By Jen Lawhorne
When Dominion and Duke Energy scrapped its plans to build the Atlantic Coast Pipeline in July 2020, landowners along the pipeline’s route were left grappling with how they would get back their land that lead developer Dominion had bought or claimed through eminent domain.
Chad Oba of Friends of Buckingham, a group of residents that organized to oppose construction of the pipeline and a related compressor station in their Central Virginia county, said that she was aware that some of her neighbors had their easements released but that a great number of others did not.
“Most of these easements have been held hostage by Dominion since the project was announced in 2014,” she said. “That means landowners have not had the use of their land for farming, livestock grazing, building, selling or any other use for almost 10 years.”
The Atlantic Coast Pipeline would have run 604 miles from West Virginia through Virginia and into North Carolina, with a 125-foot wide path and a 42-inch diameter pipe slicing through natural areas, waterways and private property. Dominion was able to plan on building the pipeline on private property by convincing landowners to sell their property as easements, also called right-of-way agreements, or taking their land through eminent domain, which is the right of a government or its agent to seize private property for public use.
These easements would have been used for pipeline construction and wouldn’t allow for activities that might interfere with pipeline. According to news accounts where landowners described arriving at the decision to sell their land to Dominion, people were often intimidated by Dominion agents or threatened with legal action if they refused to sell. They were also told of the prospect of losing their land through eminent domain. Residents in the path of the Mountain Valley Pipeline and other projects have also experienced these tactics.
At the time of Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s cancellation, Dominion had obtained easements for 98% of its route — 3,100 tracts of private land — but only a third of those tracts were actually disturbed by pipeline construction. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission required Dominion to submit a plan to restore the land that was damaged during construction. In its filing to FERC in the beginning of 2021, the company stated it would not voluntarily return the private property it had acquired to build the pipeline due to the timing and scope of restoration work.
However, a determined group of about a dozen landowners from Nelson County whose land was not disturbed succeeded in having their land returned in late 2022 through tenacious advocacy and by working with the office of Sen. Tim Kaine. Some of the landowners were affiliated with Friends of Nelson County, a group that began organizing against the Atlantic Coast Pipeline in 2014. The Nelson County landowners also received pro-bono legal representation from the Niskanen Center, a D.C.-based think tank.
In November 2022, FERC authorizedDominion to begin its environmental restoration work and the company announced that it would start the process in the beginning of 2023 with plans to finish by the end of the year. Dominion noted that once restoration was completed, another three years of monitoring would be required before it releases the easements.Dominion also announced that it was developing a plan for releasing easements on properties that do not require restoration work and landowners were not expected to return their compensation.
Landowners are waiting to see if Dominion will make good on its announcement.
“It is incredibly unfair that Dominion is taking their time on this and not doing it in a more expedient way,” Oba of Friends of Buckingham County said.