The North Carolina Department of Environment Quality is expected to issue a water quality permit today for the controversial Atlantic Coast Pipeline, according to an email from the environmental advocacy group Appalachian Voices. If issued, the permit would be a huge coup for pipeline developers and a blow for the various environmental organizations that have lobbied against the major infrastructure project.
The $5 billion joint venture by Duke and Dominion energies is one of about a dozen pipelines in the Southeast, a handful of which have already been approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The six-hundred-mile pipeline would transport fracked gas from West Virginia through Virginia and continue through eight eastern North Carolina, ending in Robeson County.
Supporters say the pipeline will lower energy costs and lead to greater economic development in some of the poorest counties in the state. Opponents argue the ACP will cause irreparable environmental damage, lead to rising utility costs, and disproportionately affect poor and minority communities (about thirty thousand Native Americans live along the proposed route). The pipeline is slated cut through 320 waterways in North Carolina and affect a thousand landowners.
The water quality permit is one of a number of permits developers must gain before they can begin constructing the pipeline. Earlier this year, DEQ denied ACP’s application for a water-quality permit, inviting developers to resubmit their application with additional information about the project’s impacts on streams and waterways. In a statement, Duke called the decision a “normal part of the process.”
But opponents are deeply concerned about the project’s potential impacts on the state’s waterways. According to the Southern Environmental Law Center and the Sierra Club, the project’s construction will affect 37,000 feet of 326 waterways and at least 467 acres of wetlands. In those waterways and wetlands, they wrote in comments submitted to the DEQ, “the blasting and the digging of trenches will occur directly in saturated waters, causing excessive sedimentation and destroying fragile layers of hydric soil that rely on stable, low-oxygen conditions to perform unique wetland functions.” That “can seriously impair aquatic life and habitats.”
Thousands of comments were submitted to the DEQ during the open comment period for the water quality permit last summer. Pipeline foes say there is still no evidence that the project would be in complance with the Clean Water Act, thus justifying a water quality permit, and argue that none of the information that was submitted in response to requests from DEQ for additional background on the project’s affects on streams, wetlands, and rivers is sufficient.
“The agency seems to have been just leading keeping us busy, with repeated meetings an “listening sessions,” where overwhelming opposition to the ACP was clear,” said Therese Vick of the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League. “We know there are staff at DEQ who are taking their job to protect the public and its natural resources seriously, but the Governor and leadership at DEQ are willing to make a deal that does NOTHING to reduce the harm to communities of color and low income or on hundreds of landowners. This is one of the biggest Environmental Justice atrocities in NC history, perhaps the biggest!”
Update: In a press release DEQ confirmed that the permit was issued. “DEQ left no stone unturned in our exhaustive eight month review of every aspect of the 401 application,” said DEQ Secretary Michael Regan in a statement. “Our job doesn’t end with the granting of the permit but continues as we hold the company accountable to live up to its commitments. Our efforts have resulted in a carefully crafted permit that includes increased environmental protections, while giving us the tools we need to continue close oversight of this project as it moves forward.”