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FERC denies Dominion's request for more time to cut trees along pipeline route

Photo of the 'March to the Mansion' of protesters against the Atlantic Coast Pipeline in 2016 :...
Photo of the 'March to the Mansion' of protesters against the Atlantic Coast Pipeline in 2016 : Chesapeake Climate Action Network(WHSV)
Published: Mar. 16, 2018 at 4:06 PM EDT
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UPDATE (Mar. 28):

Federal regulators have

from developers of the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline for more time to cut down trees along the project's route.

An official with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission wrote in a letter Wednesday that the request to continue cutting trees outside an initial agreed-upon window would not provide adequate protection for bats and birds,

Dominion Energy told FERC earlier this month it appeared workers couldn't complete tree felling in West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina on time and that failure to do so will affect the 2018 construction season.

That delay was at least partially due to a number of eminent domain lawsuits Dominion was pursuing against landowners in Augusta and Bath counties who initially refused to sell land to the developers.

A FERC spokeswoman says the pipeline has 30 days to appeal.

It also comes not long after the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality issued a notice of violation to the pipeline developers for illegally cutting trees along streams and wetlands.

Environmental groups said they were surprised but pleased with the decision.

“FERC made the right call by denying the Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s request to continue cutting trees during a critical season for wildlife," said the Chesapeake bay Foundation in a statement.

Pipeline spokesman Aaron Ruby couldn't immediately be reached for comment.

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Dominion Energy is asking federal regulators for more time to clear a path for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline after a series of setbacks.

---TREE FELLING DEADLINE---

The pipeline developers say they need more time to cut down trees along the project's route and likely won't make the initial deadline designed to protect migrating birds and endangered or threatened bats.

That's largely due to

against a number of landowners in Augusta, Bath and Buckingham counties who refused to initially settle with Dominion.

According to environmental guidelines, the tree felling process needed to be complete by March 14, but a district court hearing for the landowners continued on last month.

Over a dozen landowners refused to settle with Dominion on parcels of land ranging from 0.09 acres to 27.85 acres, though 80% of landowners had reached land agreements (

) without lawsuits.

That's in addition to a

involving property owners at Wintergreen Resort.

Dominion Energy made the request for an extension to federal regulators in a letter made public Friday, saying its new proposal will still provide "equal or greater" environmental protection

Developers initially agreed to the tree-felling restrictions to protect migratory birds, and threatened and endangered species — two types of bats, in this case. The time restrictions vary from state to state but generally prohibit tree cutting between mid-March or early April through mid-September or mid-November.

The earliest restriction to kick in was Virginia's migratory bird window, which started Thursday.

Pipeline spokesman Aaron Ruby said in an email that about 40 percent of the work in Virginia has been completed.

Completing the tree felling within one season would limit "the amount and frequency of disturbance in the general area, benefiting landowners. Finally, failure to complete the tree felling will affect the 2018 construction season," the letter said.

A presentation Dominion recently gave state environmental officials, obtained through a public records request and provided to The Associated Press, provides insight on the business impacts project delays would have.

The presentation said that if "full mechanized construction" can't start until spring, there would be a $150 million to $200 million impact. If only partial construction is started by summer, there would be a $250 million to $350 million total impact, the presentation said.

Finally, it said that if "we cannot start in time to ensure a full and efficient construction season and have to delay service by one year, the impact would be $1 billion."

The company seeks approval to continue cutting trees until May 15, with certain exceptions.

If the work is not completed by the federal deadline, the planned 2018 construction of the pipeline may not be able to begin.

A recent regulatory filing says the pipeline is expected to be in service in late 2019.

---ENVIRONMENTAL VIOLATIONS---

Also on Friday, though, another hit came to Dominion in the form of a Notice of Violation from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.

On March 16, the DEQ issued a notice to Atlantic Coast Pipeline, LLC for "failing to maintain adequate limits of disturbance during tree felling operations in violation of Virginia’s State Water Control Law."

Virginia's law forbids work within buffer zones to protect stream and wetland crossings during construction.

But environmental officials identified violations at 15 different locations amid tree felling for the pipeline, impacting about 0.84 acres of wetlands and streams.

“DEQ is watching pipeline activities closely and expects full compliance with all conditions,” said David K. Paylor, Director of the VDEQ. “We will not hesitate to initiate enforcement actions like this to make sure the project complies with good environmental standards.”

Pipeline developers must respond to the DEQ within 10 days to find a plan to remedy the situation and explain how the developers will prevent similar violations in the future.

Dominion was approved for limited tree felling — not for any activity impacting riparian areas or for any activity that disturbs land.

That process has to wait for all of the erosion and stormwater control plans to be approved.

“The agency’s review of the project has been the most thorough in the history of the Commonwealth, and the enforcement will be as rigorous,” said Director Paylor.

That's a statement Dominion Energy spokesman Aaron Ruby would agree with, previously telling WHSV that the project has undergone one of the most "thorough regulatory processes" in recent history.

The noticed issued by the DEQ acts as a warning. If Dominion does not comply, enforcement actions could be taken by the state, but they are usually resolved with payment of a civil charge and required action from the company to correct the violation.

---DOMINION'S RESPONSE---

Dominion spokesman Aaron Ruby issued the following statement to WHSV in response to the DEQ's notice of violation.

"As public utilities and energy providers for this region, we have an obligation to serve as good stewards of the environment and responsible corporate citizens. This is what the public expects of us, and it is what the law requires. We accept responsibility when we do not live up to these standards.

In late February, our environmental inspectors found 15 locations in Virginia where our crews cut trees outside of permitted areas near wetlands. The total amount of trees cut at all of the sites was less than one acre. No trees were cut in wetlands or streams, and no wetlands or streams were impacted by this activity.

We take regulatory compliance very seriously. As soon as we discovered this activity, we immediately notified state and federal agencies. We also took immediate steps to prevent it from happening again:

• We halted all work on the project for three days to determine the root cause and reinforce environmental compliance with all of our crews.

• We conducted a comprehensive review of all state and federal permitting requirements, as well as our compliance procedures.

• All tree-felling crews attended mandatory training to fully understand these permitting requirements and compliance procedures.

• We conducted a full review of all tree-felling sites to ensure the right of way was properly marked before work resumed. Our environmental inspectors are required to review and approve all markers for the right of way before work can begin each day.

We are committed to building this project to the highest environmental standards. We accept responsibility for falling short of that commitment, and we’ve taken serious steps to prevent it from happening again. We will have zero tolerance for regulatory non-compliance, and we have reinforced this policy with all employees and contractors associated with the project."

---OVERVIEW OF THE PIPELINE PROJECT---

The 600-mile underground Atlantic Coast Pipeline originates in West Virginia and travels through Virginia and North Carolina. The pipeline is being developed jointly by Dominion Energy, Duke Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas and Southern Company Gas. Though the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has independent authority over many of the procedures related to federal pipeline development, DEQ is able to exercise enforcement authority over many aspects of the project.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.