Augusta County: Too valuable and vulnerable for this pipeline?

Nancy SorrellsBy Nancy Sorrells
Augusta County Alliance Co-chair
Guest Post

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline, championed by Dominion and the governor of Virginia, has been grabbing a lot of headlines lately, as it should. One of the most significant proposed land-use issues in Augusta County’s history needs to be carefully studied from all angles. Knee jerk simplistic reactions, whether they be anti-pipeline “nimby-ism” or pro-pipeline comments such as “you like your electricity, don’t you?” really have no place in Augusta County’s discussion. This is much bigger and far more complicated than that.

The question in my mind then becomes an examination of the proposed pipeline route. Are the resources of Augusta County too valuable and vulnerable – to our citizens, our state, and our nation – to risk? And if the answer is yes, then that leads to the next question of, “If not here, where?” (I will leave the question of whether or not a pipeline is even necessary to another column at another time!)

After its people, which are always any community’s greatest resource, our region’s greatest natural resource is our abundance of good, clean water. Some places have unique natural resource wealth, such as coal or copper. Others have abundant fisheries or rolling grain fields. We have water. No water flows into Augusta County…it all flows out…to Washington, D.C., Richmond, and the magnificent Chesapeake Bay. We are the headwaters of the James, Shenandoah, and a little of the Potomac River.

Water is a powerful resource. Few places in the world are blessed with what we have. Our agricultural production is second in the state because of our water, our area industries thrive because of that water, and our citizens can turn on their tap without the daily worry that faces so many communities across the nation.

The word that everyone has been throwing out these days is karst. Karst topography is the term used to describe the dominate type of landscape in Augusta County. It is intertwined with our water. Underneath our soil, or sometimes jutting out from above it, is water-soluble limestone. Through eons of time water dissolves its way through that rock creating caves, fissures, and sinkholes. Water flows through these underground mazes, and surfaces as springs, rivers, and, when we give it help, in wells. Some of the water that surfaces has been wandering around underneath our feet for hundreds and even thousands of years. It is an incredible, fragile, and
changing resource.

And, yes, many parts of our nation are underlain by karst. However, all karst is not equal. Virginia planning officials actually single out Augusta County as having one of the most challenging types of karst in the state – called “long” karst – because of its tendency to suddenly subside (creating sinkholes) and to have especially large formations.

And, although we might not have known the word “karst,” we know what living in karst is like. We know that a neighbor’s leaking septic tank a mile away might contaminate your well or that a sinkhole could alter the flow from your spring, or blasting for roadwork might permanently muddy your well water. Without good, clean water we can’t farm, raise families, or invest in industry. We must be ever vigilant as individuals and as governments. That is why, in Augusta County for instance, millions have been spent investing in, protecting, and cleaning our water. It is why farmers have voluntarily partnered with the government to institute best management practices, fence livestock out of streams, and create riparian buffers. They are Augusta County’s future.

To insert a 42-inch high pressure natural gas line through this karst topography is a gamble too risky to imagine. The construction alone could permanently alter and damage myriad private and public water resources along the 43-mile route. The potential contamination, sedimentation, and altering of water recharge areas could be devastating. An October 31, 2014, study prepared for the Augusta County Service Authority summed up those concerns:

“The ACSA and Augusta County have invested hundreds of millions of dollars developing public water supplies and infrastructure to meet the growing water supply demands in Augusta County. Most of the water supplies in the county are obtained from sensitive karst aquifers that warrant the highest level of groundwater protection efforts to ensure a safe, reliable, and sustainable source of water for future generations. It is our professional opinion that all critical water resource areas serving the County, such as areas near ACSA Production Wells and Springs, designated groundwater recharge areas, wellhead protection areas, and future groundwater development zones, should be avoided when siting proposed gas transmission lines.”

Dominion’s proposed gas line route, drawn apparently with no investigation into any of these issues, slices through the sensitive karst areas supplying both Augusta and Staunton’s public water supplies and private home and farm supplies drawing from wells and springs. Although the known sinkholes in the state are easily documented on Virginia’s government websites and thus could easily be considered when drawing a pipeline route, there are at least 32 existing sinkholes on the route, jeopardizing the safety of our communities and of the pipeline itself if it is built. New sinkholes routinely open up naturally in the county; construction often causes them as well.

Although Dominion may claim that its pipeline engineers are able to safely deal with new sinkholes and dangling pipelines; analysis of this hazard by the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy and the Virginia Department of Emergency Management in its Commonwealth of Virginia Hazard Mitigation Plan (2013), specifically warns against pipelines in Augusta County’s karst.

The plan addresses ‘Karst Risk to Energy Pipelines’: “While karst is not the only cause of land subsidence, it tends to receive more attention in Virginia than the other causes, due to its potential for sudden and catastrophic events. . . .Pipeline infrastructure, underlain by karst terrain, can be damaged by a collapse in the supporting soil.”

The Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy notes that “A poor understanding of Karst terrain has led to land-use practices that pose significant economic and environmental impacts to households and communities. Sinkhole collapse, either slow or dramatic, regularly causes considerable damage to buildings, highways, rails, bridges, pipelines, storm drains, and sewers. In addition, sinkholes provide a pathway for surface water to directly enter groundwater aquifers, so the potential for pollution is high because of the minimal filtering of surface water.”

Although Dominion’s pocketbook may survive horrendously expensive engineering and clean up, what about the increase in the risk hazard of explosion and toxic leaks that may not be fixable in a karst topography?

The bottom line is this question: Is Augusta County too valuable and vulnerable to be viable as a route for the proposed gas line? If the answer is “Yes,” and the pipeline continues to be an on-going project then the question becomes one of where it could be safely located. The logical answer to that would be to put it on existing rights-of-ways and easements so as not to disturb public land or infringe on private property rights.

In order to get its pipeline project approved, Dominion must go through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). FERC guidelines state: “The use, widening, or extension of existing rights-of-way must be considered in locating proposed facilities.”

Dominion could co-locate almost 100 percent of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline on existing rights-of-way, including its own high-voltage power lines, as well as interstate highways, railroads, and other gas lines. Currently not a single foot of the proposed route is co-located with existing

As I said at the beginning, this is a complicated issue. What is clear in my mind, however, is that Augusta County is the wrong place for this project. Only the future will tell if there is an appropriate place for this pipeline, but what is obvious is that impacts on people’s property rights, safety, vital natural resources, land values, and quality of life have to be considered ahead of Dominion’s bottom line.

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Nancy Sorrells is a freelance historian, writer, and community leader from Greenville. She graduated from Riverheads High School, earned an undergraduate history degree from Bridgewater College, a secondary education teaching certificate from James Madison University, and a masters in history from JMU. After serving eight years on the Augusta County Board of Supervisors, she is now a “recovering supervisor,” and is completing her term on the Augusta County Service Authority as well. She and her husband Randy have two dogs, two cats, and 31 nieces and nephews. She can be reached at lotswife@comcast.net

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See also Special Issue: LynnRMitchell.com writers, guests discuss Atlantic Coast Pipeline:

Previous articles on the pipeline:

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3 thoughts on “Augusta County: Too valuable and vulnerable for this pipeline?

  1. […] Augusta County: Too valuable and vulnerable for this pipeline? by Nancy Sorrells […]

  2. […] Augusta County: Too valuable and vulnerable for this pipeline? by former Supervisor Nancy Sorrells […]

  3. […] Augusta County: Too valuable and vulnerable for this pipeline? by former Supervisor Nancy Sorrells […]

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