By Sean Cockerham
Fred Powell was born under the misty mountain ridges that hug southwest Virginia, beneath the Appalachian Trail and where Shenandoah National Park's Skyline Drive turns into the Blue Ridge Parkway, in a farmhouse his great-great-grandfather built in 1832.
Part of the so-called "Breadbasket of the Confederacy" during the Civil War, farmers have long worked the land, raising cows and crops, joined in recent years by wineries and craft breweries that attract day-trippers from the college town of Charlottesville.
This quiet area is being roiled by plans announced in September to put it in the path of a 42-inch pipeline from West Virginia through North Carolina. The Atlantic Coast Pipeline, primarily a project of Dominion Resources and Duke Energy, would ship natural gas 550 miles from the fracking fields of the Marcellus and Utica shales to economically struggling counties in eastern North Carolina, where there are hopes it will help to attract industry.
Powell, like others in Virginia's Nelson and Augusta counties, is refusing to allow Dominion Resources to come through his farmland and survey for the pipeline right of way, saying they'll do whatever they can to try to stop the $5 billion project.
"We're not against pipelines, but the location for this is terrible," said Powell, 65, whose fears range from water contamination to an explosion.
The view is different in the lowlands of eastern North Carolina, where the pipeline would deliver its cargo after narrowing to 36 inches. Opposition does exist, as seen at a mid-October public hearing in Rocky Mount, but so does a powerful sense of opportunity.
The plans call for the pipeline to end in rural Robeson County, where the most recent Census Bureau statistics showed 1 in 3 residents living in poverty. It's among the poorest areas in the nation, with the highest violent-crime rate in North Carolina.
"We need help," said Greg Cummings, the economic development director for Robeson County, who expects there will be feeder lines to increase the availability of natural gas for industrial parks in the area.
"It's going to play a major role as far as helping us to market our industrial parks," Cummings said. "The majority of companies manufacturing today, 90 percent of them, they are asking for natural gas."
North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican, is a big pipeline supporter. So is Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, who called it a "game changer" for his state's economy. The pipeline is proposed to have a spur to Virginia's populous Hampton Roads area, near the coast.
But in the eyes of many in the mountainous region along the border of Virginia and West Virginia, the project would just mean destruction. The pipeline, mostly to be buried about 3 feet deep, would have a 125-foot-wide construction right of way. A coalition of nearly two dozen groups with concerns about the project has formed, calling itself the Allegheny-Blue Ridge Alliance.
Opponents of the pipeline argue that the area's karst topography of limestone, susceptible to sinkholes, is an unstable place to build a pipeline, which could contaminate the drinking water.
They predict damage as the pipeline carves into the George Washington and Monongahela national forests, with the Southern Environmental Law Center, for example, saying it would threaten sensitive habitat. Some speak of fears for their children and the explosive potential of a highly pressurized natural-gas pipeline near schools. People whose land has been in their families for generations fear that Virginia-based Dominion Resources will use eminent domain to force the pipeline through. "We're just everyday people who feel like we are getting run over," said Nancy Sorrells, who is on the Augusta County water and sewer board.
Chet Wade, vice president of corporate communications for Dominion Resources, argued that there's a lot of misinformation about the project, including "completely fabricated" claims that the natural gas is meant for export. He said worries of polluted water were overblown and that pipelines were commonly built in karst areas. Schoolchildren have nothing to fear, he said.
The plan comes as utilities such as Charlotte, N.C.-based Duke Energy, which would own 40 percent of the pipeline, increasingly turn to natural gas made cheaper by the boom in hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking. Duke has retired half its 14 coal-burning power plants in North Carolina in the past three years, while opening five natural gas-fired plants.
Nearly all of the 1.5 billion cubic feet of natural gas a day that would run through the pipeline has been reserved by utilities such as Duke, Piedmont Natural Gas, Virginia Power Services Energy and Virginia Natural Gas. While the proposed pipeline may not lower energy bills for consumers, the utilities say it might prevent spikes during extreme weather.