The Atlantic coast pipeline is dead. But for some WV landowners it survives
Editor’s Note: This story was originally published by Mountain State Spotlight. Receive stories like this delivered to your inbox once a week; subscribe to the free newsletter on https://mountainstatespotlight.org/newsletter
By Mountain State star Emily Allen
When Jeff Mills moved to Doddridge County with his wife almost 50 years ago, he wanted enough land to hunt and fish. Now retired for decades with the West Virginia Forestry Division, Mills enjoys growing Christmas trees in front of his front yard. A few cows live on a hill behind his house.
But in 2015 he received bad news. Mills learned that his 290-acre property was on the way to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a pipeline slated to stretch hundreds of miles from West Virginia to North Carolina. An offshoot of the larger pipeline was supposed to pass near the side of the Mills house.
Mills did not want the pipeline on his property. But ACP had the power – called eminent domain – to take it anyway. Federal regulators gave ACP this power as part of their approval of the project. So Mills, like many, said he was okay with negotiating.
âIf they didn’t have a prominent domain, I would have told them to go fly a kite,â Mills said.
Ultimately, the company ended up securing a 50-foot-wide permanent easement in the middle of the property. Mills said the prospect of the pipeline buried near his home made him uncomfortable. But in July 2020, Dominion Energy and Duke Energy announced they were canceling the Atlantic Coast pipeline.
Today, Mills and other landowners are faced with a different question: what is the next step for the lands that were previously theirs?
In Doddridge County, ownership of the mills remains physically intact, although contractors had already started clearing trees nearby when news of the pipeline cancellation broke. But there is still an orange banner in a tree and a wooden stake in the ground, constant reminders that this strip of property no longer belongs to him.
And it’s the uncertainty of what might happen to this bondage that Mills says he’s nervous.
âA different company, a different pipelineâ¦ it’s not over,â Mills said.
Cancellation of the pipeline
When Dominion Energy proposed the 600-mile CPA in 2015, the company said there was a need to diversify the region’s energy mix as more coal-fired power plants retire. Construction began in 2017, after the project was approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
But after years of legal battles – mostly from environmental groups arguing that FERC had overlooked the impacts on climate change, as well as on local water supply systems and utilities – companies have pulled the plug on both the main pipeline and the smaller Supply Header pipeline, the branch that would cross the Mills property in Doddridge County.
âAt this point, people often throw in the towel,â said Megan Gibson, a lawyer who advocates for landowners with the Niskanen Center, based in Washington, DC. âWe are done, we have won, the pipeline is dead. For landowners, this is obviously not true.
Among the three states, FERC documents indicate that the proposed pipeline would have traversed more than 2,600 easements, covering nearly 4,300 acres of land – all of which Duke and Dominion now own.
Some landowners have already installed miles of pipeline on their properties. Contractors from Duke and Dominion also cleared trees over 110 miles across West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina, leaving about half of the felled trees on the property.
âEven though there is nothing visible on the ground, there is a public record at the courthouse that restricts the rights of this landowner and the value of this property,â Howell said. âThe easements all prohibit building a structure. This means that if you want to set up a barn there, you cannot. If you want to put a house or a shed there, you can’t. And the business has the right to come onto the property to do whatever it wants.
Right now, the future of these easements is an open question, as energy companies seek approval from federal regulators on a land restoration plan they have already started preparing for the pipeline.
FERC noted in July that it had “received a number of comments that the commission should demand the abandonment of easements” that Duke and Dominion hold. But so far, regulators have chosen not to intervene. Lawyers like Gibson are asking FERC to get involved ahead of their next more formal statement on Dominion’s restoration proposals, which is expected in November.
In an emailed statement, Dominion Energy spokeswoman Christine Mitchell said the company would retain the easements over the next several years to “develop the most responsible approach” to remediation.
âWe plan to keep the easements until all restorations and checks are complete,â she wrote. âHowever, we will assess individual landowner requests on a case-by-case basis. “
The restoration will take one to two years, with work in West Virginia beginning in mid-2022.
For Howell, a natural ânext questionâ would be what Duke and Dominion plan to do with the easements once the restoration is complete.
“I think the thing that stays on the mind of the landowner, and rightly so, is not just what I said about it affecting the land value of it,” Howell said, ” but there is also the possibility that [Atlantic Coast Pipeline] sell these [easements] to another company, which then uses it as a fulcrum to build a pipeline on the same or a similar route. “
âCould this be sold? Said Howell. “And could it become yet another pipeline, later?” “
And now ?
After the pipeline was canceled, Gibson and the Niskanen Center intervened in Dominion’s application for restoration approval, on behalf of a handful of Virginia landowners living along the proposed route of the pipeline.
âThe landowners are in this mess because FERC allowed this pipeline to come out and start taking people’s land,â Gibson said. âFERC has created this mess, they have to help solve this problem. “
Back in Doddridge County, Mills said he wrote public comments to FERC asking the agency to return his easement.
There are a lot of unknowns. Because FERC has not addressed the easement waiver, there has been no word on what happens to the payments made by the companies. Mills received $ 210,000, he said, for his 50-foot easement.
Still, he’s still worried that Duke and Dominion would end up selling the land to another pipeline company, which would bring back the same fears.
“If it explodes [up] where it was placed, anyone living here would have gone, âMills said.
FERC is expected to file a new final environmental impact study by November 19. We do not know if it will rule on easements.
Contact reporter Emily Allen at [email protected].