/15/atlantic-coast-pipeline-greenhouse-gas-emissions-briefing/ ACP full briefing: http://priceofoil.org/content/uploads/2017/02/atlantic_coast_pipeline_web_final_v3.pdf

In mid-March, Friends of Nelson released the Steep Slope Report by Blackburn Consulting Services, which concluded that “Dominion has not adequately identified those soils and landforms that are prone to debris flows (and) landslides.” The report also states that “the potential for debris flows in the very steep mountainous portions of Nelson County is underestimated by the reports submitted to FERC by Dominion.” Steep Slopes Study by Blackburn Consulting:
http://friendsofnelson.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/Final-Steep-Slope-Report-March-2017.pdf

On April 5 Friends of Nelson submitted comments to FERC on the DEIS – 96 pages including charts, diagrams, maps, and photos. Read it here: http://elibrary.FERC.gov/idmws/file_list.asp?accession_num=20170405-5161

On April 6, Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality announced that both proposed Virginia pipelines, the ACP and the MVP, would be subject to DEQ water-quality review. This meant that DEQ would require water quality certifications under Section 401 of the federal Clean Water Act for each segment of both projects that crosses or potentially affects water bodies. But the next day, on April 7, 2017, DEQ provided water quality certification for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers 2017 Nationwide Permits, thus issuing a blanket Clean Water Act section 401 certification for pipelines that are covered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Nationwide Permit number 12. And in late May DEQ said they would not require specific water quality impact analysis for water crossings for the proposed ACP or MVP. On June 5, the Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition (DPMC) filed suit against the DEQ in state Circuit Court for the City of Richmond, asking the court to rule that DEQ issued a Clean Water Act section 401 Water Quality Certification for construction of utility lines, including natural gas pipelines, in state waters without legal authority to do so and without ensuring water quality would be protected.

On April 27, a briefing paper released details on how Dominion intends to blast away, excavate, and partially remove entire mountaintops along 38 miles of Appalachian ridgelines as part of ACP construction, flattening them by anywhere from 10 to 60 feet. See http://friendsofnelson.com/press-release-acp-would-require-extensive-mountaintop-removal/

June 17-July 2: Walking the Line. Group walks the proposed ACP path for 150 miles, through Bath, Augusta and Nelson Counties, into the heart of Virginia, Buckingham County, where the walk ends at Union Hill, the site of the proposed compressor station.

On June 29, 2017, the Virginia Conservation Network, along with its partners Southern Environmental Law Center and Shenandoah Valley Network, sent a letter (signed by over 80 organizations) to Governor McAuliffe, DEQ Director David Paylor and the State Water Control Board asking them to use their full authority under the Clean Water Act to conduct a thorough and transparent review of stream and wetland crossings along the proposed ACP and MVP fracked gas pipeline routes and ensure that Virginia water quality standards are met.

And then there was one: Friday June 30, 2017, was FERC Commissioner Colette Honorable’s final day at FERC. Although a pair of Trump administration nominees remain on the sidelines awaiting Senate votes, Honorable’s a departure leaves the already quorumless panel with a single member.

At their meeting on July 4, members of Wintergreen Property Owners Association voted overwhelmingly for a new covenant prohibiting construction of “any lines, facilities, structures, or other appurtenances related to the transmission of utilities” if they do not provide services to the Association or its members.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission issued its final Environmental Impact Statement on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline on July 21, 2017. FERC has 90 days to make a decision on issuing a certificate of approval for the project. The full statement can be found here: https://ferc.gov/industries/gas/enviro/eis/2017/07-21-17-FEIS.asp. The summary statement from FERC staff said, “The FERC staff concludes that construction and operation of ACP and SHP would result in some adverse effects,” but that with adherence to mitigation measure and FERC staff recommendations “most, but not all of these impacts, would be reduced to less-than-significant levels.” FERC said their determinations were based on information provided by Dominion and ACP, with no mention of extensive contradictory information filed by a variety of experts.

Also on July 21, the U.S. Forest Service issued a draft Record of Decision to authorize the use and occupancy of National Forest System lands for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. The Forest Service release statement is available at: https://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/fseprd551404.pdf.

In July Friends of Nelson posted interactive maps showing the ACP route through Nelson County. See http://friendsofnelson.com/information-resources/maps/

Through August, DEQ held public hearings to receive comments on draft water quality certifications designed to protect water quality along the routes of the proposed ACP and MVP.

