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FERC neglects minority communities in pipeline reviews, groups say

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FERC neglects minority communities in pipeline reviews, groups say

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has failed to protect minority populations and other communities that are vulnerable to industrial development in the commission's reviews of natural gas transportation projects such as the Dominion Energy Inc.-led 1.5-Bcf/d Atlantic Coast pipeline, environmental and civil rights organizations told a federal court.

In addition to other problems the groups have with FERC's approval of the pipeline project, "tragically, the [Atlantic Coast Pipeline LLC pipeline] is also an example of FERC's facilitation of environmental injustice," Natural Resources Defense Council senior attorney Montina Cole wrote in an April 15 blog tied to the court case.

"Federal law requires that federal agencies undertaking environmental justice reviews account for impacted minority communities and prevent inequitable environmental outcomes," Cole said. "But FERC's methodology largely overlooked their existence and, as a direct result, prevented FERC from analyzing the [Atlantic Coast Pipeline's] adverse and disproportionate effects on communities of color."

The Natural Resources Defense Council and other organizations have called on FERC to reform its environmental justice analysis and correct a "permissive and inappropriate approach to reviewing these projects," Cole said. In the Atlantic Coast case, the commission relied on broad census tract data that can hide small populations of minorities near the pipeline route, such as Union Hill, Va., within a large, sparsely populated and mostly white rural area, the attorney said.

"Union Hill was erased," Cole wrote.

There was no analysis of the effects on American Indians along the pipeline route, Cole said. And when FERC did identify an environmental justice community, as it did at a compressor station site in Northampton County, N.C., it minimized health effects by saying air pollution would not exceed legal limits, she said.

FERC declined to respond to the charges, saying the commission does not comment on ongoing litigation.

Dominion Energy said the pipeline project will not cause excessive impacts to protected communities.

"We are building the Atlantic Coast Pipeline with the strongest environmental and safety protections ever used by the industry, and we are receiving more regulatory scrutiny than any other infrastructure project in the region's history," Dominion spokesman Karl Neddenien said. "Like the thousands of miles of other underground pipelines that have operated across our region for many decades, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline will safely co-exist with communities and the environment."

The Natural Resources Defense Council blog related to an April 12 brief in a case involving FERC's approval of the Atlantic Coast project. The brief came from a coalition of local organizations, environmental and civil rights groups that expressed concern over the decision's effects on minority communities near the pipeline route. The groups asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to vacate the authorization or send the case back to FERC for a better analysis of environmental justice issues. The coalition included the Natural Resource Defense Council, Center for Earth Ethics, Virginia State Conference NAACP and WE ACT for Environmental Justice. Other parties in the case include FERC, the Atlantic Coast developers and the North Carolina Utilities Commission. (U.S. Appeals Court for the D.C. Circuit docket 18-1224, et al.)

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Residents of Union Hill have pushed back on state regulators for issuing a permit allowing the construction of a compressor station attached to the Atlantic Coast pipeline. The historically African-American community was founded by freed slaves, and some residents trace their lineage to the founders. Some opponents of the compressor station have said there are burial grounds at the compressor station site. People also pointed to potential health impacts from emissions, the possibility of a gas explosion, and environmental effects on water and air.

The Atlantic Coast project would consist of about 600 miles of pipeline through West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina that would move Appalachian gas to mid-Atlantic and Southeast markets. The project has faced permitting and legal challenges since it was approved by FERC in October 2017. Multiple setbacks, including the loss of a U.S. Forest Service authorization to cross the Appalachian Trail, have caused construction delays and increased costs from an early $5.1 billion estimate to an estimate of up to $7.5 billion in a February assessment. The pipeline is a joint venture of Dominion Energy, Duke Energy Corp. and Southern Co.