BUCKHANNON – Several Upshur County residents told the Upshur County Commission Thursday they were disappointed in its decision to write a letter to a federal appeals court in support of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s continued construction.
Earlier this month, at the request of ACP community liaison Mike Cozad, commissioners unanimously voted to send a letter to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.
Dominion Energy, the primary owner and operator of ACP, voluntarily suspended construction on the 600-mile-long natural gas pipeline in mid-December following a series of court rulings issued by the federal appeals court, invalidating several permits necessary to continue building the line, including ones that had been issued by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the National Park Service.
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.
At the commission’s Jan. 17 meeting, 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.
Thursday’s speakers included Kevin Campbell, Tim Higgins and April Pearson-Keating.
“We wanted to come and talk a little bit today because we were very disappointed when we heard the news last week that you had voted to write a letter to the Fourth Circuit Court,” Campbell said. “The Fourth Circuit Court is doing their job to protect us against the industry, and I was very disappointed to hear that you had voted in favor of doing that.”
Campbell felt that through its letter, the commission was supporting temporary jobs that could be potentially dangerous, as well as “long-lasting degradation to streams, private water wells, water and air quality, aquatic habitat and economic diversity.”
He said the pipeline presented “risks to the community from leaks and explosions.”
Campbell went on to say a total of seven environmental permits related to project construction have been vacated, including “most recently the Park Service for crossing the Appalachian Trail and the Blue Ridge Parkway.”
He suggested the commission find ways to support renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind.
“What could we do instead?” he asked. “Solar power’s on its way up, promising to be a bigger job provider than coal or gas for the long term. The cost of solar power is coming down rapidly … solar is cheaper than gas power as a lifetime cost. This year is the last year for the 30 percent tax credit for homes and businesses to go solar. I encourage you all to invest in a system that will reduce your energy costs and pour more money in your pockets.”
“Over 100 cities have now made a commitment to be powered by 100 percent renewable energy by 2050,” Campbell added. “It’s time for us to go in that direction, and when the time comes, I hope the commission will support our own city’s transition to a just and fair economy and energy system based on renewable energy.”
Keating suggested that in addition to solar energy, the commission consider supporting hemp farming as a way to stabilize and sustain north central West Virginia’s economy.
“There are many ways we can grow our state’s jobs and revenue that don’t do lasting damage to our state,” she said. “Think industrial hemp. Hemp can make over 25,000 products, including car bodies, building materials, textiles, fuel oils and biodegradable plastic. We don’t need gas anymore for energy or anything else.”
“We have over 100 hemp farmers in this state, and they can barely keep up with demand from this growing industry,” Keating continued. “Think of the jobs we could provide. Think of the tax revenue we could realize by putting a hemp factory into every county.”
Keating said grant funds are available for converting abandoned land mines into farm lands capable of growing hemp and other crops.
“Hemp is easy to grow and profitable,” Keating told the commission. “Grant money is out there for the taking to reclaim abandoned mine lands. Upshur County has over 40 sites suitable for reclamation by hemp or other crops. Hemp is about to take off. If we don’t jump on the opportunity soon, we are turning our backs on a huge source of revenue and turning our backs on the people of this state.”
Commissioners thanked Higgins, Keating and Campbell for their comments.
In response to a request from My Buckhannon, Norris, the spokesperson for Dominion Energy, said ACP has filed an appeal of the Fourth Circuit’s ruling on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s authorization, adding that oral arguments are scheduled to take place in March.
“At the hearing, we will present our argument that the Fish and Wildlife Service thoroughly considered everything in the Biological Opinion and Incidental Take Statement as issued,” Norris wrote in an email to My Buckhannon Monday. “Once we have a final decision from this appeal, we will better know what kind of impact it will have on our schedule.”
In response to comments at the commission meeting, Norris said ACP has been held to an extremely high regulatory standard.
“This voluntary suspension and further review only reinforces the incredibly high standard that is being applied to the project,” she wrote. “There have been more than 200,000 pages of documents submitted and more than 75,000 comments from the public in consideration of these permits. Every inch of the pipeline has been carefully examined for potential environmental impacts along with other impacts.
“As a result, we’ve changed the original pipeline route from more than 300 times to accommodate for environmental, social and historical sensitivity.”