CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A federal examination of the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline includes how the project might affect underground terrain, sinkholes, forests, sensitive species like Indiana bats, groundwater, wildlife, property values, the economy and more.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on Friday released its draft environmental impact statement of the pipeline project, which would deliver up to 1.5 billion cubic feet a day of natural gas to Virginia and North Carolina.

MORE Read the preliminary environmental impact statement here.

The pipeline would cross 600 miles, beginning in Harrison County, West Virginia. A separate but related project, the Supply Header Project, would provide customers with access to the Dominion South Point supply hub in Pennsylvania.

The commission, which has the major federal say-so over the project, gave an initially positive review in a 742-page report. The conclusions were reached in cooperation with other agencies, including West Virginia’s Department of Environmental Protection and Division of Natural Resources.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission specified a few alterations and plans necessary to address environmental issues but concluded that the project is necessary economically, that it has made adjustments already to minimize environmental effects, and that none of the proposed alternative routes would really be any better.

“This was a major milestone for us and a major milestone for the industry,” Bob Orndorff, senior policy advisor for Dominion Natural Resources, the company developing the pipeline, said today on “Talkline” with Hoppy Kercheval.

HOPPY KERCHEVAL: West Virginia needs the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

The draft environmental impact statement will be subject to public comment until April 6. After that, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission would issue a final environmental impact statement and then a ruling.

The final ruling would focus on the environmental impact; whether there’s a need for the project; and whether the gas it will deliver will be at prices that are “just and reasonable. Dominion hopes to begin construction next fall.

“This tells us that we are on track; we’re doing the right thing,” Orndorff said.

“This is just one part of the process. The public has the opportunity to comment on this. There will be some comments that we’ll look at very closely. It’s by no means over.”

The Southern Environmental Law Center, the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club and Appalachian Voices and others released a joint statement remaining critical of the $5.1 billion project.

They wrote, “The Atlantic Coast project would pump fracked gas across West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina, harming communities, water resources, private property, historic sites, and iconic public treasures including the Blue Ridge Parkway and Appalachian Trail. The groups say FERC failed to honestly assess these impacts and disregarded evidence that the project would lock consumer into decades more reliance on dirty fossil fuels.”

Orndorff said Dominion worked closely with those groups and that federal regulators looked very closely at the details of the pipeline project.

“We think FERC did a very comprehensive evaluation of this project,” Orndorff said.

Here’s a closer look at the conclusions drawn by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, mostly drawn from the 15-page executive summary:

Community concerns

Numerous commentors stated the Atlantic Coast Pipleine and Supply Header Project would not benefit their communities. Federal regulators say they have taken these concerns into account, but they initially conclude that the pipeline’s economic and security benefits weigh more heavily.

“Whereas a specific location may not benefit from direct connection to a particular interstate natural gas transmission pipeline, interstate transmission pipelines are necessary to transport natural gas from source areas to demand centers, and end use customers including electric generation facilities, industrial plants and local distribution companies,” the agency wrote.

States that do not produce appreciable natural gas, including Virginia and North Carolina, will benefit. Most of the transported gas in the Atlantic Coast Pipeline project, an estimated 79.2 percent, would be used as a fuel to generate electricity for industrial, commercial and residential uses.

The result would increase reliability and security of natural gas supplies in Virginia and North Carolina, according to the introduction of the main FERC report.

The report noted that there is only one major interstate pipeline system that serves as the single source of natural gas to most customers in North Carolina.

That’s the Transcontinental Gas Pipe Line Company, which crosses north-south and primarily serves customers in the western part of North Carolina. The report notes that there are currently no interstate natural gas transmission pipelines that serve eastern North Carolina.

Dominion has already lined up six customers who want to take 96 percent of the natural gas that would be supplied through the line. FERC notes that those are different customers than would be served by the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline.

“Additionally, the (Energy Information Administration) projects natural gas consumption will continue increasing due to population growth, industrial consumption and electric power generation.”

West Virginia also would gain economically, according to FERC.

