Commentary, Environment

Reporter’s notebook: People, places and the potential harm of Atlantic Coast Pipeline (with video)

Protesting the Atlantic Coast Pipeline in Pembroke. Dominion Energy and Duke Energy have applied to federal regulators to construct a 600-mile natural gas pipeline, which will run from West Virginia through Virginia and eight counties in eastern North Carolina. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

When some asks me how I settled on becoming an environmental reporter, I reply that I had no choice. I grew up in a 19-acre woods in rural Indiana, where my mother, an amateur naturalist, and I raised spring peepers to our ears, handled garter snakes, and without hesitation crawled on our bellies, wielding magnifying glasses to get a closer look at a white-winged bug we had not seen before.

By second grade, I had learned by heart the names of dozens of species of trees and flowers. In kindergarten, while other kids brought toys to Show and Tell, I hauled in the family box of arrowheads and fossils.

Rural Indiana is similar to rural North Carolina in that it is beautiful. Although it lacks the majesty of mountains, the landscape, which ranges from ironing-board flat to gently rolling, is fertile, meditative, calming.

Both areas of the country are also poor. The bustling factories — cars there, textiles here — and their solid, middle-class wages have disappeared. The people have left, too. One afternoon, when I was about 10, my dad told me that U.S. 36 ran along 40 degrees latitude, and if I followed it to the other side of the world, I would run into Madrid, Spain. At that moment, I knew someday I would leave.

My hometown, population 300, is dissimilar in that it is nearly all white. (When the nearby ketchup factory closed, the Latino migrant workers who picked tomatoes moved on.) In that regard, we did not have to fight the systemic racism that has robbed communities of color of their opportunity. But the economic malaise I encountered in eastern North Carolina feels familiar. And like in Indiana, there is intense pressure to lure industry to the area, at nearly any environmental price.


A decaying 19th-century grain mill is veiled in ivy. The mill is in historic Weldon, along the Roanoke River near the Halifax/Northampton County line. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

Last Friday, NCPW published the first of two stories about the social justice and environmental implications of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. If the ACP receives federal approval, it would route through some of the most impoverished areas of the state. These also are communities of color, which bear the cumulative burdens of pollution — landfills, industrialized hog farms, pulp mills, pellet plants — and have long fought institutional racism to acquire even a sliver of land.

Thursday morning, the second part will run. It deals with the environmental  implications of the $5 billion project, co-owned by Dominion Energy and Duke Energy. The wetlands, rivers and swamps of eastern North Carolina are home to hundreds of animals, amphibians, birds and fish, some of them endangered or threatened species. Many of these rivers, such as the Upper Neuse and the Roanoke, also serve us humans; they are main sources of drinking water for hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians. The pipeline’s ecological damage could be irreparable.


In late December, federal officials released a 1,000-page Draft Environmental Impact Statement, which is supposed to detail how the pipeline could harm people and places along the route. In the statement, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission — FERC — determined the pipeline would have no significant adverse effects on North Carolina — if the utilities appropriately adjust their construction methods.

That’s a big if. It requires a public trust that the utilities and FERC have not earned. For example, a lot of environmental information is still missing from the DEIS; the utilities have yet to provide it. The public, then, is supposed to comment on an incomplete document, one full of holes and unknowns. It is not a reasonable request.

The Roanoke River in Weldon (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

The argument for the pipeline is that its energy will accommodate North Carolina’s growth. With more natural gas at the ready, proponents say, manufacturing jobs will return to eastern North Carolina. But that is not certain. Meanwhile, some conservative lawmakers are trying to stymie wind and solar energy, which not only could help offset the need for natural gas, but also could provide manufacturing jobs for wind turbines and solar panels.

Somewhere in the tiny towns of eastern North Carolina, like Dortches or Sims or Whitley Place, there’s a kid, about 6 or 7 years old. She is catching minnows in Stony Creek, tossing pebbles at the snags in Burnt Coat Swamp or watching the Neuse River lumber toward the Atlantic Ocean. Toward possibility, opportunity. Maybe she’ll leave. Or maybe she’ll just stay put.


Motorcycles escorted demonstrators during a march in Pembroke (Photo: Lisa Sorg)



One Comment

  1. Spencer Phillips, PhD

    February 22, 2017 at 8:38 am

    There are also economic implications of those environmental effects. We looked at those “external costs” for just a portion of the proposed route, and estimate (conservatively) that they could run into many $billions.

    Other info on that page examines claims that the pipeline would be an economic boon to the region. (See scoping letter from April 2015.)

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