On August 3, 2017, the Senate voted to confirm Donald Trump’s nominees for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), Neil Chatterjee and Rob Powelson. They join Cheryl LaFleur, who had been the sole member of the five member commission, so FERC now has a quorum.

In mid-August, Friends of Nelson submitted extensive comments to DEQ on the proposed 401 Water Quality Certifications for the ACP. See http://friendsofnelson.com/friends-of-nelson-submits-comments-to-deq/ And a group of thirteen expert scientists and engineers submitted reports to the DEQ on August 22, finding that DEQ has failed in its duty to properly analyze and protect against the water quality damages the Mountain Valley Pipeline and Atlantic Coast Pipeline would cause to Virginia’s waters. See http://friendsofnelson.com/failure-to-meet-minimum-standards-of-scientific-proof/

On August 22, the Virginia Supreme Court agreed without argument to hear on appeal the survey suit against the ACP brought on behalf of six Nelson residents by Lollar Law. Briefings will take place in autumn 2017, and the oral arguments before the full seven-justice court will take place in late 2017 or early 2018. See http://friendsofnelson.com/virginia-supreme-court-to-hear-survey-case/

On August 22 in a 2-1 ruling, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit found that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) did not properly analyze the climate impact from burning the natural gas that a Florida pipeline project would deliver to power plants.

A lawsuit, filed September 5 in Washington D.C. federal district court, on behalf of 57 Landowners, Bold Alliance and Friends of Nelson, challenged the constitutionality of the eminent domain provisions of the Natural Gas Act, and seeking to end the unconstitutional and unconscionable process of taking citizens’ private property via eminent domain for a corporation’s profits — and not for “the public good” as the Constitution intended.

September 15-17: No Pipeline Action Camp held in Nelson County, sponsored by Friends of Nelson, Greenpeace, and Blue Ridge Rapid Response.

In mid-September North Carolina delayed by three months its decision on certification of the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline under section 401 of the federal Clean Water Act. This followed West Virginia’s September 7 announcement that the state was vacating its water quality certification for the proposed MVP in order to reevaluate. Virginia’s DEQ pressed ahead, even as other states hit the brakes.

In late September, Dan Weekley, Dominion Energy’s vice president and general manager of Southern pipeline operations, told attendees at an energy conference ‘everybody knows’ the Atlantic Coast Pipeline — currently slated to pass through Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina — is not going to stop there, despite what the current plans say, and that the ACP will be extended into South Carolina.

The NC DEQ disapproved the erosion and sedimentation control plan submitted to the agency by the ACP, Their September 26, 2017, letter of disapproval, cites 17 specific deficiencies in the submitted plan as grounds for disapproval.

Late on Friday evening October 13, FERC approved both the ACP and the MVP. Authorization had been widely expected by both supporters and opponents of the pipelines. The certificates granted by the commission came with dozens of conditions, and other necessary permits for both projects are still pending. The approval was issued with a highly unusual dissenting opinion by Commissioner Cheryl A. LaFleur. The FERC permit is not the final word on the projects. VA, NC and WV must still issue environmental permits.

Meeting in Richmond on October 16, the Virginia Outdoors Foundation (VOF) voted to approve Dominion’s application for 11 land conversions of open-space easements on the route of the proposed ACP through southern Highland, northern Bath, Augusta and Nelson counties, and approved a single swap for the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline near Roanoke.

On October 18 Dominion released a proposed construction plan, see http://friendsofnelson.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/Dominion-construction-plan20171018-5002-32464467.pdf, When they sent their original “we want your land” letters in spring 2014, Dominion planned to start construction of the ACP in the Fall of 2016 and have the pipeline in service sometime early in 2018. But Dominion did not expect so many people and organizations to fight back!

On November 2, 2017, the Senate approved Trump’s final two nominees to FERC, giving the Commission the full five members for the first time in two years.

On November 13, a motion was filed with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) requesting a rehearing of the Commission’s order issuing a certificate for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. The petition, filed on behalf of 22 organizations (including Friends of Nelson) and 10 individuals. See https://www.abralliance.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/Petition_for_Rehearing_to_FERC_20171113.pdf.

