BLACKSBURG — The young and the elderly were there. Landowners and tenants were there. Representatives of government, academia and the private sector were all there, too.
About the only type of person that couldn’t be found was a Montgomery County resident that supports the proposed, 300-mile Mountain Valley Pipeline project, which would run through northern Montgomery County as well as adjoining counties.
About 1,000 citizens filled the Blacksburg High School auditorium on Wednesday night for a special work session organized by the Montgomery County Board of Supervisors and attended by four pipeline officials. Dozens if not hundreds of questions were relayed to the officials by the board during the three–and-a-half hour meeting, and all the questions expressed concern if not outright enmity for the project.
“The Montgomery County Board of Supervisors are doing exactly what the citizens want them to do,” said Russell Chisholm, 46, of Giles County. The neighboring county would also be impacted by the proposed project, and Chisholm was eager to hear some questions answered. “They are asking direct questions and repeating the questions, keeping the pressure on when the (officials) are evading and not answering their questions.”
Attending the meeting for NextEra Energy and EQT, the two energy companies partnering
on the project, were Maurice Royster and Joe Lombardo from EQT and Max Macon and Chris Sherman from NextEra Energy.
“It’s quite clear to us that we don’t agree on everything, but this is the beginning of a long process,” Sherman told the audience during a brief presentation to start the meeting.
Sherman referred to having the pipeline approved as a 24-month long process and presented a preliminary timeline that suggested construction could begin by December 2016. Sherman also said that 132 parcels of land in Montgomery County could be directly impacted by the proposed pipeline route, and that the corresponding landowners have been sent letters informing them of the company’s intent to survey their land.
The supervisors took turns asking questions of the officials, at times seeming openly hostile toward the project. Sherman accused supervisor Chris Tuck of being unfair after one rapid-fire succession of questions, and board chairman Bill Brown drew applause when he suggested the county could stop the pipeline by refusing to issue cons
truction permits, only to be told by Sherman that the federal government would have jurisdiction over such a matter.
“This was my retirement home. This is what I was planning. This was going to be the rest of my life,” said Pam Humphrey, 71, who believes her home in Giles County is within a few hundred feet of the proposed pipeline route. “And they think our questions are unfair? How do (they) think I feel?”
“I just moved back to the area,” said Betty McClellan, 62, of Blacksburg, who previously lived in the New River Valley for 14 years. “I was looking (to buy a house) in Preston Forest. I’m glad I didn’t purchase property there with the possibility of this pipeline going in. I like it here, that’s why I moved back, but I don’t like this pipeline.”
The Preston Forest neighborhood north of Blacksburg is right in the path of the proposed pipeline route. Safety concerns of locating the pipeline near homes and the impact on property values were frequent topics during the meeting.
“Public safety is paramount,” said Sherman, the director of regulatory and legislative affairs for NextEra Energy, adding that “I will say unequivocally: This pipeline will be safe.”
“There will be no diminution of (property) value,” Sherman also said. “That’s what the studies have shown.”
“We have found that the property values vary very little (after construction of a pipeline on or nearby a property),” agreed Maurice Royster, manager of government relations for EQT.
Sherman said that typically only properties directly affected by easements receive compensation, but that decisions are made on a case-by-case basis.
The supervisors were also skeptical that the project would bring economic benefit to the area, despite repeated claims by the officials that industries tend to cluster around natural gas pipelines.
“Industry will coalesce around natural gas pipelines like it did waterways in the 1700s, rail in the 1800s, and highways in the 1900s,” Sherman said, adding later that there is no guarantee of spurred investment but that it provides the opportunity for growth.
“We here in Montgomery County don’t see it as an opportunity,” Brown responded. “We see it as a disruption to what we treasure about our county.”
“If this pipeline is going to be benefitting anyone it would be on a national scale, but it doesn’t appear to be benefitting anyone here even regionally,” Tuck said.
“There is no economic benefit that I can see (for) Montgomery County,” he said. “It’s nowhere near any of our industry.”
“It’s a balancing test between societal benefits and the burden of housing the infrastructure in a particular community,” said Sherman, who earlier said “every area is sensitive to someone.”
“We’re willing to relocate the route so it’s the most benign and effective route possible,” he said, adding later that “I cannot commit to moving off any one particular land” and that “we can’t pledge to any specifics of the route at this time.”
Sherman also confirmed that the plan is for the pipeline to be 42-inches in diameter, larger than previous pipeline projects completed by the company. He also said officials believe that a compressor station would need to be situated on 10 to 40 acres somewhere in Virginia, but that the company did not yet know where. The scope of the easement the company is seeking from landowners is typically 70 feet, with the company hoping to gain access to a 300-foot corridor, he said.
The joint venture filed its pre-application form for the project with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) on Oct. 7 and expects to file its FERC application next fall. FERC is accepting comments on the proposal while it deliberates.
Pipeline officials plan to hold an open house in Montgomery County to address additional questions from the public in December, but a date has not been announced. The company has also set up a website to relay information to the public, mountainvalleypipeline.info. A local group opposed to the pipeline has set up its own website, preservethenrv.com.
Supervisor Matthew Gabriele did not attend the meeting.
— SPENCER DENNIS, CONTRIBUTING WRITER
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