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Property owners in the pipeline’s path are relieved by recent delays that offer hope they might stop the project.
Ona is still standing on Miracle Ridge.
Much to the relief of Lynn and Bill Limpert, the nearly 300-year-old sugar maple on their property in rural Virginia hasn’t yet been cut or compromised to clear a right-of-way for construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.
That the gargantuan tree has been spared is encouraging for a couple so deeply immersed in preserving their 120-acre sanctuary in Bath County.
“It is a David and Goliath story, and David is getting some good shots in here,” Bill Limpert said about the pipeline opponents who have joined forces to halt — for now — Dominion Energy’s controversial natural gas project. “We feel we have a better chance at this point than we did back in October of stopping the pipeline or keeping it off of our property.”
His sunnier outlook stems from a mix of factors, chief among them a federal court ruling first issued last December and then reinforced in February.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, based in Richmond, ruled that the U.S. Forest Service lacked the authority to allow the pipeline to cross the Appalachian Trail. That same panel of judges also found that the Forest Service and pipeline planners ignored routes that would have avoided national forests.
If built, the pipeline would bisect Virginia for roughly 300 of its 600 miles to move hydraulically fractured natural gas from West Virginia to eastern North Carolina.
The Limperts’ property, full of steep series of ridges and hollows, is west of Charlottesville in a county abutting West Virginia. It borders national forest lands.
Elevations are as high as 3,600 feet. Meadow plants cover 3 to 4 acres, but dominant swaths of old-growth sugar maples and numerous types of oaks and hickories inspired the couple to choose names such as Miracle Ridge and Cathedral Hollow for swaths they consider sacred.
“If the pipeline can’t go through national forests, there’s a better chance it won’t go through our property,” Bill said. “We do have some hope of protection if that ruling stands.”
There’s a possibility the U.S. Supreme Court could have the final say.
Dominion will be filing an appeal with the high court within the next 90 days, said Karl Neddenien, a spokesman for the utility’s pipeline project. As well, the company is pursuing legislative and administrative options to restart construction.
“We expect these issues to be resolved in the coming months, whereby we will recommence construction,” Neddenien said.
He added that company data show that 151 electric transmission lines, 53 natural gas pipelines and 22 other energy fuel pipelines currently cross the Appalachian Trail between Georgia and Maine.
Birds, bats, bees provide short-term relief
The Limperts, who live in Maryland, bought the undeveloped property in Virginia’s Appalachian Mountains in 2009 as a retirement haven. In 2016, they received a letter from Dominion asking to purchase a pipeline right-of-way.
They have not signed either of the easement agreements offered by the pipeline developers, nor have they received the eminent domain orders they have been expecting — and dreading — for months.
Bill, 71, worked as a regulator for the Maryland Department of Environment while Lynn, 63, was a graphic artist. Their struggle to save their ancient trees, wildlife habitat and fragile landscape has led them to dedicate their retirement years to educating the public about pipeline threats.
The steep karst terrain is prone to landslides because the limestone underground channels are worn down by water from above and below ground. They worry that blasting during construction could collapse the channels and that shifting earth could cause the buried pipeline to explode.
Fittingly, the native bats, birds and bees they are eager to conserve could play a significant role in keeping their land whole through at least mid-November.
A Virginia measure geared to protect habitat for migratory birds prevents significant tree-cutting for several months beginning in mid-March. That overlaps with a similar measure extending into November that protects trees suitable as bat shelters.
Crevices in the bark of old trees on the Limperts’ property are considered excellent hideouts for the endangered Indiana bat.
“It’s possible that the [pipeline developers] could be granted a waiver of those restrictions,” Limpert said. “But we figure if we can make it to March 15, we can make it another 6 months.”
On the bee front, a three-judge panel with that same federal appeals court in Richmond voided a pipeline-related permit requested by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In mid-May, the judges said the federal agency had failed to set clear limits on the pipeline’s impact on at-risk species.
One of those species is the rusty-patched bumblebee, which has been spotted on the Limperts’ property and elsewhere along the pipeline route. Fish and Wildlife added it to the endangered list in 2017.
The court ruled that the agency’s limit on harassing, harming, wounding and killing of rusty-patched bumblebees and other endangered and threatened species was too vague.
Limpert said he worries that the bumblebee would be put in further jeopardy if the pipeline builders widen a four-mile access road near his property because it would require clearing swaths of the insect’s food source — mature rhododendron and mountain laurel.
Pipeline in jeopardy?
Dominion, the pipeline operator in Virginia, and Duke Energy of North Carolina have the largest financial stakes in the project.
Construction delays and cost increases have led to the pipeline being downgraded as an investment by Moody’s Investors Service, according to February news reports.
The original cost of $5.1 billion has risen to between $6.5 billion and $7 billion, according to a January report issued by two anti-pipeline organizations, Oil Change International and the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.
That same report stated that affordable renewable energy and a dropping demand for natural gas are compromising the pipeline’s profitability. The authors said pipeline investors are at risk of not being able to recover costs from ratepayers.
Nevertheless, Dominion is undaunted by those setbacks.
“Regardless of temporary delays … we are confident in the ultimate outcome: The [pipeline] will be completed,” said Neddenien, the utility spokesman.
Attorneys with the Southern Environmental Law Center question Dominion’s confidence about expecting a green light from the Supreme Court.
Considering that “the Supreme Court takes less than 1 percent of the cases brought to it, this seems like a real long shot for Dominion,” said Greg Buppert, a senior attorney with the law center. “Of course, we’ll respond to any petition the company files.”
Buppert and other law center attorneys have joined with coalitions of environmental and social justice advocacy organizations to spearhead most of the lawsuits against the pipeline. The effort has galvanized those dedicated to boosting renewable energy and keeping fossil fuels in the ground.
“Dominion’s plan to build this unnecessary project through a national park, two national forests and … steep terrain … never made sense,” Buppert said. “To make sure it could overcome … obstacles of its own making, the company tried to bully agency staff and run roughshod over the laws that protect these resources. But that plan has backfired.”
In August, the law center also challenged the initial decision by the Federal Energy Regulatory Committee in October 2017 to approve the pipeline. A federal court is expected to hear that case this fall.
While Dominion calls the pipeline “essential to meeting the energy needs of millions of Americans,” Virginia utility regulators seemed to call that into question last December when commissioners made the unprecedented move of rejecting Dominion’s long-term energy plan.
Dominion lashed out at the law center and other environmental advocacy organizations for linking the controversial pipeline to the order from the State Corporation Commission, which requires Virginia’s largest utility redo a plan that covers details such as customer base and power supply build-out from 2019 to 2033.
Will Cleveland, another law center attorney, said then that the connection was justified because Dominion had claimed in its plan that the pipeline was part of the infrastructure required to generate enough electricity for its customer base. He questioned the credibility of Dominion’s claim that it needs the pipeline for power generation when the commission had rejected Dominion’s plan and its electricity load forecasts.
With pipeline decisions in limbo, Limpert continues to plead with elected officials and state authorities via letters and phone calls for help in protecting the land he and Lynn are so passionate about.
It was a somber scene in early December, he said, when he and Lynn winterized their Bath County house before heading south for a break. They figured days were numbered for their prized trees and pondered putting their land on the market.
On the way out, their spirits were briefly lifted by their first-ever sighting of a bald eagle on their property.
A second mood-booster arrived within a week when the federal appeals court terminated the pipeline — at least temporarily.
“Believe me,” he said, “we let out a yell when we heard that news.”