NORFOLK – Last week, city council briefly discussed a public hearing slated for the evening’s formal session. In the eight or so minutes it was discussed, council members had several questions.
The agenda item was described as “to accept bids for a long-term easement and temporary construction easements on City of Norfolk property” – or, in simpler terms, a request to use lands currently owned by the city.
The sole bid?
The offer of $150,000 was more than double the city’s minimum. But the company, a partner of Dominion Energy, is one that’s been shrouded in controversy – Atlantic Coast Pipeline LLC.
The proposed 600-mile Atlantic Coast natural gas pipeline, which is still navigating the process of securing needed permits and certifications, would run from Harrison County, W.Va, across the Commonwealth and end in Robeson County, N.C.
It’s estimated to cost $5.1 million overall.
The Norfolk-owned land in question? It’s located in Suffolk and includes the Lake Prince and Western Branch reservoirs – two of the largest sources of both Norfolk and Virginia Beach’s tap water.
And the company? They want to install a 20-inch in diameter natural gas pipeline underneath the reservoirs – anywhere from 4 to 40 feet underneath them, according to Kristen Lentz, the city’s director of utilities.
Vice Mayor Theresa Whibley, citing a lack of information about the project, expressed her concerns about the bid during the work session.
Whibley also said she’d be interested in how other counties in the Commonwealth are responding to such easement bids from the company. She told council it made her “anxious” because the projected pipeline route is “crossing over 200 waterways” in the three states.
“Driving through the western part of Virginia, you see a lot signs opposing this,” Whibley said. “Maybe we should have some bit of an info session or update on the facts of it.”
Councilperson Tommy Smigiel said he hadn’t seen much discussion about the project anywhere and was unaware of the controversy Whibley had pointed out.
Minutes later, during the formal session, Smigiel would soon find out that dissenters were present in City Hall.
Theresa Amoruso approached council when Mayor Kenny Alexander asked for public comment on the bid. She passed some documents to the city clerk and took her spot at the podium.
An active member of Mothers Out Front – an organization that exists in part to “influence decision-makers to make a swift and just transition from fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy” – Amoruso spoke quickly, even after the three-minute buzzer that alerted her time was up.
“The city of Norfolk and other regulators agree that boring pipelines under our priceless reservoirs cannot be assessed as completely safe, only as low-risk,” Amoruso said, citing language used by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission pipeline project assessment. “Why is any level of risk acceptable to our priceless water supply?”
More than 34 million gallons of water are pumped from the reservoirs and the Lake Gaston Water Supply Pipeline to the Southside every day.
The pipeline would carry fracked gas beneath the water sources. What would happen to our drinking water, Amoruso asked, if there was an accident during construction or a leak after the pipeline is completed?
The gas, Amoruso said, releases methane – a gas listed as a greenhouse gas by the Environmental Defense Fund.
“This is not an energy we need to commit our region to for decades with the threat of climate change and when the world is moving to renewables now,” Amoruso said. “If more energy is needed, then please let Norfolk take the lead in bringing safe, clean green energy to our region now.”
According to the fund, when methane leaks occur, the gas absorbs heat causing an increase in temperature in the atmosphere. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said methane emissions are responsible for about 25 percent of the world’s manmade global warming.
Zach Jarjoura, a conservation program manager with the Sierra Club, agreed with Amoruso. He said the work that the city is already doing to adapt to climate change is contrary to the pipeline.
The bid will be reviewed by council and discussed next during the Nov. 14 formal session.
“We are hoping that the city of Norfolk will not grant the easements,” Jarjoura said, “or at the very least waiting until it is fully permitted.”
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