The flags came first—colored plastic and metal rods stuck in the soft ground that turned Donovan McLaurin’s Cumberland County property into a giant earthy pincushion.
That was around 2015, McLaurin reckons, not long after the 600-mile, $8 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) was first proposed. The product of a partnership between Dominion Energy and Duke Energy, the pipeline was designed to deliver some 1.5 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day from the Appalachian Basin through West Virginia, Virginia, and, as it turned out, straight through McLaurin’s backyard in southeastern North Carolina.
The flags were the first paragraph in a chapter of McLaurin’s life that has dragged on for more than five years and is set to stretch out even longer. Last summer, Dominion and Duke announced they were canceling the pipeline due to ballooning costs and ongoing legal hurdles. But recently, Dominion said it does not plan to release individuals from easements and land claims it secured for the project, leaving McLaurin and roughly 3,000 other landowners with costly and potentially permanent scars.
McLaurin’s experience tracks with others’ who own property located up and down the pipeline’s proposed route. After the survey flags came the offers. Land agents for the project came knocking on McLaurin’s door with an initial offer for a nearly 11-acre strip, running straight through the middle of his land. Fifteen years ago, the 74-year-old had purchased the tract—some 39 acres in total—for just under $350,000. The land agent’s first proposal was a check for $34,000.
“I said, ‘Have you lost your damn mind?’” McLaurin recalls. “I told him he was a carpetbagging, land-stealing thief.”
Other landowners echoed McLaurin’s experience, describing the initial offers on their land as “woefully lowball” or “chicken feed.” The second offer to McLaurin was higher, but still not enough to compensate for a project he figured would make his land essentially worthless. A longtime worker for a regional glass manufacturer, he had plans to build himself a home there and had gentlemen’s agreements secured to sell off a few segments.
But those plans have since been scuppered.
In a 2017 complaint McLaurin filed with multiple state agencies, including the Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division, the state Board of Examiners for Engineers and Surveyors, the Real Estate Commission, and the N.C. State Bar, he wrote that the companies “play games” with landowners to secure easements, including using emotional manipulation and intentionally undervaluing property.
“They intimidate all with threats of eminent domain and have no regard for what you paid for your land or your plans for it,” McLaurin wrote in the complaint. He never heard back.
In early 2018, the ACP submitted to McLaurin its final offer: $7,600. He didn’t take it. A day after the offer expired, he was served with a 350-page eminent domain lawsuit. For a variety of reasons, McLaurin didn’t end up going to court, and anyway, he didn’t want to pay a lawyer to fight what he felt was an uphill battle.
Some landowners did go the legal route.
Marvin Winstead, a Nash County farmer, rejected the companies’ offers and decided to hire a lawyer to fight the easement claim on his property that would have, he says, severely hampered his crop production and felled a 100-year-old pine tree—his mother’s favorite. Though he had help—he was backed by the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League (BREDL)—the case was a time-consuming, uncertain slog.
“It was a six-year disruption of my life,” Winstead says. “I was working on this thing like a full-time job. I was going at it seven days a week if necessary.”
The case was still being litigated when the companies announced the project’s cancellation, and Winstead’s lawyer has since filed a motion attempting to recoup legal fees. But the fact that the companies would put as much time, effort, and money into his sliver of land told Winstead everything he needed to know about their priorities.
“All they care about is getting their pipe in the ground and pumping gas through it,” he says. “No concern over what they do to the landowners, or to the community, and they’re certainly not concerned about what they’re doing to the world at large by expanding the use of natural gas.”
Further north on the pipeline’s route, Richard Averitt and his family were hoping to build a getaway for travelers near the Blue Ridge Parkway in Nelson County, Virginia. Six years and more than six figures in legal fees later, they, like Winstead, were able to stave off the companies’ attempts to commandeer their land until the project was canceled.
A permanent easement would have meant a loss of millions in property value, according to Averitt. Still, the 50-year-old said it would be a stretch to call the outcome a victory. He estimated the family worked 20 hours a week wrangling with the companies; for years, they hesitated to leave town, afraid of a missed legal summons or that the companies would simply come on to the property and start digging. But they were the lucky ones, Averitt says, with the means to fight back.
“I feel terrible for those folks who signed easements under duress,” he says. “The system is bent so outrageously toward these for-profit companies.”
Averitt says he thinks large corporations in general intentionally target rural communities that don’t have the resources to fight back.
“Once we got into this, we realized that this is not new,” he says. “It’s been happening for years to economically disadvantaged Black and brown folks in rural communities with the least voice.”
