ACP official: Work on natural gas pipeline won’t recommence prior to March

Atlantic Coast Pipeline community liaison Mike Cozad addresses Upshur County commissioners Thursday morning.

BUCKHANNON – Construction work on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline won’t resume until March at the earliest due to a ruling handed down by a federal appeals court late last week, a representative with ACP told the Upshur County Commission Thursday.

Mike Cozad, the community liaison for the natural gas pipeline told the commission Thursday that a motion for emergency clarification on a prior court ruling in December had been denied on Friday, Jan. 11.

At Thursday’s meeting, Cozad appeared in front of the commission to request that they draft a letter in support of resuming construction on the approximately 600-mile-long, 42-inch-wide natural gas pipeline that is designed to reach from Harrison County, West Virginia, to Robeson County, North Carolina. The commission agreed to draft the letter, which will be sent to state and federal lawmakers.

Dominion Energy, the primary owner and operator of the pipeline, voluntarily suspended construction on the pipeline in mid-December following a series of court rulings issued by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit invalidating several permits necessary to continue building the line.

In response, the gas company filed an emergency clarification on the scope of the ruling, which was denied. Cozad said that as a result of that denial, Dominion won’t be able to make its case again in front of the federal appeals court until March.

“As you know, we’ve had some significant events occur, and we’re looking for a letter of support from the commission like we did last year,” Cozad said, “so let me give you a few details here regarding what’s transpired in the last month.”

“In December, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals of Virginia put down a stop work order, a decree that we can’t work based on three things: the U.S. Fish & Wildlife [Service] permit that we had, the U.S. Park Service crossing of the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia and the Forest Service – we’re crossing two sections of the National Forest, one in West Virginia and one in Virginia,” he explained. “Based on [the court’s] review of the job and information those institutions and agencies of the federal government had done, [the court] determined they (the agencies) hadn’t done their due diligence in granting the permits, so [the court] basically, in our opinion, overreached and declared that we can’t work on the entire 600 miles of the project so the project is on full shutdown at this time.”

Cozad said residents may see work being done around Upshur County, but that’s only to shore up parts of the project that were already underway.

“We were granted permission to continue work to put the pipe in the ground that’s out there right now, welded up and ready to go, so from a safety and environmental standpoint, we are going to do some work to stabilize what’s out there already and get that put in the ground,” he told commissioners. “So, you will see some work over the next few weeks, but it’s only going to be a few weeks – probably six to eight weeks.”

As a result of the suspension, the number of pipeline workers based out of the Brushy Fork contractor yard has dwindled from 700 this summer to less than 100 now, he said.

“We’ll ramp up to a little over 200 to get this bit of (stabilization) work that we have to do, and then after that, we just don’t know,” Cozad said.

Cozad said Dominion/ACP had hoped the federal appeals court would narrow the scope of its ruling that originally invalidated the permits, but their request was denied on Friday.

“We’re not going to be able to be in front of the court until March, so that has all kinds of implications on getting trees down and things like that,” he said.

(At Buckhannon City Council’s meeting Thursday evening, Cozad explained the energy company is required to complete tree felling by March 31, and now company officials aren’t sure they’ll be able to meet that deadline.)

He added that hotels, restaurants, gas stations, landlords and local people employed by Dominion or its contractors, such as Michels, are all being negatively impacted.

“Where we’re going from here right now is a good question, and I don’t have a good answer unfortunately,” Cozad said. “So what does that mean? It means your taxes that you were going to get in are going to be delayed for sure … I’ve been going around the last two weeks talking to just about every business owner, anybody that’s got rentals, whatever. All of them are hurting. Restaurants are not nearly as busy as they were, hotels are nearly empty. I could go on and on. It’s just having a big impact on all of your business activity here in the county.”

He said the “most poignant” upshot of the stoppage is the consequences it’s having for local workers.

“We hired a lot of local workers here to work on this project,” he commented. “They came in here with the expectation that they’d work last year in 2018, and again in 2019, and now that’s in jeopardy. We hired coal miners. We hired other folks that had been out of work for a while, young kids fresh out of high school. All those folks, their futures are kind of on hold right now, so that’s the impact it’s having on your community.”

Cozad asked the commission to draft a letter with the help of Dominion Energy spokesperson Samantha Norris to urge state and federal officials to do all they could to get the project back on track.

“If you can support us in that effort, we’d really appreciate it,” Cozad said.

Commission president Sam Nolte asked how many Upshur County residents had been or were currently employed by Dominion, Michels or other contractors/subcontractors.

Cozad said he wasn’t entirely sure.

“Unfortunately, we didn’t track everything county by county,” he replied. “I just know from personal experience and being out there that there were more folks than I thought locally that managed to get on with Michels out there.”

If one were to account for employees from other north-central West Virginia counties, Cozad said it would be “a pretty high number.”

Commissioner Terry Cutright made a motion to draft a letter in support of the pipeline project proceeding, which was seconded by commissioner Kristie Tenney prior to passing unanimously.

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