The Atlantic Coast Pipeline will forever change forests, wetlands and rivers in North Carolina

By: - February 23, 2017 5:00 am

Illustration by Nelle Dunlap

This is the second of a two-part story about the potential environmental and social justice harm that could result from the construction and operation of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. The first installment, which featured the voices of residents who would live near the pipeline, ran last Thursday. A blog post with video was published  Monday.

It’s nearly spring and the Neuse River Waterdogs are on the prowl, searching for mates. About 6 to 9 inches long, slimy and the color of mud, the salamanders are homely, yet lovable. They have dark spots, like a Dalmatian, and their neck sports two frilly gills the shade of magenta, which, when waterdogs want attention, rise like an Elizabethan collar.

In all of the world, Neuse River Waterdogs are found only in North Carolina, in the bio-diverse Neuse and Tar-Pamlico river basins, where they spend their life under water. Sensitive to pollution and habitat disruption from development, they have been listed as a species of concern since 1990. Because of that designation, they can’t be captured or killed without a special permit from the NC Wildlife Resources Commission.

But almost certainly some Neuse River Waterdogs would be caught or die as a consequence of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. If approved by federal regulators, about 150 miles of the 600-mile natural gas pipeline would run through eastern North Carolina, paralleling Interstate 95. Co-owned by Dominion Energy and Duke Energy, the $5 billion pipeline would be 3 feet in diameter and buried about 4 feet underground.

According to a federal Draft Environmental Impact Statement, known as a DEIS, the pipeline would upend wetlands: 419 acres during construction and 144 acres permanently. As the pipeline is built, which would entail blasting, drilling and trenching, contractors would have to remove swaths of trees and pine scrub along swamps and stream banks, displacing wildlife. The pipeline would burrow beneath six major rivers and 34 water bodies in total. Among these are sources of drinking water for hundreds of thousands of people. And the home of the Neuse River Waterdog.

Despite the damage, both temporary and permanent, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission concluded in the DEIS that the pipeline would inflict no significant adverse effects on the environment — as long as contractors mitigated the harm: Replacing trees, restoring wetlands, adjusting construction methods. Yet even FERC acknowledged that some damage would be irreparable, but worth the purported economic benefits.

“Long-term cumulative impacts would occur on forested wetland and forests and associated wildlife habitats.,” the DEIS reads. “Short-term cumulative benefits would also be realized through jobs and wages and purchases of goods and materials.”

The document does not mention that fewer than 20 permanent jobs will be created in North Carolina by the pipeline. Nor is the document complete; several key parts are missing, including an aquatic relocation plan and a conservation assessment. Neither Duke Energy nor Dominion Energy responded to written questions asking when that information would be provided.

Yet the DEIS goes on to justify the environmental damage by raising the possibility that air quality could improve if utilities switch from coal- to natural gas-fired electricity plants.

It is true that switching from coal to natural gas makes for cleaner air and less mercury in waterways. But natural gas is still a fossil fuel. Since it produces methane, a greenhouse gas, it is environmentally inferior to renewable energy sources like solar, wind, and swine and poultry waste.

For many environmental advocates and scientists, the potential harm — to surface water, groundwater, endangered species, trees, swamps and wetlands — aren’t worth the risk.

“It would go through an area with huge significance in terms of biodiversity, in North America and particularly in eastern North Carolina,” said William Schlesinger, former dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment. He specializes in ecosystems as well as climate change. “If you put in any linear feature — a pipeline, a road — it divides the wildlife habitat into smaller parcels. In terms of wildlife preservation, it’s not a good way to do business.”

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The Neuse River flows from its headwaters in northwestern Wake County southeastward through North Carolina, feeding coastal habitats en route to the sea. Estimated at two-million years old, the Neuse River is also in the new pipeline’s way.

To create a hole beneath a waterway for a pipeline, contractors generally use a horizontal drill to ream out the dirt. The method has its own risks. It requires the use of drilling mud — water and clay and nontoxic minerals — to be pumped at high pressure inside the drill pipe to keep the bit lubricated. Sometimes the pressure is too great. The drilling mud then leaks through the fissures below ground, which can shunt the material through ground water, surface water, swamps and wetlands.

But because of certain soil and topography characteristics, contractors will use a more invasive method to install the pipeline across the Neuse in Johnston County. To use a surgery comparison, open trenching is like having your belly cut open to have your gall bladder removed. Horizontal drilling is like having it removed laparoscopically.

In the open cut method, workers strip the stream banks of topsoil and trees, then excavate part of the riverbed in order to install the pipe. In some cases, the river water is diverted so as not to stop it from flowing downstream. Yet, the trenching and clearing would disrupt wildlife habitats, including that of the Neuse River Waterdog. The DEIS acknowledges this method could kill aquatic life, and depending on the season, crush eggs.

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But federal regulators say they have an aquatic relocation plan, although it been finalized and thus not included in the DEIS. Shannon Deaton is the chief of Habitat Conservation Division at the NC Wildlife Resources Commission, which is working with Duke and Dominion on a relocation plan. She said that during open trenching, all fish, crayfish, mussels, waterdogs and other aquatic reptiles and amphibians that are trapped behind a temporary dam will be removed and relocated. A separate relocation plan is proposed for freshwater mussels.