“During construction, ACP and SHP would benefit the state and local economies by creating a short-term stimulus to the affected areas through payroll expenditures, local purchases of consumables and project-specific materials and sales tax. Operation of the projects would result in long-term tax benefits for the counties crossed.”

Some comments focused on the projects’ effects on personal property values.

FERC wrote: “The effect that a pipeline easement may have on a property value is a damage-related issue that would be negotiated between the landowner and the applicants during the easement acquisition process, which is designed to provide fair compensation to the landowner for the company’s right to use the property for pipeline construction and operation.”

Re-sale value may vary on a case-by-case basis, the agency wrote.

“Based on literature reviews and discussions with real estate appraisers, we conclude that ACP and SHP would not result in decreased property values.”

Alternatives evaluated

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission says it looked at pipeline project alternatives — including not proceeding with the project at all, finding alternative sources of natural gas from existing providers and route changes.

“Based on our evaluations, we conclude that the major pipeline route alternatives and variations do not offer a significant environmental advantage when compared to the proposed route, or would not be economically practical; and therefore, are not preferable to the proposed action,” the agency wrote.

Not proceeding with the project at all would eliminate short- and long-term environmental effects, but the markets in Virginia and North Carolina would not receive the natural gas within a reasonable timeframe, according to FERC.

Trying to modify other, existing sources of natural gas also would be impractical, FERC concluded.

The agency says it evaluated 14 major pipeline route alternatives, including routes that would follow the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline right-of-way, existing electric transmission rights-of-way, and interstate/highway rights of way, plus routes to try to avoid crossing national forests and national parks.

FERC noted that the pipeline planners had already developed and adopted a 90-mile route change to avoid sensitive salamander habitats.

“Based on our evaluations, we conclude that the major pipeline route alternatives and variations do not offer a significant environmental advantage when compared to the proposed route or would not be economically practical; and therefore, are not preferable to the proposed action.”

Safety

The regulators say all of the proposed facilities would be built to meet or exceed minimum state and federal standards.

“In addition to meeting all federal design standards, the Atlantic and DTI would also regularly monitor their facilities and perform routine inspections to ensure facility integrity,” the regulators wrote. “These efforts would assist in the early detection of anomalies and would reduce the likelihood of a pipeline incident.”

Terrain

One issue the regulators studied is how pipeline development would affect karst terrain, which is created by the dissolution of carbonate bedrock. It is characterized by sinkholes, caverns, underground streams, springs and other similar features. The proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline route would cross 32.5 miles of karst terrain.

“Constructing and operating ACP in West Virginia and Virginia could induce sinkhole development, alter spring characteristics, and impact local groundwater flow and quality,” the regulators wrote.

But the pipeline developers have taken steps to minimize such risks, according to FERC.

“This is further supported by many miles of similar pipeline facilities that were installed using similar methods and have safely operated in karst-sensitive areas for decades,” FERC wrote.

Much of the project that would go through the karst terrain would be overland, reducing risk below ground surface, FERC wrote. Before construction, the pipeline developers would perform electrical sensitivity investigation surveys to detect portions along the route with the potential for karst development. The results would be corroborated with boring logs.

The project would employ a karst specialist to monitor such features identified along the right-of-way and to monitor for karst features that could form during construction.

Public land and recreation areas

The pipeline would cross the Monongahela National Forest and the George Washington National Forest, as well as the Blue Ridge Parkway and Appalachian National Scenic Trail.

Federal regulators acknowledged potential effects and said most could be temporary or minimized. Rules specific to national forests would need to be followed, and the pipeline developers propose to use horizontal drilling to avoid disturbing the ground or vegetation between the entry and exit points.

But some effects would occur.

“The removal of trees would result in a long-term impact at temporary workspace areas and a permanent impact within the operational right-of-way,” FERC wrote. The regulators are asking the pipeline developers to identify by milepost the locations where a narrowed construction right of way would be adopted to reduce effects on forest land.

Some commentors worried that the project would affect natural beauty along the route.

“Pipeline construction and maintenance of the cleared pipeline right-of-way would result in a greater degree of visual impacts in heavily forested areas with high elevations and along steep mountainsides such as in West Virginia and northwestern Virginia,” the regulators wrote.

