Op-Ed by Nancy Sorrells, Augusta County Alliance Co-chair
For more than a year, the intersection of discussions involving sinkholes and pipelines has been at the heart of stormy debate between representatives of the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline project and opponents of the proposed route of the 42-inch, high pressure natural gas pipeline. That 564-mile route would slice through nearly 40 miles of Augusta County’s farms, neighborhoods, and forests. About 27 of those miles would be through the highly unstable karst terrain that dominates the area. Karst, sometimes described as Swiss cheese beneath our feet, is characterized by limestone outcroppings, caves, springs, and sinkholes.
Recently, when a significant sinkhole opened up on a Dominion electric transmission line easement in the Stuarts Draft area of eastern Augusta County, the company was presented with a golden opportunity to alleviate the many concerns regarding its ability to deal with karst-related issues. Unfortunately for Dominion, the outcome now leaves little doubt about how the company will be able to handle a pipeline route that in Augusta crosses over approximately 30 known sinkholes not to mention those that might open in the future due to pipeline construction or Mother Nature.
Many individuals, groups, and government officials have worried about the unintended consequences, including leaks, explosions, and drinking water contamination, of a sinkhole opening up under a 42-inch natural gas pipeline. Repeatedly questioned about their ability to deal with a large pipeline spanning a large hole, ACP officials have continually offered reassurances as to their ability to quickly and safely mitigate the problem.
Actions, however, always speak louder than words. In late September a sinkhole opened up on a Dominion power line easement in a neighborhood between Stuarts Draft and Waynesboro. The large hole swallowed a small tree and left underground telephone, cable, and high voltage electric lines spanning the 30-foot-wide canyon in a neighborhood. For a company that cites safety and ethics as its top two core values, the outcome of the situation has been worrisome.
For more than two weeks the gaping hole remained open with a live high voltage line completely exposed. Eventually, Dominion placed plastic fencing around the hole with warning signs about the dangers of the live power line. Two landowners share the easement and negotiations between them and Dominion included discussions involving two members of the Augusta County Board of Supervisors.
More than two weeks after the hole opened up, Dominion moved its high voltage line completely out of the sinkhole, while not touching the cable and telephone lines or filling in the hole. With that they declared their job finished although they did initially leave the neighbors with the understanding that Dominion would split the costs with the two adjoining landowners for filling in the still-expanding sinkhole.
However, on November 3, even that offer was apparently off the table. The two landowners received a letter from Dominion explaining that the company had brought in a consultant from Ohio to determine that the sinkhole was not its fault. “The presence of the Dominion cables did not cause or contribute to the formation of the sinkhole.” The letter went on to say that “Based on these findings, we have determined that we are not responsible for the cost of filling in the sinkhole. For safety reasons, we urge you to obtain an estimate and proceed with the necessary work.”
The landowners are now left with an extensive hole approximately 30 feet from a garage and within several hundred yards of three houses. Not only does the sinkhole devalue property, but it presents a safety hazard for children, pets, and wildlife. Further, despite Dominion’s suggestion, the landowners are potentially legally restricted by the easement agreements with Dominion from doing any repair work on their own.
Augusta County Board of Supervisors’ member Tracy Pyles noted the irony of the situation. “My reaction goes to the hypocrisy and absurdity of needing to move a small insignificantly sized electrical transmission line because of the instability of the land as shown by a sinkhole, while having no concern with laying a 42-inch gas line through the very same, fragile earth. And of course they will never take responsibility, nor consider help, for any eventual problems occurring where they have assumed rights from local land owners. We have zero confidence in these people,” he noted.
Ironically Dominion representatives have repeatedly claimed in both public forums and private meetings that they have the knowledge, experience, and skill to deal safely with sinkholes. The amount of money that Dominion spent to move the line and then to bring a consultant from Ohio to tell them that this is not their fault is almost laughable if not so sad. For probably a third of the money Dominion could have proven to the world that they do take safety and ethics seriously, that they are good neighbors, and that they do know how to deal with sinkholes. They proved that they could do none of that.