The cancellation of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline in July was met with mixed reactions even among those who staunchly opposed the 600-mile natural gas pipeline from the start.
Some residents who had dedicated the past half-decade to fighting the project were floored, others were less surprised by the announcement, and others celebrated cautiously. But as Nelson County transitions into a post-pipeline era, left behind is one essential question: What’s next?
The ACP, approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and owned by Dominion and Duke Energy, was planned to stretch roughly 600 miles through West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina. Twenty-seven miles were slated to carve a path through Nelson County.
Many opponents found themselves pitted against the pipeline since letters first started going out to landowners across the then-proposed route in 2014. Even as the route changed, the players who already were involved did not.
“The whole 6½-year arc kind of mushes together,” said Ellen Bouton, an Afton resident who received one of the initial letters from Dominion.
Nelson County-based Friends of Nelson, a nonprofit, grassroots organization opposed to the project, formed shortly thereafter.
Roughly nine months after the pipeline’s cancellation, Doug Wellman, president of Friends of Nelson, said the organization is focused on completing unfinished business related to the ACP and finding its footing now that it is without its main adversary to rally against.
Since the pipeline’s cancellation in July 2020, Wellman said roughly half of the organization’s 14-member board had resigned or announced their intention to resign.
“The first thing is a lot of our members have been in the trenches right from the start and are simply tired, totally understandably so,” Wellman said.
To replace the members it’s losing, Friends of Nelson is recruiting new, younger members to breathe new life into the group. Wellman said one idea gaining traction is revamping the “whole gambit” of waste management in the county.
Wellman explained the group, after seeing regulatory processes play out at the local, state and federal levels with ACP, also still hopes for changes to what it believes is a lack of comprehensive oversight for pipelines.
Other members are working to archive everything related to the group’s grassroots challenge from the past six years.
“I think it’s a very rich story, so I think that’s going to be a very useful resource for scholars,” Wellman said.
Some are focusing their attention on the issue of “zombie easements” — pipeline opponents’ term for the legally binding agreements between landowners and the ACP that are still in place despite the project’s demise, which allow for construction of a natural gas pipeline through a specific piece of land.
FERC recently opened a comment period to elicit public input on proposed restoration plans by the ACP that closes April 16. It’s unclear, however, what course of action FERC will take, if any, regarding easements.
However, as Friends of Nelson looks for a new direction, many of those involved are choosing to step back from the fight and the organization that dominated their lives for the past six years.
“It’s time to retire,” 80-year-old Ron Enders, a founder of the group and Bouton’s husband, said.
A full-time job
Some dedicated Nelson residents have invested countless hours into defeating the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Ask almost anyone involved in the opposition how many hours they’ve put in and they might just laugh the question away.
“It’s so hard to count because you’re thinking about it all the time. It just preoccupies you,” said Wellman, who joined Friends of Nelson in 2015.
After the formation of Friends of Nelson, Enders said the first task he undertook was identifying what the proposed route was at the time, tracking down property owners who had received letters just like he did. It was an endeavor he considered to be the equivalent of a full-time job, canvassing for property owners sometimes seven days per week.
When Bouton joined the organization, she found her self sinking “many, many hours” into managing the nonprofit’s webpage, easily breaking a couple dozen hours per week. Those hours, she pointed out, don’t account for the sleepless nights or routine household chores that were overshadowed by thoughts of the pipeline.
“It was this huge presence in our lives for both me and my husband,” Bouton said.
Before they began investing significant time into fighting the ACP, the Afton couple had a garden they maintained regularly until it fizzled out during that six-year period. Enders also had started work on a pond on the property but he had abandoned the project because of the impending pipeline.
Prior to her receiving a letter from Dominion in the mail stating the company planned to put the pipeline through her property and before subsequently joining Friends of Nelson in 2014, landowner liaison Joyce Burton said she worked part-time as a contract home care physical therapist.
“I ended up giving up my day job because of the amount of time this fight was taking up. … It encouraged me into an early retirement,” Burton said.
Hours are flexible, however, when it comes to fighting pipelines. As Burton noted, the fight went through “ebbs and flows,” with some weeks requiring more man-hours than others. At her peak, Burton estimated she dedicated roughly 40 hours per week to the cause, especially as she transitioned into her role as landowner liaison.
Other times, it might be just a quarter of that. Her time invested changed as her role did, too.
Wellman said a typical workload for him during this quiet time consists of about 15 hours per week.
“It’s been a major undertaking,” Wellman said. “I think it’s fair to say it’s like a half-time job for me.
Bouton said she and Enders were beginning to hope — something they usually were cautious to do — the pipeline would be canceled, but they were too afraid they’d actually “won” before the news was official.
When the thing they had been afraid to say aloud — the pipeline was canceled — had happened, there was a sense of excitement, but not so much surprise.
Announced in early July 2020, Dominion had pulled the plug on the 42-inch-wide natural gas pipeline after being mired in court challenges. At the time of its cancellation, the project was more than three years behind schedule and more than $3 billion over budget.