FERC recommends that the pipeline developers maintain a permanent right-of-way of only 50 feet to reduce long-term visual impacts.

The pipeline would also cross scenic byways, permanently affecting the surrounding beauty because of the trees that are removed. The regulators recommended that the pipeline developers file site-specific visual mitigation measures for each scenic byway crossing while working with appropriate federal, state and local agencies.

Vegetation and wildlife

The pipeline project would have long-term to permanent effects on about 4,208 acres of vegetation. Effects on vegetation could vary, depending on how much time is required to re-grow.

“The greatest impact on vegetation would be on forested areas because of the time required for trees to return to preconstruction condition,” the regulators wrote. “Construction in forest lands would remove the green canopy over the width of the construction right-of-way, which would change the structure and local setting of the forest area.

“The regrowth of trees in the temporary workspaces would take years and possibly decades, and ACP and SHP would contribute to forest fragmentation.”

A variety of plans, plus limiting the right-of-way along the pipeline to 50 feet, would help reduce the effects on vegetation and forests, according to FERC.

Wildlife could be displaced from the right-of-way or work sites, and some individual animals could die, according to regulators.

“The cutting, clearing and/or removal of existing vegetation within the construction work area could also impact wildlife by reducing the amount of available habitat for nesting, cover and foraging,” the regulators wrote.

“Construction also lower reproductive success by disrupting courting, nesting or breeding of some species, which could also result in a decrease in prey available for predators of these species. These impacts would be temporary, lasting only while construction is occurring, or short-term, lasting no more than a few years until the preconstruction habitat and vegetation type is reestablished.”

Sensitive species

Five federally-listed species — Indiana bat, Northern long-eared bat, Roanoke logperch, running buffalo clover and Madison Cave isopod — could be affected by the pipeline project, FERC concluded.

The pipeline developers should describe potential effects and develop species-specific conservation measures with applicable state agencies, the federal regulators recommended. The agency also recommends continued studies of what species might be affected and how.

Groundwater

Commentors expressed concern that groundwater could be adversely affected by the projects.

“Based on the proposed construction methods and implementation of project-specific plans and procedures that would avoid or reduce project-related impacts, and considering the tremendous extent and high productivity of the aquifers in the project areas, we conclude that construction and operation of ACP and SHP would not result in a significant impact on aquifers or other groundwater resources,” the regulators wrote.

“Importantly, natural gas is not miscible in water, unlike oil or refined liquid products. Therefore, if a pipeline incident resulting in a release of natural gas were to occur, the released gas would migrate up and rapidly dissipate into the atmosphere and there would be no contamination risk to surrounding soil and groundwater media.”

Wetlands and water bodies

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline and Supply Header Project would go across 1,989 water bodies, according to regulators.

“Trenchless installation methods place the pipeline below the water body and avoid direct impacts on water quality and aquatic life,” the regulators wrote.

The projects would temporarily affect 786.2 acres of wetland, and operation would affect 248.3 acres of wetland.

Based on avoidance and minimization plans developed by the pipeline developers and those recommended by FERC, “we conclude that surface water and wetland impacts would be effectively minimized or mitigated,” the regulators wrote.

Cumulative impacts

The pipeline project would occur in a region that has already been affected by human activity such as timbering, agriculture, community and industrial development and introduction of non-native plants and animals and insects, the regulators noted.

The pipeline project would add to that.

“Long-term cumulative impacts would occur on forested wetland and upland forested vegetation and associated wildlife habitats,” the regulators wrote. “Short-term cumulative benefits would also be realized through jobs and wages and purchases of goods and materials. There is also the potential that the proposed projects would contribute to a cumulative improvement in regional air quality if a portion of the natural gas associated with the proposed project displaces the use of more polluting fossil fuels.

“However, based on the implementation of impact avoidance minimization and mitigation measures, we have concluded that the majority of impacts from construction of ACP and  SHP, when added to the impacts of other pojects, would not result in a significant cumulative impact on the environment.”

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