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline would cross under the Roanoke River. Construction techniques would also require an estimated 5.1 million gallons to be withdrawn from the river, which could harm water quality and quantity downstream. Shad, alewife, blueback herring, striped bass and Atlantic sturgeon can all be found in the river. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

Where these species will go is uncertain, but downstream is probably inadvisable. Open trenching could also send dirt downstream, which the DEIS acknowledges. There it would pollute coastal estuaries — bad for wildlife — and stress cities’ water treatment plants, which would have to work harder to clean the water before it flows from the tap.

Parts of the Neuse already are plagued with pollution, enough to be placed on the list of federally impaired waters. Contaminants include PCBs, bacteria, copper and turbidity — a measurement of cloudiness of the water, usually from dirt and other runoff. When water is loaded with sediment, the levels of oxygen decrease, which can result in fish kills and other die-offs of aquatic life. That includes the Neuse River Waterdog, which requires water with high oxygen levels.

“I have lots and lots and lots of concerns about water quality and quantity,” said Matthew Starr, Upper Neuse Riverkeeper. “It’s infuriating. They’re basically saying, ‘Don’t worry. Nothing bad will happen.'”

Pipeline construction would also require withdrawing huge amounts of water from four major rivers: the Roanoke, 5.1 million gallons; the Tar, 1.6 million; the Cape Fear and the Neuse rivers would each lose about 6.6 million gallons.

The Neuse and Tar-Pamlico river basins are among the most biodiverse in North Carolina. The Atlantic Coast Pipeline will route through parts of both basins. (Map: Creative Commons)

Millions of gallons are needed for dust control and to test the pipeline’s strength. In the DEIS, federal regulators insist these withdrawals, done according to proper state and federal permits, would not harm water quality. Ostensibly, the water would be filtered of its sediment, then discharged into fields or woods, or back into the rivers.

“There are real consequences that are not laid out in the impact statement,” Starr said, noting the document is missing key reports on conservation, biological assessments and wildlife relocation. “It’s a shamble of a document. They’re building the pipeline in some of the best watersheds in North Carolina.”

Major North Carolina Waterways affected by the
Atlantic Coast Pipeline
River County
Roanoke River Northampton/Halifax
Fishing Creek Halifax/Nash
Swift Creek Nash
Tar River Nash
Contentnea River Wilson
Little River Johnston
Neuse River Johnston
Cape Fear River Cumberland

Not only would the pipeline set back the health and diversity of wildlife habitats for generations, but it also would “lock us into natural gas for electricity for 50 years or more,” Schlesinger said. “Gas is better than coal, but it’s still a fossil fuel. We should be moving toward a better alternative.”

After a $5 billion investment, it would be financially imprudent for the utilities to withdraw from using natural gas. Rather than speeding the transition of society to renewables that don’t emit carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere,” he added, “we’re putting off the judgment day.”

Judgment day could arrive as early as next year for the Neuse River Waterdog and the hundreds of other species of wildlife that would be displaced from their homes by clearcutting, trenching, blasting and drilling. More than two dozen of these species, including plants, are listed as endangered, threatened, rare, or of concern. They have names only a mother could love: the Green Floater, Rafinesque’s Big-Eared Bat, Red-Cockaded Woodpecker, the Atlantic Pigtoe, the Carolina Fatmucket.

The DEIS acknowledges that these habitats will be disturbed, and that it could take “years, even decades” to rebound. Meanwhile, the fish, snails, mussels and other aquatic organisms will have to find another waterway. Since these species are less mobile, it’s unlikely that they will.

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Schlesinger said a fellow biologist at Duke has studied the effectiveness of restoring stream ecosystems. “She found no instances that the background level” — the original state of the ecosystem– was restored. “It’s better than if you did nothing, but you can’t restore ecosystems to the way they used to be.”

The forest would also be irreparably fragmented. Rookeries of migratory birds could also be harmed. The phenomenon is similar to when a highway is built through an urban neighborhood; residents are uprooted, and the cohesion of the area is never the same.

“A lot of the wildlife doesn’t go anywhere,” Schlesinger said. “It will diminish the populations. And that’s a stepping stone to depleted biodiversity. It won’t totally wipe out some species, but it could.”

What’s next?
FERC is taking public comment on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement through April 6, 2017. These comments will factor into the Final Environmental Impact Statement. Although the DEIS is still incomplete, you can sign up for electronic updates. Reference the docket numbers CP15-554-000, 001; CP15-555-000; and CP15-556-000.
Once the final EIS is issued, scheduled for late June, the FERC Commissioners will consider staff’s recommendations in their decision.

Construction could start as early as fall 2017, but that date depends on several factors, such as President Trump’s appointment of a new FERC commissioner. The former commission chairman resigned on Feb. 3. That leaves FERC with just two members, one short of a quorum, and unable to issue decisions until a third commissioner is named.

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Lisa Sorg
Lisa Sorg

Assistant Editor and Environmental Reporter Lisa Sorg helps manage newsroom operations while covering the environment, climate change, agriculture and energy.