Because McLaurin didn’t show up to his 2018 court date, Duke and Dominion won the judgment. Within days, workers with chainsaws swarmed his property, cutting it up “from one ear to the other.”
Now, when you walk around McLaurin’s property—just down the road from the Wade Town Hall—it’s hard to come up with a better description. The land, dotted with poplar, black gum, and water oak, backs up to the Cape Fear River, a major source of drinking water for the eastern part of the state. In the two years after workers first broke ground, they have fully split the ground in two.
Near the creek that flows into the river, a huge bite has been taken out of the land, with mounds of sandy soil stacked 30 feet high on either side of the path where the pipe would have been installed. The softness of the earth forced the companies to build hundreds of yards of “beam roads” through the woods, arranging large wood planks on the ground so heavy machinery would have stable surfaces to maneuver on while clearing, cutting, and digging. The barn house where McLaurin lives is visible from the clearing, as are the corrals where he keeps a few horses.
“How would you ever fix a place like this? What would you do with it now?” he asked. “It’s pretty much ruined.”
Recently, as required by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), Duke and Dominion released plans to restore and clean up the construction and disturbances along the pipeline’s route, which they aim to complete by the end of next year. But some landowners are unsatisfied with the plan, which will leave in place all 31.4 miles of completed pipe, as well as a portion of the more than 100 miles of felled trees.
Even more concerning for people like McLaurin, though, is what might come next. The same day the companies announced the pipeline’s cancellation, Dominion announced that it would sell its gas transmission and storage assets to Berkshire Hathaway in a $9.7 billion deal. Those assets did not include the collected easements, which are earmarked specifically for the construction of a natural gas pipeline.
Other than the restoration and finishing out the remaining court cases with folks like Averitt and Winstead, Dominion said it does not have any current plans for the easements and other land claims.
“We paid fair market value for the easements, so we plan to keep them at this time,” Dominion spokesman Aaron Ruby wrote in an email. “For the next two years, we will be focused on concluding the project and restoring disturbed areas. We do not have any other plans for the easements at this time.”
But for McLaurin, the fact that the companies refuse to release the land back to owners is cause for concern: While Duke and Dominion may have folded their hands, what’s to stop another company coming in and deciding a pipeline is worth its while?
“Now see, what does that tell you? If I don’t have plans for something, I’ll throw it in the trash. If I do have plans for something, I’ll put it on the shelf,” McLaurin says. “They’re just like a cat sitting there waiting for the rat to come back around.”
And if it’s not the ACP, there will always be another project (like the Mountain Valley Pipeline, for instance, proposed along a 300-mile stretch of land, from northwestern West Virginia to southern Virginia) that communities have to deal with—unless someone changes the system. That change, says Sharon Ponton, a community organizer who works with BREDL, lies with reform at the source: regulatory agencies like FERC, and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which helps craft the rules and routes for projects like the ACP.
“There’s got to be major changes,” Ponton says, including forcing companies to obtain all the necessary easements and certifications for the entire length of a project before any ground is broken.
FERC itself needs oversight and reorganization that would afford at least a little more power to individuals, she added.
“They are very anti-community and landowner and very pro-industry,” Ponton says of the regulatory agency.
Early last year, congressman Jamie Raskin (D-MD) launched an investigation into FERC and its certification of projects such as the ACP. The investigation found that over the past 20 years, FERC has granted more than 1,000 certificates of public convenience and necessity—the designation required for a company to exercise eminent domain—while rejecting only six, a 99 percent approval rate.
The investigation also found that over the past 12 years, FERC has denied every landowner appeal it has received.
“A system where corporations win nearly 100 percent of the time, and people win zero percent of the time, is not a fair, unbiased, and balanced system,” Raskin said at a congressional hearing in December. “It is rigged. That is not a system of justice or of administrative process that anyone can recognize for a democratic society.”
Ambling around his property on a recent, chilly afternoon, McLaurin sees both the forest and the trees. He wants systemic change, but he also realizes the need for immediate and just compensation for landowners, many of whom can’t afford to wait around for the gears of bureaucracy to turn. In speaking of having the rug pulled out from under him, he is quick to appreciate the irony of his situation.
“You’re dealing with stolen merchandise to start with,” he said with a laugh. “I got it from somebody who got it from somebody who stole it from the Indians. If you really think about it, you really ain’t got a hell of a lot of room to complain.”
But at the end of the day, he added, that doesn’t excuse the behavior of companies that, in his eyes, target vulnerable communities and strong-arm people in the name of corporate profit.
“If they treated people right and paid them equitably, there wouldn’t be near as much to think about,” he says. “But that wasn’t the name of the game.”
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