On November 14 Friends of Nelson filed a Request for Rehearing with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) on FERC’s decision to issue a Certificate of Convenience and Necessity for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. The filing is on behalf of 63 property owners and citizens of Nelson County, and 4 community organizations.

The NAACP released a report on November 14, Fumes Across the Fence Line: The Health Impacts of Air Pollution from Oil & Gas Facilities on African American Communities. “The life-threatening burdens placed on communities of color near oil and gas facilities are the result of systemic oppression perpetuated by the traditional energy industry, which exposes communities to health, economic, and social hazards. Communities impacted by oil and gas facility operations remain affected due to energy companies’ heavy polluting, low wages for dangerous work, and government lobbying against local interests.”

On November 17, the US Forest Service released a final Record of Decision (ROD) approving amendments to the Forest Plans for the Monongahela National Forest and the George Washington National Forest to accommodate the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP).

Late in the afternoon on December 7, 2017, after two days of hearings, the Virginia State Water Control Board approved water quality certification for the Mountain Valley Pipeline. The vote was 5-2, with members Roberta Kellam and G. Nissa Dean dissenting.

On December 12, 2017, the Virginia State Water Control Board voted 4 to 3 to approve certification under Section 401 of the Clean Water Act the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. However, the approval does not immediately grant the 401 water permits requested by Dominion; it is subject to certain conditions and to information which must be provided by the ACP. The permit can’t take effect until several additional studies are reviewed and approved by DEQ, including soil and erosion control plans and stormwater management plans. Although this is not an outright denial of the permits, it does not allow Dominion to move forward at this time.

SO…. As we move into fourth year of the pipeline fight, we know the ACP is closer to receiving all final approvals, but we continue our work to stop this economically unnecessary and environmental damaging project. Legal challenges to some approvals have already been filed, more are being evaluated. No, the pipeline is NOT a done deal.

Construction and Safety Risks on Steep Slopes


Although this September 2, 2017, Roanoke Times article is about the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline, the same issues of steep slope construction will be faced by the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline. As indicated in this article, MVP seems to say that if they can’t do what they want, they will do things that are even worse. We suspect Dominion would use the same tactics.

“Mountain Valley Pipeline reacted forcefully after its plan to establish a permanent access road through a conservation easement on Poor Mountain was nixed by the federal commission reviewing the project. The company’s protest, filed with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, offers a glimpse of some of the challenges and risks Mountain Valley could face burying a 42-inch diameter natural gas pipeline on remarkably steep slopes in Roanoke County. For example, Mountain Valley described scenarios ‘that would require up to 10 winch tractors daisy-chained together to move a single load of materials, equipment, fuel or personnel up and down the slopes’ if use of the access road is denied.”

Read the full article here.

Friends of Nelson Submits Comments to DEQ

Davis Creek area, August 1969

Friends of Nelson has submitted extensive comments on the proposed 401 Water Quality Certifications for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline to Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). The comments include:

  • A letter written by Board member Jim Bolton related to activity on steep slopes and in slide-prone areas such as found in Nelson County, including patterns of recurrent destructive landslides and resulting debris flows and fans, and similar rapid erosional processes; includes links to supporting documents and U.S.G.S. maps and documents
  • A letter by Board member Joyce Burton on water quality issues, specifically those related to activity on the steep, landslide-prone slopes found in Nelson County
  • Comments on FERC’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for the ACP prepared by Dr. W. Lee Daniels on behalf of Friends of Nelson in April of 2017 addressing (among other things) disposal of excess spoil, risks posed by acid forming materials (AFM) in the soils along the pipeline route and inadequate procedures to mitigate them, and adverse impacts of the proposed soil disturbances on farmland productivity, with the overall conclusion that the project as proposed could potentially negatively affect soils and water quality in Nelson County and surrounding landscapes.
  • August 2017 memo by Dr. Daniels confirming that his April 3, 2017, report is also clearly applicable to the current DEQ review process
  • A bound copy of Blackburn Consulting Services, Nelson County Report, Report Analysis and Field Verification of Soil and Geologic Concerns with the Atlantic Coast Pipeline in Nelson County, VA, dated March 2017, discussing pipeline construction and the potential for increased landslide risk and increased soil erosion, especially on steep slopes

It is DEQ’s responsibility to safeguard our Virginia’s water resources. Building the ACP in terrain that is as steep, difficult to stabilize, and nearly impossible to successfully revegetate such as that found in much of Nelson County poses an unacceptable risk to our precious water resources. ACP has not committed to adhering to the same standards and safeguards on private lands as on Forest Service lands, leaving Nelson’s steep, landslide-prone slopes particularly vulnerable.

