North Carolina regulators Wednesday announced the latest round of setbacks for the 600-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline — delaying a decision on the project’s clean water certificate until as late as February and postponing several other environmental permits.
Virginia-based Dominion Resources had hoped to break ground last year on the $5.5 billion pipeline, slated to transport natural gas from West Virginia into Virginia and the Tar Heel state. Duke Energy, which seeks fuel for its gas-fired power plants, is the venture’s second major investor.
The feds approved the project in October, and just a few regulatory hurdles remain in the Virginias. But in North Carolina, Gov. Roy Cooper’s administration has moved more slowly — soliciting nearly 24,000 citizen comments on the pipeline and repeatedly asking for more information about its impact on air and water quality. Regulators here have issued only one of several licenses Dominion needs to begin construction.
Issued without any comment from the governor or the head of his environmental agency, Wednesday’s announcement comes as both pipeline foes and friends pressure Cooper to take a personal stand on the proposal. So far, the governor has been mum, signaling his stance on the project only through his officials’ implementation of federal and state environmental laws.
Following the actions announced Wednesday, here’s the status of five tests the pipeline must pass to become reality in North Carolina:
Air Quality: Project developers need to convince state regulators that emissions of smog, soot, and other toxic pollutants from a compressor station in at the Virginia border won’t exceed allowable limits. Advocates say the predominantly African American community in Northampton County where the facility is proposed is already over-burdened with dangerous emissions.
Before granting the compressor station a permit under the federal Clean Air Act, the state on December 4 asked Dominion for more information about releases of the carcinogen benzene. The company’s reply came January 9. A decision on the permit could come before the end of next week.
Rivers and streams: Trenching a pipe through streams can stir up dirt and other pollutants, and burying it underneath waterways risks spills of drilling fluid. With a 100-foot wide construction berth and over 300 rivers and streams in its path, the pipeline could cause major damage to the state’s waterways, wetlands, and the dozens of rare and endangered species that dwell in them.
The biggest test for pipeline developers is showing regulators they will minimize those harms — a requirement of Section 401 of the federal Clean Water Act. Two states in the past year and a half have rejected pipelines for failing to meet this standard.
North Carolina officials have asked Dominion for more information five times about how the pipeline would impact water quality, most recently on December 14. The last two requests have focused on a key talking point for project boosters: the businesses expected to locate in eastern North Carolina because of new natural gas availability in the region.
“[A]dditional information is necessary to determine whether the growth stimulating effected anticipated by the project would be expected to impact water quality,” read the latest letter from the Department of Environmental Quality. “More detailed information regarding development anticipated is necessary for this determination.”
Dominion responded on Dec. 20, giving the state 60 days to act on the 401 certificate.
Sedimentation and Erosion: On top of the 401 water permit, the state must approve pipeline developers’ plans during construction for minimizing erosion and sedimentation — the leading source of water pollution in the state.
After denying an earlier version, on Nov. 29, state officials approved Dominion’s sedimentation plan for the pipeline’s southern portion — the company’s sole North Carolina environmental permit to date. On Jan. 4, officials rejected the sedimentation plan for the northern counties; Dominion can submit a new plan.
Polluted runoff: Metering stations and contractors’ yards along the pipeline’s route will convert over a dozen acres of forests and farmland to concrete, creating polluted runoff. Regulators have asked for more information before it will approve two stormwater permits for these activities. Dominion hasn’t yet submitted an application for a third required permit.
Environmental Justice: In all but one county along the pipeline’s 180-mile route in North Carolina, African Americans, Native Americans and those living in poverty make up a greater percentage of the population than the statewide average. More than a quarter of the state’s Native Americans live along the project’s path.
A long-standing environmental equity policy requires the state to examine and mitigate disproportionate impacts on low-income communities, tribes, and people of color in all of its permitting decisions. The Department of Environmental Quality says its scrutiny of the pipeline to date has been intended, in part, to fulfill this policy.
“We’ve had a huge amount of…interest from our tribal governments and from many community groups who wanted to be sure that we took a careful look at environmental justice issues,” said Bridget Munger, a department spokesperson.