The Marlinton Community Wellness Center was buzzing with activity Friday as Pocahontas County residents and many others gathered to participate in a joint Open House and Public Scoping Meeting hosted by Dominion and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission [FERC], respectively. The doors of the Wellness Center opened at 10 a.m. and until 7 p.m. that night, locals and out-of-county and -state visitors could be found offering up comments, voicing their concerns, and asking questions.
Two weeks ago, FERC announced that it would open an additional scoping period for the Virginia and West Virginia communities impacted by the GW-6 and the Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s recently adopted alternative routes. A fairly substantial routing change for the ACP was announced in mid-February, and several new landowners and stakeholders discovered that they were impacted by the alteration. As per FERC’s process, Dominion hosted an Open House in March, and FERC staff members attended the gathering to gauge the public’s interest in the issue.
“We wouldn’t normally have a meeting,” FERC Environmental Project Manager Gertrude Johnson said, “but with the change in ACP’s route and the amount of public interest in this area, we decided to do a public meeting.”
Typically, FERC scoping periods are conducted on paper. Notices of Intent are mailed to the affected agencies and landowners, and a brief description of the project is included in each notice – as well as instructions for how one can submit their comments, concerns, and/or questions about the project and any issues pertaining to their properties.
“Having this informational, Open House-type scoping meeting allows us the opportunity to collect public comment,” FERC Environmental Project Manager Kevin Bowman explained. “Since these landowners are somewhat newly impacted by the later route change, we wanted to have more of an open interaction where people are able to ask questions they haven’t had the chance to previously ask; let them know how the FERC process works; and how they can influence FERC’s review of the process.”
For its public meetings, FERC staff members travel to the project areas to individually collect the public’s comments. Historically, the meetings were hosted in a lecture-style fashion: staff members would give a brief description of what FERC is; relay what and why they were in the area; and what the audience’s roles in the meetings were.
However, the format of Friday’s public meeting was implemented last year to allow for greater opportunities for the public to speak with FERC staff members and address their concerns.
“The old style of public meetings had a hard start time,” Johnson explained, “and once the meeting was underway, we would open the floor up for public comment. Depending on how many people were in attendance and wanted to comment, the time the public had to voice their concerns and ask questions was limited.
“With the new format, people can talk more freely to FERC staff and submit their comments, concerns, and questions to the court reporter. The purpose of this meeting is to get agency and landowner comments, and this format allots the public more time to speak on the issue.”
Slaty Fork resident Russell Holt was in attendance and voiced his opposition.
Under the alternate route announced in February, the pipeline no longer cuts through 13 miles of the Monongahela National Forest and nine properties located in the northern end of the county. Instead, it drops south and increased the number of affected properties to 51.
Holt’s historic, 550-acre farm – once home to General Robert E. Lee’s Civil War Campaign Headquarters – was one of the 43 new properties affected by the pipeline.
“I have been showcasing these historic, archeological and environmental attributes and creating a residential resort community while continuing to operate Snowshoe Farms for twenty-six years,” Holt stressed. “By coming through my property, they [ACP/FERC] will effectively destroy a farm that’s been here for centuries.”
The rolling hills and valleys of Snowshoe Farms are not just home to Lee’s once-headquarters. Three residences and numerous other buildings – including two barns, a spring house, a root cellar and four miles of road – are located on Holt’s property, as well as the headwaters of the Elk River and 12 known springs.
Additionally, two caves – the Devil’s Dining Room Cave and the Linwood Cave – are situated beneath the farmland.
“Linwood Cave contains artifacts of Robert E. Lee’s stay,” Holt said, “and it’s where his troops got water and hung their meat. Linwood Cave is part of the karst system, and has an underground stream running through it – providing nourishment and a habitat for all known and unknown manner of creatures, including bats – until it becomes a spring.”
The public’s comments can carry more weight than one might think. It is through the public raising their voices that numerous environmental – and, in some cases, sentimental – issues have been brought to FERC’s attention, and simple, micro re-routes have been made to avoid the issues at hand.
“Many of the changes that have occurred during the project already have been because of public comment,” Bowman added. “A lot of the questions that FERC has asked of the advocate are directly related to public comments, and they have changed the route based on what we have asked of the applicant.
“Is there a number I can give to show how much it affects the project? Not really – but does it affect the project in a meaningful way? I definitely think it does that.”
Pocahontas County Commission President Bill Beard attended Friday’s meeting, as well, and took a moment to express the commission’s opinion of the matter at hand.
“We still support the northern route,” he said. “It’s less mileage – less of an impact – and we think it’s the best one. There are a lot of landowners who don’t want the pipeline to come down further into the county, and I don’t think it’s best for the county when you can go through a lot less acreage and a lot less landowners in the northern end of the county.”
Aside from the pipeline’s less invasive northern route, all of the proposed routes are still on the table – and more changes could arise in the future.
“We can still bring up new alternatives based on our review of comments and our own research,” Bowman explained. “Certainly, there are a lot of conflicts with various routes or constraints between land uses, so some route are more feasible than others. When an environmental impact statement is issued is when FERC will give its official preference of a route, but I think the project is still going to change and evolve over the next coming months as this comment period closes and we have more information.”
Cailey Moore may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org