Contrary to what has been implied in their aggressive marketing campaign, ACP’s “Best in Class” (BIC) program for managing the challenges of steep slope and narrow ridgetop construction is still “under development,” and other slope instability/landslide risk reduction measures have not yet been adopted. Because of this, and because of the inadequacy of ACP’s landslide risk analysis on non-USFS lands along the route, neither stakeholders nor the DEQ can thoroughly assess the likelihood and magnitude of the slope stability-related environmental effects of the project nor the sufficiency of their plans for the multiple sites that we anticipate to be at high risk.

The cited inadequacies in the ACP’s plans are not isolated aberrations, but rather constitute an underlying pattern of inadequate analysis and planning which has the potential to severely impact Virginia’s waterways.

In the News


Lots of interesting news stories in the last week. What have you missed? Click on the In the News tab above for many other current stories or use the archives links in the dropdown menu for earlier stories.

Atlantic Coast Pipeline Critical Zone Mapping System

New from Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition!

The DPMC has published an interactive Critical Zone Mapping System (CZMS) in support of citizen efforts to overcome the continuing failure of the regulatory system.

The CZMS provides a framework for evaluation of the risk associated with construction of the ACP and the limitations of the proposed or available control measures. The CZMS includes user-selectable map layers that display a number of key factors that should be considered during project review and prior to project approval. Among these are layers that indicate slope steepness, soil erodibility, high-excavation areas, stream crossings, surficial karst, and existing dye traces in karst systems.

One of the more-critical map layers identifies those sections of the pipeline corridor and access road system that meet Dominion’s criteria for application of its so-called “Best in Class” program. These areas, where the existing ground slope is 30% or more for distances of 100 feet or more, present a high risk to downslope water resources due to erosion, slope destabilization, and runoff alteration.

Although Dominion has posted what it describes as detailed erosion and runoff control plans, the plans do not include “Best in Class” measures. With limited exceptions, the actual site-specific details for application of the “Best in Class” program have not been provided for regulatory agency and public review, and apparently they will not be provided until after project approval.

These high-risk “Best in Class” areas represent almost half the length of the proposed ACP pipeline corridor and access road system in the mountainous counties of Virginia and West Virginia.

Among the more-extreme of the “Best in Class” measures is the use of heavy steel wire mesh to hold steep mountainsides in place after pipeline construction. Click here for a larger version of this image.

For more information see: The ACP Critical Zone Mapping System

Little Valley: High-Hazard Pipeline Construction

DCMP photo:  The centerline of the proposed ACP along the ridge crest of Little Mountain. Extreme excavation will be required for pipeline construction and maintenance of a permanent right-of-way.

Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition has published a new report on construction of the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline across Little Valley in Virginia’s Bath County: Little Valley: High-Hazard Pipeline Construction.

The Little Valley area, like much of the proposed ACP route through the mountains, presents extreme challenges for pipeline construction due to steep slopes, high-excavation requirements, erodible and slip-prone soil cover, and interconnected karst ground water systems.

Examination of regulatory documents and available project plans for construction of the pipeline corridor and access roads in the Little Valley area reveals a general failure of the review process conducted by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and raises concerns about permitting by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.

Little Valley exemplifies the significant risk posed by Dominion’s persistent failure to conduct critical studies to assess environmental hazards and to provide the detailed project plans needed for informed agency and public review of the project.

The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality announced in April 2017 that it would conduct a stream-by-stream review prior to issuing a Water Quality Certification for the ACP. We now know that the VADEQ instead plans to narrowly limit its review, and that it will rely on U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permitting for stream and wetlands crossings. The USACE generally authorizes pipeline projects under a previously issued blanket (nationwide) permit without analysis of individual stream crossings or the cumulative effects of multiple stream crossings.

To date, it seems that neither the VADEQ nor the USACE have received complete applications from Dominion, and it has not been confirmed that Dominion will be required to submit site-specific construction and environmental mitigation plans with the level of detail needed for meaningful review by the regulatory agencies and the public.