ATC Reveals Further Details of $19.5M Pipeline Agreement
Facing criticism and questions on social media, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy has provided more details about its August 2020 decision to sign a “voluntary conservation stewardship agreement” with the company overseeing the construction of a controversial, 303-mile natural-gas pipeline slated to cross the trail in Virginia.
Under the agreement, Mountain Valley Pipeline, LLC will provide up to $19.5 million to the ATC “to conserve land along the Trail corridor and support outdoor recreation-based activities in Virginia and West Virginia.”
Under the current plan, the pipeline will cross the trail 110 feet below the surface for about 600 feet. The pipeline also will run parallel to the trail for about 12 miles, four miles off the trail along the Virginia-West Virginia border north of Pearisburg, Virginia.
“Whether it’s conserving high-priority climate-resilient lands or safeguarding iconic vistas from the Trail, this agreement will greatly advance the pace and scale of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s mission-critical landscape conservation work,” Laura Bellville, the ATC’s vice president of Conservation and Trail Programs, said in August.
But some allies in the ATC’s six-year opposition to the project have started to go public with their criticism of the agreement.
“In the process we (the ATC) decided that those fighting with us were not nearly as valuable as those filthy rich pipeline guys. So we threw our friends under the bus and laughed all the way to the bank,” Maury Johnson, who has spent years fighting the plan to run the pipeline across his West Virginia farm, posted on the ATC’s Facebook page in early February. The post has since been removed.
Andrew Downs, senior regional director for the South, says the ATC entered negotiations with Mountain Valley after a 2018 ruling by the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals made clear that concerns about the trail would not be enough to halt the project.
“That kind of told us, ‘Hey, the AT will bear some impact from the pipeline and we can’t stop it. … If all we are going to get is nothing, let’s get the best deal we can,’” he tells The Trek. “This is not necessarily where we wanted to end up from the beginning. The pipeline was 80 percent built at the time we signed the agreement; the visual impacts had already occurred; we made a decision that was the best outcome for the trail at that point.”
Despite pending lawsuits by a coalition of environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, Mountain Valley recently announced that it expects to complete the pipeline by the end of 2021.
Johnson and a few other opponents of the pipeline have criticized the ATC for making a secret deal. In December, opponents submitted a petition calling on the ATC to release the full text of the agreement.
But Downs says keeping the agreement under wraps was part of the initial conditions set for negotiations and revealing it would damage the ATC’s credibility.
“There are 58 pipelines crossing the AT now, hundreds of powerlines, a massive number of cell towers. These threats come every day, and our strategy for decades has been to work with these developers to ensure minimal impact to the trail. That requires a level of trust,” he says. “To release an agreement, when we said we wouldn’t, could harm trust in us.”
The agreement also contains information about potential real-estate purchases, which even governments may withhold under freedom of information laws.
“This agreement is about purchasing land for the AT, land that’s currently private, and there’s information about that land in the agreement,” he says. “To publicize that could potentially have an effect on land prices and other things.”
Mountain Valley has already provided “about half” of the $19.5 million, according to Downs. While the full amount is contingent upon completion of the pipeline, the ATC will keep all funds received.
The money is not intended to mitigate specific impacts from the pipeline, but to protect “the landscape at large” and “support economic recreation economies and a higher quality of life” in areas of West Virginia and Virginia adjacent to the trail, according to the ATC.
Downs says the recent $1 million acquisition of nearly 600 acres around McAfee Knob – one of the most iconic landmarks on the trail – was made possible by the Mountain Valley agreement. He rejects opponents’ charges that the ATC has “sold out.”
“Obviously, we didn’t want this pipeline from the beginning. So, if it doesn’t happen and we don’t get the remainder of the money, that’s fine with us,” he said. “We’re not interested in moving the project forward to ‘get our money.’”
Downs says the ATC will continue to fully participate in the federal permitting process and work with Mountain Valley to minimize the pipeline’s impact on the trail corridor and ensure the best outcome for the AT.
Responding to criticism that the pipeline will promote a carbon-based industry that contributes to climate change, Downs stressed the difference between the environmental organizations lined up against the pipeline and the ATC.
“We’re really proud of the broad environmental work we do,” he said. “But the ATC is not an environmental organization, we’re a trail conservancy and the only organization solely focused on the trail itself. Many excellent organizations are focused on protecting the environment at large; our job is to maintain the AT’s long-term viability. … We may not be an environmental organization, but the work we do has vast benefit to the environment.”
He said the ATC will continue to support legislation such as the proposed Pipeline Transparency and Fairness Act, which would tighten the environmental process through which the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission considers natural-gas infrastructure projects.
He also expresses respect and understanding for people personally impacted by the pipeline.
“I know many of the people directly affected. I have immense respect for them, I feel for them; their farms, their livelihoods, are going to be bisected by the pipeline,” he says. “So I understand why they are angry.”
Featured image Simulation of the impact of the MVP on AT viewshed. Graphic courtesy of Appalachian Trail Conservancy.
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