Following the release of a draft environmental impact statement in December 2016, area residents had the chance to voice their thoughts on the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline during a comment meeting last Wednesday at Nelson County High School.

After about three hours, more than 100 people made verbal comments while dozens more entered written comments about the draft statement, which looks at potential impacts on the environment and residents from the proposed pipeline project and is issued by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

The natural gas pipeline, if approved, would run about 600 miles from West Virginia to North Carolina and through Virginia and Nelson County.

FERC ultimately will decide whether to authorize the project. The agency has said it will release a final environmental impact statement this summer and will issue a final decision by fall.

In an effort to collect comments in a timely manner, FERC employed four court reporters to transcribe verbal comments Wednesday. David Swearingen, branch chief of FERC’s division of Gas Environment and Engineering, said the decision was based on previous turnout to public meetings in Nelson and because an activity at the high school forced the meeting to start later than originally planned.

“I think this meeting is the one where most of the public and community interest is coalesced,” Swearingen said.

While some would have preferred more of a traditional town-hall setting rather than a chance to enter comments individually, Swearingen said the format made the most sense for collecting substantive comments in a timely fashion.

“The atmosphere was that people were completely misunderstanding the purpose of these sessions. They thought it was an opportunity to rally support, and we were finding that it was intimidating for people,” Swearingen said of previous FERC comment meetings. “… This way, everybody has a chance to speak their mind.

“… We feel like that makes for a smoother-run session; we can get a lot more comments completed, and people don't have to worry about getting shouted down or meetings getting rowdy. People have this idea that the louder you are, you can win the meeting. … This way it’s not a ‘who wins the meeting, who gets the people;’ it’s not who rallied the crowd the best.”

Attendees who converged on the school went into the cafeteria, where they received a number. When their number was called, attendees were directed to one of four rooms to register their comments individually with a FERC representative and court reporter.

About an hour before doors at the high school opened, both opponents and proponents of the pipeline dozens lined up to give their comments.

Nearby, environmental and political groups set up signs and tables lined with literature on the pipeline. Indivisible Nelson, a group formed in the past two months or so with the purpose of standing against President Donald Trump's policies, sold T-shirts, and Wild Virginia representatives passed out documents with information about the project.

Blue “No Pipeline” signs were placed inside and outside the school's entrance, and a series of poster boards that spelled out “no pipeline” in white lights stood out in the darkness that settled on Lovingston just after sunset.

In the adjacent Nelson Middle School, members of anti-pipeline group Friends of Nelson occupied the library as they waited to give their comments.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Denver Riggleman attended the public comments meeting as someone who feels he has a personal stake in the fight, he said. Riggleman, co-owner of Afton-based Silverback Distillery, said his property was, at one point, on the proposed route of the pipeline. Though the route has been moved off his property, he said the fight still is personal, and the move “doesn’t mean it changes anything.”

“There are so many people I know that are going through this, and I think it’s an abuse of property rights,” Riggleman said. “I’m here to support the people that are fighting, because I was in the fight myself.”

Riggleman said he canceled a debate in New Kent County to attend the meeting Wednesday.

“No matter what, I had to be here. I had to be here,” he said. “This is my home.”

Others who attended the meeting said they came to support the proposed project.

“I think it’s important for FERC and everyone else to understand that the opponents are not the only faction here,” said Carlton Ballowe, a Nelson resident and president of the county’s Republican committee.

“They may be the most passionate, they may be the most vocal. It’s just like if you have a zoning hearing or something at the Planning Commission or the Board of Supervisors, it’s always the [‘Not-in-My-Backyard’ people] who come out. It’s the NIMBYs that are loud.

“… I don’t want anyone to get the wrong impression. I believe that in spite of the fact that Nelson County has the reputation for being the epicenter of the opposition, I honestly believe that the majority of the people in Nelson County support the pipeline.”

Ballowe and David Hight, a Nelson resident and retired civil engineer, said the proposed project is important for keeping energy costs down.

“The principles behind this pipeline are that of American survival and American jobs, resurrection of our industrial society. … How better to bring this country to its knees than to deny energy and bring the price of energy up?” Hight said. “… All these people lined up would be even louder, more vocal if someone were to tell them tomorrow, ‘The price of your electricity is going to double. The price of gasoline is going to go up.’ I’m looking at it as an American, and I’m looking at it for the benefit of my children and my grandchildren.”

Nelson County Supervisor Allen Hale said he plans to submit comments on the draft EIS online but came to the meeting because the project is an important issue in the county.

“Certainly it is a concern of a great many of my constituents, but it’s also a strong personal belief of mine that this is a very ill-advised project,” he said. “… I'm glad to see so many people out. People feel strongly about this, and regardless of the outcome, I think it’s important to stand up for what you believe in.”

Jesse Rutherford, a Nelson resident who is opposed to the project, said the proposed route cuts through property on his family's farm in Nelson and property he owns in Buckingham County.

“When it comes to taking property, I believe there are some times when public utilities need to take property, but you know, dagnabbit, I believe there are other routes they could've taken,” Rutherford said.

Alice Clair, a Nelson native and first-year student at the University of Virginia, traveled from Charlottesville to enter her comments last Wednesday. Clair has been a vocal opponent of the pipeline from the outset of the project.

“I don’t think [the pipeline is coming through], but you’ve got to consider it to be able to real-ly access the feelings of, ‘We really have to take action right now. We can't be sure this is not going to happen.’ [But] it’s because of all of these people that are here that it won’t happen. Without all of these bodies and minds present, it absolutely would go through,” Clair said.

She added she thinks it’s still possible the pipeline will not be approved.

“I can’t let myself believe that if I live in a democracy that all of these people won’t be listened to,” she said. “So if the ACP goes through, my trust in the country goes down the drain.”