The NC Department of Transportation failed to inform top Durham officials of a controversial natural gas pipeline that would parallel part of the American Tobacco Trail, one of the city’s — and the region’s — most popular recreational areas.
Emails obtained by Policy Watch under the Public Records Act show that city officials were caught off guard by the news. They learned of the proposal nearly two weeks after the Board of Transportation conveyed a section of its right-of-way along the ATT to Dominion Energy.
The News & Observer first reported the board’s decision this week.
Dave Connelly, chairman of Durham’s Open Space and Trails Commission, alerted more than a half dozen county and city officials via email on May 19.
“This is the first I have heard about this. You?” wrote Durham Deputy City Manager Bo Ferguson that evening to City Manager Tom Bonfield.
“Complete news to me,” Bonfield replied a few minutes later.
DOT did not answer questions from Policy Watch about why it didn’t inform the local governments about the plan and who decided to pursue an agreement with Dominion.
Instead, a DOT spokesperson sent a statement:
“Dominion Energy’s request to execute an easement agreement to utilize the NC Rail corridor along the American Tobacco Trail for a natural gas pipeline is being re-evaluated by executive leadership at this time.”
“A review of the history of this proposal, as well as an assessment of all community engagement, will be conducted before NCDOT takes any action to move forward with the proposal as offered, require adjustments or changes, or to deny the request.”
After years of negotiations and permitting processes, the first three miles of the American Tobacco Trail opened in June 2000. It starts in downtown Durham and follows an old railroad corridor owned by NCDOT.
The ATT has been extended several times and now runs 22 miles south through Chatham and Wake counties. It attracts tens of thousands of bicyclists, runners and hikers each year. The ATT is also part of the 3,000-mile East Coast Greenway system.
On May 7, the Board of Transportation agreed during a public meeting to a $3 million deal between Dominion and NCDOT for the utility to build a 12-inch diameter pipeline beneath an easement along a portion of the right-of-way.
Though the item was included in the board agenda, it wasn’t obvious. The one-paragraph mention occurred on page 17 of “Item R, Right of Way Resolutions and Ordinances.”
Although the entire 13-mile route hasn’t been finalized, the proposed six-mile portion along the ATT would from start at Scott King Road, near Herndon Park in Durham, and run south through Chatham and Wake counties to Morrisville Parkway in Cary.
The item is now expected to be discussed at the June 10 meeting of the Durham-Chapel Hill-Carrboro Metropolitan Planning Organization.
Dominion Energy spokeswoman Persida Montanez said in an email that the utility has been planning the project since late 2017. Details were included in a presentation prepared for PSNC, before the company was bought by Dominion nearly 18 months ago, in January 2019. Maps and illustrations in the presentation show one side of the trail would keep its existing 10-foot buffer, and beyond that a 30-foot wide clearing for the pipeline.
<a href=”https://assets.documentcloud.org/documents/6921971/ATT-PSNC-GasPipeline.pdf”>ATT PSNC GasPipeline (PDF)</a>
<a href=”https://assets.documentcloud.org/documents/6921971/ATT-PSNC-GasPipeline.txt”>ATT PSNC GasPipeline (Text)</a>
In its presentation, PSNC said it would replant native trees and shrubs that had been cleared, as well as repair trail damage caused by construction.
The utility stated that it investigated more than 20 other routes but they were unavailable. The original route was within the NCDOT right-of-way along Highway 751, but that route required several crossings of Jordan Lake and other US Army Corps of Engineers’ land. The majority of that property, PSNC said, “is not ‘pre-disturbed.'” Montanez said the utility is “studying different route options.”
These options include locations that would not involve an easement adjacent to the American Tobacco Trail, Montanez said. Dominion will collect data during the survey process “to help identify the optimal route,” she added. “The data includes but is not limited to, assessing construction feasibility, minimizing environmental and landowner impacts and using existing corridors where possible.”
“Our goal is to select a route that minimizes impacts to the community,” Montanez said.
Policy Watch requested additional information on the 20 alternative routes, but Montanez did not provide it.
There is a financial incentive for DOT to accept the $3 million. The department estimated its budget will be short by $300 million for the fiscal year ending in June, because of effects from the COVID-19 pandemic. DOT’s budget hinges on gas taxes, car sales and registration fees; fewer people are driving during stay-at-home orders, which has cut into revenue.
The new pipeline is needed to provide natural gas service to existing and future customers due to the rapid development in the Triangle, according to the utility’s presentation. It would also allow the utility to “downgrade or reduce pressure” of the 73 miles of existing high pressure transmission pipelines in Orange, Chatham, Lee and Wake counties. “Reducing the pressure in these pipelines will reduce the internal stress levels of the pipes and significantly improve the overall safety,” according to the presentation.
Montanez did not directly answer a question from Policy Watch regarding any current safety issues with the existing pipeline. She reiterated points from the presentation that a new segment would “prolong their lifespan, enhancing reliability and safety in accordance with state and federal regulations.”
Otherwise, the utility would have to implement “significant pipeline integrity measures” that would be required to meet federal safety regulations, according to the presentation. To do this on existing pipelines would require replacing thousands of existing pipelines and fittings, “many of which are located along or under existing roadways such as US 15-501” and in towns throughout the Triangle.
The utility would also have to install above-ground facilities to regularly inspect the lines, “thereby impacting private property owned and the general public every seven years at a minimum,” according to the presentation.
Rumors about the project started in mid-May, after the board approved the agreement with Dominion. Dale McKeel, Durham’s bicycle and pedestrian coordinator, heard that it had been on board’s agenda. McKeel contacted Chris Snow, director of Wake County’s Parks, Recreation & Open Space, on May 14, asking if he had information. “We’ve been inquiring about this off and on, and I was not aware this was up for consideration with NCDOT,” Snow wrote to McKeel.
McKeel is also on the staff of the Durham-Chapel Hill-Carrboro Metropolitan Planning Organization, which oversees transportation strategies in those cities. Oddly, the MPO held its regularly scheduled meeting on May 13, at which five NCDOT officials provided progress reports on its projects, according to the agenda. None of those progress reports mentions the pipeline project.
Valerie Jordan represents DOT Division 5, which includes Durham and Raleigh, on the DOT board. She could not be reached for comment.
Most of the Durham portion of the ATT lies within the county’s jurisdiction. Durham City-County Planning Director Patrick Young said no one in that joint office was notified by DOT. The route would cross Panther Creek, which feeds Cary Park Lake, and Northeast Creek, which flows into Jordan Lake. Since Northeast Creek is a “navigable water,” as defined by federal law, the project could require several permits. That creek is already designated as impaired by state and federal officials because of high levels of fecal coliform bacteria; sampling also has showed elevated concentrations of copper, cadmium and nickel.
Although the public thus far has been excluded from discussions about the project, the permitting process should provide those opportunities. The US Army Corps of Engineers would need to issue a permit, according to an email from Paul Kuhn, Cary’s facilities design and construction manager to Durham and Wake officials, “and that will require some sort of public input.”
The NC Department of Environmental Quality would have to issue permits as well, such as those for erosion and sedimentation control, stormwater and water quality, if the pipeline crosses creeks.
Emails among Cary, Durham and Wake County officials state that the easement agreement between Dominion and NCDOT has not yet been signed. To execute the agreement, Dominion will have to submit a set of plans, which also require the permits. “NCDOT doesn’t want to speak for Dominion, but are helping to facilitate the processes,” Kuhn wrote.
Montanez said the utility will decide on a final route within the next two months.