Federal review recommends leaving cancelled Atlantic Coast Pipeline pipe, felled trees in place

Draft analysis declines to weigh in on easement issue

By: - July 27, 2021 12:02 am

Trees that were felled along the route of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. (Marion Kanour via Friends of Nelson)

A federal review of a plan to restore land disturbed by construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline prior to its cancellation in July 2020 recommends that some 31 miles of installed pipeline and 83 miles of trees felled for the project be left in place to minimize further disturbance to wildlife and vegetation. 

“Overall, we believe removing the installed pipe would destabilize currently stable and restored lands; impact affected lands, property owners, and area residents a second time … and impact anew and prolong (by years) the impacts on the environment,” concluded the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s Office of Energy Projects. 

The conclusions, which require commission approval and are not a formal decision, were issued Friday as part of a mammoth 727-page document known as a draft supplemental environmental impact statement

The review evaluates restoration plans submitted by Atlantic Coast Pipeline for the closeout of that project, as well as for the related Supply Header project that would have shipped gas through Pennsylvania and West Virginia but has also since been cancelled. 

Those plans, developed by pipeline owners Dominion Energy and Duke Energy, called for leaving already installed pipe in place, removing 83 miles of trees that had been felled but not cleared, restoring another 83 miles of cleared and graded land and backfilling and reclaiming sites where facilities were being constructed. 

FERC staff concurred with many of the proposals except for the plan for removing felled trees, which it said should be left in place unless landowners object. 

“Several years have passed since the trees were felled; vegetation has grown up around the felled trees and wildlife now occupies this vegetation/habitat. As they exist today, we generally believe that conditions in these areas can be considered akin to natural succession and a benefit to restoration/stabilization,” the draft supplemental EIS says. 

Staff concede, however, that leaving the trees in place “can also be considered as an impediment to land use and potentially inhibit landowner access to parts of their property.”

“Where landowners prefer removal of felled trees that were not previously cleared … Atlantic should remove the felled trees from the landowner tract,” they write. 

Dominion spokesperson Aaron Ruby said Atlantic Coast is still “carefully reviewing” the document.

What FERC’s draft review doesn’t settle is the thorny question of what will happen to the more than 2,600 permanent easements covering 4,290 acres that Atlantic Coast obtained from landowners over the course of its years-long work on the project. 

Dozens of property owners have urged FERC to force the pipeline company to return the easements. Atlantic Coast paid for the permanent right to access the lands, and Ruby has said more than 95 percent of them were relinquished voluntarily. But many landowners argue that the project’s cancellation has erased the justification for the easements, and that they constitute what the Southern Environmental Law Center has called “a severe, continuing and now wholly unwarranted burden on properties.” 

This May, Atlantic Coast indicated in response to a series of FERC questions that it may be open to negotiations over the easements once restoration is complete. 

“Atlantic will need to retain ownership of those easements until restoration and closeout of federal, state and local permits and the appropriate monitoring periods have been completed,” the developer wrote to the commission May 7. “At such time, ACP will communicate with landowners on a case-by-case basis to determine the permanent disposition of the easement.” 

FERC staff’s environmental review acknowledges the complaints by landowners, who have asked the commission to intervene on their behalf to negotiate the final disposition of the easements. 

However, the draft supplemental EIS declines to weigh in on the matter, saying “contractual issues regarding easement agreements are not environmental issues and therefore are outside the scope of the” review. 

Lewis Freeman, executive director of the Allegheny-Blue Ridge Alliance, a coalition of groups that opposed the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, said he was “disappointed” that the draft environmental impact statement had not addressed the easements. 

“While we understand that FERC staff considers such an issue beyond the scope of the SEIS, we strongly believe that FERC has an obligation to affected landowners to address this issue since the easements in question exist only because FERC provided Atlantic Coast Pipeline, LLC the authority to take the land in the first place,” he said.

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is Editor-in-Chief of the Mercury and previously its environment and energy reporter. She has worked for multiple Virginia and regional publications, including Chesapeake Bay Journal, The Progress-Index and The Caroline Progress. Her reporting has won awards from groups such as the Society of Environmental Journalists and Virginia Press Association, and she is an alumna of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and Metcalf Institute Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists.