The History of The People vs. The Pipeline

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Heidi Cochrane painting her barn in Glass Hollow. Photo: Kathy Plunket Versluys.

To the surprise and immense joy of the community, on July 5, 2020, Dominion Energy made a sudden announcement that the Atlantic Coast Pipeline would be abandoned.

Looking back over the six-year struggle, the news is a huge win for those people most affected and fighting to save their homes, properties and livelihoods. A grassroots community-building effort grew into a powerful connection that brought together diverse persons capable of keeping the mountains whole. 

Nelson County citizens have long paid attention to preserving the surrounding beauty and their peaceful life. Shortly after Camille’s devastation, six major fish kills resulted from refining titanium ore along the south end of Route 151, until it ended in 1971. Today it remains an EPA Superfund site. In 1989, citizens organized to oppose a proposal by the U.S. Air Force to build a 300-foot tower in the area for military communication. Together with Fifth District Congressman L.F. Payne, the entire Ground Wave Emergency Network (GWEN) tower initiative was defeated nationwide. Additional defeats were dealt to efforts to mine uranium and proposed ideas for building a nuclear facility. 

This history may not have been thought about by those who sent letters to surprised landowners in the Rockfish Valley in May 2014. Letters began to show up in mailboxes in Afton that pitched a new opportunity described as the “Southeast Reliability Project.”

Ron Enders and Ellen Bouton of Afton received one of those letters. It informed the property owner that a survey was planned on July 1, 2014, in order to meet requirements of the permitting process for a proposed pipeline. Since the letter had no indication of where the pipeline would cross or who else was affected, Enders began knocking on neighbors’ doors to ask if they had received such a letter. He tenaciously searched County online property records in order to contact property owners. Not everyone got a letter. Many didn’t know if they were on the route. If a neighbor indicated yes, Enders drew a map that connected the “yes” parcels to indicate a route. The line curved through the Rockfish Valley from the Blue Ridge Parkway to Shannon Farm on Rt 635. 

Photo: Kathy Plunket Versluys.

In early June a meeting of those who received the letter was held at the Nelson Library and next steps were discussed. Many citizens attended the next Board of Supervisors meeting June 14. Thirteen citizens were permitted to speak, all of whom expressed opposition to the proposed pipeline. County Supervisors had no additional information to share with the public and the county website had posted information only from a Dominion email received on the proposal.

The Board meeting continued June 26 with public comments on the proposed pipeline. Connie Brennen, Central District Representative, stated the board was still waiting to hear an explanation from Dominion about what they were doing. Brennen noted that Dominion had not yet visited any counties in Virginia impacted by the proposed pipeline. Twenty-three citizens spoke that evening in opposition to the proposal. On July 8 the board voted unanimously to pass Resolution R2014-51, which stated that no surveys or property research would be allowed until a meeting took place to explain the project, proposed route and address questions and concerns. 

On August 12 the board held an evening session in the school auditorium to allow for over 600 citizens attending the first presentation from Dominion. Emmett Toms and Chet Wade, vice president of corporate communications, spoke on behalf of Dominion Transmission, Inc. The company employees in the front rows were present, according to Toms, to assist answering questions.

The proposed route was revealed by Wade, who stated the pipeline’s purpose was to meet the energy needs of West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina, and that it would not be built to export the natural gas. He explained the export idea had been assumed because of an extension of the line to Norfolk. Wade showed the map of Virginia’s existing pipelines owned by other entities and stated that there were 2.5 times as many miles of pipelines as there were roads. Proposed pipeline details were shared including the entire length of 550 miles, the 42-inch pipe diameter in Virginia, capacity of 1.5 billion cubic feet per day and the location of three compressor stations.

Meanwhile local citizens banded together. Friends of Nelson (FON) started with a group of residents along the north fork of the Rockfish River including Ron Enders, Kathy Plunket Versluys, Charlotte Rea, Joanna Salidis, Ernie Reed, Julie Burns, Anne Bateaux, and Jim Bolton, along with many more residents of Shannon Farm Community. Many FON meetings were held initially at the Acorn Inn Bed & Breakfast on Adial Road in Nellysford. The Acorn Inn, an established business owned by Kathy and Martin Versluys, was threatened when response to the land survey showed a map of the proposed pipeline as a diagonal line across the property. “It was a scary time,” remembered Versluys. 

Other groups soon followed, known as Pipeline Education Group, Free Nelson and All Pain No Gain. By September 2014, several energy companies joined and created the name Atlantic Coast Pipeline, LLC.    

Eleanor Amidon, founder of the Pipeline Education Group, was committed to volunteering at the Nelson Farmers Market in Nellysford every Saturday to offer No Pipeline bumper-stickers, yard signs and shirts and information. A hands-on look at just how big a 42-inch pipe is became an educational moment for many. Petitions were offered every week to identify those opposed.   

Citizen groups like these were all about supporting private property rights, renewable energy, clean water and environmental justice. Opposition to extraction energy requiring fracking, permanent contamination of water resources and the devastation of the land was a common theme. Friends of Nelson decided to file all the documents required to form a legal entity in order to work with Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) and began to strengthen the fight, which required funding through donations. To focus on a faster response in advocacy and direct action, Free Nelson maintained its efforts without outside funding or donations. Many pipeline opponents wanted to highlight the environmental impact. Others came together to support property rights for those who had lived on the land for generations or for the new buyer ready to build their house.  Over ninety percent of property owners denied permission for the survey, which was their first point of unity. 

On March 18, 2015, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) held a “scoping meeting” to solicit public comments on the proposed route. The process was a challenging one, starting with supporters of the pipeline treated to an early dinner to fill the signup list for public comments. Over 60% of residents who opposed the project didn’t have time to speak at all, according to Congressman Robert Hurt, whose letter to the FERC Chairman requested additional time for comments.   

The proposed ACP route then changed in March 2015. Known as the South Alternative Route, it proposed to cut through Spruce Creek in Nellysford and Wintergreen Resort’s domain, crossing the Appalachian Trail at Reeds Gap. Opposition to the pipeline then grew to include more and different Nelson property owners.

Richard and Jill Averitt, who own a large property on Spruce Creek and share it with two other related families, began to dedicate their time and treasure to the legal process and provided numerous public presentations, including a Congressional briefing in an environmental hearing.

The scoping meetings being held in various locations were a cause of protests in Washington, D.C., on May 27 that included street marches and blockades. Afton residents Joyce Burton, Helen Kimbel, and Amelia Williams attended a three-day, direct-action training and were then joined in the FERC protests by more community members, including Vicki Wheaton, Eileen Hueholt and Heidi Cochran. 

Friends of Wintergreen formed as a non-profit in July 2015. Fourteen different additional coalitions with the same goal were soon represented by SELC. Lawsuits required SELC to provide data and the mapping of locations, slopes and soils to document the environmental risks that FERC had not included in its review. The Alleghany-Blue Ridge Alliance (ABRA) was formed to organize communities into coalitions using their experience in pipeline monitoring. A lack of trust in government agencies to protect the environment later led to creation of a volunteer force known as Compliance Surveillance Initiative (CSI). CSI provided environmental analysis via Geographic Information Software (GIS) software and trained volunteer observers.  

Along the way, many had expressed resignation in the lopsided struggle of individuals against well-funded corporations and a powerful lobby. But there is also power where people work together in a common goal. The only regret expressed locally was postponing the celebration due to the pandemic. 

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