Group rallies opposition to gas pipeline through Floyd County

Posted: Friday, August 15, 2014 4:45 pm

A united community and region pack enough push-back to defeat or at least significantly temper corporate plans to route an interstate high-pressure natural gas pipeline through Floyd County and neighboring counties in Southwest and Southside Virginia.

That was the theme Thursday night of a meeting hosted by Citizens Preserving Floyd County. More than 200 people attended the gathering at Floyd EcoVillage to discuss concerns about the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline.

Blacksburg resident Elizabeth McCommon, a veteran of battles with energy utilities, told the crowd that a regional effort would be required to ensure the pipeline’s defeat. She said she would reach out to potential allies in the New River Valley.

Discussion Thursday night focused on the county’s vulnerable groundwater, property owners’ options when surveyors want access to their land, safety and other topics.

Jerry Boothe, a former member of the county’s board of supervisors, said easements previously sold to Dominion during the utility’s ultimately unsuccessful bid a decade ago to build a natural gas pipeline through Floyd and other counties could be transferred to other companies. The company ultimately abandoned plans to build the Greenbrier Pipeline after failing to secure enough customers for the pipeline’s gas.

Frank Mack, a spokesman for Dominion Transmission, a Dominion subsidiary, confirmed Friday that “any valid easements that we paid in full could be sold and assigned to an interested company or individual.”

News coverage in 2005 reported that few such easements had been sold in Floyd County.

Meanwhile, Mara Robbins, acting director of the recently organized Citizens Preserving Floyd County, said the campaign to block the pipeline has attracted some of the “most sharply focused minds in the county,” people with passion, energy and commitment to preserve the county’s quality of life.

EQT Corp., based in Pennsylvania, and NextEra Energy, based in Florida, announced plans in June to seek customers for a 330-mile pipeline that would transport natural gas from West Virginia to a delivery point in Pittsylvania County.

Robbins elicited applause from Thursday night’s crowd when she recounted a conversation she said she’d had with an employee of EQT about the proposed routing of the pipeline through seven counties in Virginia.

Robbins said she told the woman that “Floyd County was going to be a very complicated piece of the puzzle” for EQT and NextEra’s joint venture. And that observation seemed valid last night as Floyd residents who had come back to the land or never left it described strong ties to the county’s scenic beauty and agricultural heritage and determination to block the pipeline.

One focus of Thursday’s meeting was water and the potential for groundwater contamination.

Floyd County’s comprehensive plan notes that the county’s location along the Blue Ridge Plateau means that water flows out of the county and not in. The county includes tributaries of the New River and headwater streams for several rivers, including the Roanoke River, according to the comprehensive plan.

The plan notes that Floyd County “lacks true aquifers” but relies instead on water-filled fractures that can be vulnerable to contamination.

“Water is probably our biggest concern right now,” Robbins said.

Safety concerns also received attention Thursday night.

Gini Cooper, who played a role in opposing the Greenbrier Pipeline, said Thursday night that a high-pressure natural gas pipeline in Floyd County could pose significant safety risks and overwhelm regional fire departments and other emergency responders.

A so far undetermined number of county landowners have received letters from a right-of-way acquisition contractor working for EQT and NextEra. The letter notifies the landowner that their property is located within a survey corridor for the pipeline and reports that they will be contacted for permission to survey the land.

Earlier this week a spokeswoman for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission said property owners have no legal obligation to allow such surveyors on their property.

But Boothe noted Thursday that Virginia law allows surveyors for natural gas companies to work on private property without a landowner’s permission if specific notification requirements have been met.

Jane Cundiff, a county landowner who has received notice that her property is in the survey corridor, advised others in the same boat to use a camera and notes to document surveyors’ time on their land.

Fred First serves on two committees for Citizens Preserving Floyd County. He told Thursday’s crowd to prepare for “an environmental confrontation of epic proportions.”

McCommon and others stressed that organizing opposition quickly and raising money for the long haul — to hire attorneys, to pay Robbins for her time and more — would be key elements as the campaign to block the pipeline proceeds.

EQT and NextEra have said the pipeline will help meet growing demand for natural gas as a cleaner alternative to coal for power generation. As envisioned, the gas pumped through the pipeline will have been extracted from Marcellus and Utica shale formations through hydraulic fracturing, a process often referred to as “fracking.”