By Brian Carlton, Waynesboro News Virginian
WAYNESBORO — Letters sent out to landowners impacted by the Atlantic Coast Pipeline in Augusta, Buckingham and Nelson counties violated state law, project opponents say. Dominion officials, meanwhile, claim the problem stems from a mistake made while typing up the documents and will soon be corrected.
On Feb. 23, letters were sent out to all landowners in the study corridor for the pipeline’s alternative routes, telling them when the company would start surveying properties. Each of those letters stated that “Dominion plans to begin studies along the newly developed route alternatives on or about March 2, 2015.”
The problem with that statement is the fact the Virginia Code requires landowners be given at least a 15-day notice before utility company officials come on their land. Under the terms set out in the letters, they would get less than seven.
“Dominion has failed to give the required 15 days notice before entry,” said Joanna Salidis, president of Friends of Nelson, a group opposed to the pipeline. “Dominion is taking a heavy-handed approach by bullying residents into allowing surveys by announcing they will begin surveys in less than one week.”
Section 56-49.01 of the Virginia Code states that a natural gas company may go on a person’s property to survey that land for a proposed gas line. However, the gas company must notify the property owner by mail, no less than 15 days before the proposed survey.
There are currently two lawsuits challenging if that law is constitutional.
Ernie Reed, president of the environmental group Wild Virginia, argued that sending out the letters was an attempt to collect survey information before a verdict is reached in either case.
“Dominion is randomly violating personal property rights and usurping individuals’ rights to privacy,” Reed said.
Dominion officials, meanwhile, said the date on the letters came about because of an accident.
“We regret the clerical error,” Dominion spokesman Frank Mack wrote in a statement. “The date to begin studies should have been ‘March 12, 2015.’ We apologize for this error and will not be surveying in Virginia on March 2. By the state statute, Dominion will restart the process and soon will be mailing a new round of letters to the same landowners.”
The alternative routes include a portion running through eastern Augusta County, cutting through the George Washington National Forest eight miles southwest of the original plan.
In addition to a new location, the alternative route would be installed a different way. Dominion would use directional boring, installing the pipe through a horizontal directional drill rather than going straight down.
The second alternative would avoid portions of Nelson County hit by Hurricane Camille in 1969. That includes Davis Creek and portions that the Nature Conservancy identified as critical habitats for animals.
The final alternative would avoid the historic Norwood-Wingina area, crossing the James River about three miles northeast of that portion of Nelson.
“It has always been our intent to follow the letter and spirit of the law, including the process for gaining survey access,” Mack wrote in the statement. “We take full responsibility for what happened and will take steps to ensure it does not happen again.”