Federal courts in Montana had also thrown out a national federal water quality permit that the ACP relied upon to cross hundreds of waterbodies in its path, leaving the project with no clear path to completion.
“When something has taken up that much of your time and thought and energy for so long and it finally comes to a stop, you don’t have a sense right away — other than the excitement of it actually going away — you don’t have a sense of how different your life is going to be,” Bouton said.
Since the pipeline’s cancellation, Enders said things are gradually returning to normal, including turning their attention back to the once-blooming garden they had.
With the abrupt cancellation of the 600-mile pipeline in July came a relatively brief moment for Friends of Nelson to take a breather, Wellman said.
As president of the organization, the various business or administrative duties he was tasked with taking care of still exist.
Wellman’s work is picking back up as the organization attempts to chart its next course, but a lot of his responsibilities directly associated with decision making in regard to the ACP dried up with the pipeline’s cancellation.
Burton said in the span of about a day, she found herself in a sort of dry period when it came to her work with Friends of Nelson, waiting to see if there would be any movement on the lingering question of the hundreds of easements and easement modifications filed in the local Nelson County court system.
She described her work with the organization as being “very, very spotty through the fall.”
Now that an abandonment plan has been submitted by ACP, which she said did not include anything indicative of the issue of easements, her work has started to pick back up as she focuses on that, explaining her landowner liaison duties are beginning ramping up again.
She said she currently is working on connecting with affected landowners and informing and encouraging them about how they may weigh in on the restoration plan comment process.
In a document filed with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and dated Dec. 16, ACP detailed its plans for disposition, including restoration and other relevant strategies for the canceled project’s facilities and the areas for which the pipeline was set.
Across the planned footprint for the project, about two-thirds of landowners did not see any physical activity on their properties, according to ACP’s filing. On properties where trees remain after being cut, pursuant to requirements in landowners’ easement agreements, ACP will stack, chip, burn or remove the cut material.
ACP officials previously have stated their intent is to conclude the project with minimal environmental disturbance. Spokesperson Aaron Ruby said in January the ACP at the time had no intention to voluntarily release the easement agreements, nor does it intend to sell those to other parties.
“For the restoration plan to be complete, they must also restore full property rights,” Burton said.
ACP felled trees in the Wintergreen area in early 2018, which so far have been left in place since.
Tying up loose ends
For those who have decided to stick with the Nelson County organization after the pipeline’s demise, they’re doing so simply because the fight for them isn’t over just yet.
Either they’re looking to finish projects related to the ACP or to help the organization move forward under a new banner. Much of what Friends of Nelson is focused on now revolves around documenting and establishing records of their six-year struggle.
Bouton falls into that category, as well. She said she served as the website administrator for Friends of Nelson until December 2020 and served a brief stint as a board member.
She and her husband, Enders, have been involved in the grassroots movement since the beginning.
An archivist by trade, Bouton, with the help of a few others, have taken on the monumental task of compiling every document or record associated with the group’s fight against the ACP, including paper files, photographs, videos, legal documents, documents from local government or media coverage.
“This feels different when you’re putting a lot of time into something like the archives project, which has a finite end; it feels very different than putting in a huge amount of time to the pipeline fight, which seemed like it was endless,” Bouton said, adding she’s not putting in as many hours as she has in the past.
Bouton said she joined Friends of Nelson to fight the pipeline, and she has. But the pipeline, more than any other cause the group may take up, is what most engaged Bouton, who said she has interests elsewhere now.
“I’m still involved because I believe the record of how we fought the pipeline and how a bunch of ordinary citizens won this fight is an important record to keep for the future. Once that’s done, I’m done,” Bouton said.
Once she’s finished, which she anticipates will be sometime in the summer, she plans to step away from the organization she has spent the past half-decade with — a sentiment shared by her husband unless Friends of Nelson finds a new project that excites him, Enders said.
Burton, the landowner liaison for the Nelson County-based organization, is focusing her attention elsewhere. She is part of the group’s ongoing efforts against “zombie easements,” which Wellman described as being part of the cleanup process surrounding the ACP.
She first started tracking easements as a means to give the average landowner some negotiating power against Dominion as they sought permanent easements for parts of their property.
Recently, Friends of Nelson formally asked FERC require the ACP release Nelson landowners from the property easements ACP still owns, which the group argues places a continuing “unwarranted burden” on the hundreds of properties along the 600-mile route.
“What we’re hoping is by making the plight of landowners known more widely that maybe we can work as a group to try and right this wrong,” Burton said.
Ultimately, Burton said there needs to be change on a larger scale, because what she felt made the pipeline wrong in Nelson County makes it wrong in other communities, as well.
“I don’t think there’s a single one of us who would not love to never think about this again. But the job isn’t done yet,” she said. “The job isn’t done for Nelson and the job isn’t done for all these other communities … who are at risk of having exactly what happened in Nelson happen to them.”