Dominion, Environmentalists Spar over Mountaintop Removal Claims

CLARKSBURG, W.Va. — Dominion and environmental groups spent much of Thursday and Friday sparring over claims that construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline would lead to significant damage to 38 miles worth of ridge line in West Virginia and Virginia–even going so far as to invoke images of mountaintop removal.

“For a 50 foot wide strip on some of these ridge lines, there won’t be trees replanted,” Dominion Spokesperson Aaron Ruby said in a phone interview Friday. “Otherwise, you would not notice. I mean, the contours of the ridge lines will remain exactly the same as they always have been, which is obviously not the case when you are talking about strip mining or mountain removal.”

A number of environmental groups offered criticism of Dominion and the proposed construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline in a conference call Thursday morning–specifically looking at 19 miles of ridge lines in West Virginia and an additional 19 miles in Virginia.

“This is the best available data that is consistent across our entire study area,” Dan Shaffer, Communications and Research Coordinator for the Allegheny-Blue Ridge Alliance, said Thursday. “That study area is from the initial point of the pipeline in southern Harrison County southeast to the eastern border of Buckingham County in Virginia.”

A new five-page briefing paper highlights the work done using GIS mapping software, which finds that mountaintops would be removed between 10 and 60 feet along the proposed route of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

“The whole point of this was to characterize areas of concern and get an idea of just how much of an issue ridge top removal is going to be,” Shaffer said. “And we were really surprised at just how much of this was going to happen and it’s geographic distribution throughout the route in West Virginia and western Virginia. It’s going to be a mess.”

Aaron Ruby shot back though, saying that the groups involved used the term mountaintop removal to invoke an image that is completely different than what Dominion is planning.

“The reality is we are not removing the tops of mountains,” he said. “That is a gross exaggeration and a total mis-characterization of what we are doing.”

The pipeline’s proposed route begins near the Harrison and Lewis county lines, travels southeast into Virginia, then snakes back southwest. It eventually comes to an end in southern North Carolina.

Ben Luckett, an attorney with Appalachian Mountain Advocates, said there were a number of similarities between what Dominion’s pipeline proposes and his past experience with mountaintop removal done by coal companies.

“When you blast that it it really expands greatly in volume, and you can’t just stack it back up,” he said. “It’s not stable at all to do that because it swelled too much.”

Ruby said thorough review from federal regulatory agencies approved Dominion’s plan, which he said is far ahead of what normal regulations they’d encounter. Unlike the images derived from traditional mountaintop removal, Ruby said the area of excavation will be fractional by comparison in order to build the ten-foot wide trench that houses the pipeline.

“As soon as we back fill the trench, we are required by federal regulators and we will be inspected to verify that we comply with the requirements that we completely restore the original contours of that ridge line,” he said.

Environmental groups who stand in opposition to the pipeline’s construction are hoping for an explanation on how Dominion would dispose of what they’re describing as 247,000 dump-truck loads of excess rock and soil, also known as overburden.

“When this material is disposed of, it ends up in our rivers, streams, and lakes and has incredibly detrimental impacts that are very long term,” Luckett said.

Luckett said overburden can be a danger to drinking water, marine life, and the ecosystem of the area.

“Dominion hasn’t put forth any sort of plan for how they would dispose of that material,” he said. “Where would it end up?”

Ruby described the study as using “back-of-the-envelope” calculations, and said engineers have painstakingly studied issues stemming from potential soil erosion and over burden.

“It’s just totally false,” he said. “It’s totally false. The folks who put these claims out there yesterday even acknowledged, sort of in fine print at the very end of their call, that most of this is supposition. They don’t have any hard data to base this off of.”

The study concludes that the 38 miles of Appalachian ridge lines impacted would create 2.47 million cubic yards of overburden. Ruby said those claims don’t match with a favorable draft environmental statement–or the reality of Dominion’s project.

“We’ve made more than 300 route adjustments to avoid environmentally sensitive areas and minimize impacts on individual properties,” he said.

The briefing paper released Thursday was prepared by the Chesapeake Climate Action Network in coordination with the Allegheny-Blue Ridge Alliance, Friends of Nelson, Appalachian Mountain Advocates, and the Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition.

Dominion announced Thursday that production is complete on more than 65 percent of the steel pipe being used in the project.

Ruby said final approval for construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is expected in the fall.

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