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DavidsonNews.net: Plans For Gas Pipeline Through Town Spark Concerns

021612DLCpipelinemap590.jpg
gas pipeline proposed location map

Piedmont Natural Gas provided this partial map of the proposed pipeline route to Davidson Lands Conservancy. Click image to download a PDF. Davidson College is protesting plans by Piedmont Natural Gas for a potentially damaging pipeline across land it owns in the northern part of town. In a letter to state regulators on Feb. 13, college officials said they have "significant concerns" about the project. The college also accuses the company of withholding information about the pipeline, which would begin construction in March. The eight-mile pipeline would be part of a longer regional pipeline Piedmont is constructing to feed Progress Energy's Sutton power station, in New Hanover County, near Wilmington. The gas company is seeking permits from the state Department of Environmental Quality and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as well as construction approval from the North Carolina Utilities Commission. The college's letter was first reported in The Charlotte Observer Thursday. Piedmont told college officials it has acquired about 40 percent of the land it needs for the pipeline. And whether the college cooperates or not, the gas company has the power to acquire the rights-of-way it needs by eminent domain. The utility plans to install a 30-inch pipe and says it needs a 70-foot-wide permanent easement, which could limit property owners' rights to use areas above the line. The college said it had been seeking information about the project beginning in July 2010, but did not learn of Piedmont's specific route plans until Jan. 3, 2012. The college said the proposed route cuts through land in its Davidson Ecological Preserve, which includes significant stands of hardwood trees, a stream and wetlands. In a statement provided to DavidsonNews.net Thursday, the college said: Davidson has always sought to cooperate with the needs of utility companies, as reflected in the fact that several such "utility corridors" already bisect our property. We've recently entered into constructive conversations with PNG to address our concerns over the proposed route of the current project. The college also complained in its letter to regulators that Piedmont had sent surveyors to trespass on college property to locate the pipeline route, cut trees on its property illegally and taken soil borings without permission. Piedmont Natural Gas already has a pipeline right of way through Davidson and into surrounding counties. College officials and other experts wonder why the gas company is not using that right of way, which also cuts through college property. Jeff Davis, director of the N.C. Utilities Commission's public staff natural gas division, said Thursday that his office also has asked why the the pipeline can't follow the existing right of way. "That's a very good question. We've asked. We have a data request on this to (PNG)," he said. But he said there may be federal limits that may make the proposed gas line too large for the existing path. The Utilities Commission does not have any control over the pipeline's path, he said. Its only role is to decide if construction of the pipeline is warranted. But the project still depends on environmental and other approvals, he said. PIEDMONT STATEMENT On Thursday, Piedmont spokesman David Trusty said the gas company disagrees with the college's complaint that it has not shared information. He said the utility is in discussions with Davidson about the issue. Here's the full statement provided to DavidsonNews.net: We are reviewing the letter from Davidson College expressing concerns about the proposed route of a new natural gas pipeline that would cross an undeveloped area near the northern edge of the college's property. We understand the concerns that projects such as these often raise, and regret the recent communications challenges we've shared with Davidson College. We strongly disagree, however, with the college's characterization of our actions and intent on this project and will be addressing that in front of the relevant regulatory agencies to whom the Davidson College letter was directed. When selecting a route for any pipeline, Piedmont considers many factors, primary among them public safety, environmental impact, disruption to existing homes and businesses, and costs to our customers. Based on physical surveys, environmental analyses and an extensive review of multiple alternate routes, we are confident that the proposed route crossing Davidson College's property meets all of those criteria. We desire a productive relationship with Davidson College and are working with them in an attempt to address issues on their property related to the pipeline. The construction of this pipeline is part of a larger project that will allow for the conversion of an aging coal-fired power plant in Eastern North Carolina to one that is fueled by efficient, clean-burning natural gas. In addition to improving air quality, this pipeline project will also create cost effective expansion capacity that Piedmont will use to help serve the growing natural gas requirements of its other North Carolina customers. CONSERVANCY HAS CONCERNS, TOO Meanwhile, Davidson College isn't the only local institution to raise concerns about the pipeline. The Davidson Lands Conservancy also has been tracking developments in the plan, which would run the pipeline along the west side of the West Branch of the Rocky River, northeast of town. Roy Alexander, the lands conservancy's executive director, said his group has suggested that Piedmont consider running the pipeline on the east side of the creek. "Our concern is that utilizing the west side of the stream will result in destruction of a swath approximately 70 feet wide and some 1.25 miles of hardwood tree canopy for a new, single-purpose utility corridor. We have encouraged them to explore the east bank instead, but they appear unwilling to do so," he said. On the east side of the stream are the town-owned Fisher Farm Park and the former Abersham property, now owned by Mecklenburg County. Mr. Alexander said the disruption - placing a pipeline beneath what is already an open field - would be less than cutting trees or disturbing wetlands. In addition, he said, the town of Davidson's Greenway Master Plan calls for constructing a greenway trail along the east side of the stream. A gas line corridor would be compatible with the trail plan. "We would prefer that the gas line not be located in the vicinity of the stream, but if the choices are limited to east side or west side, clearly the east side results in less destruction of the tree canopy," Mr. Alexander said. He said the conservancy is working to obtain conservation easements from two property owners whose land would be directly affected by Piedmont's plan. In the process, Mr. Alexander said the conservancy has had difficulty obtaining information and pursuing discussions about an alternative pipeline route. "Poor communications," he said Thursday. "I will endorse everything the college said about the problems." RELATED LINKS AND DOCUMENTS Feb. 16, 2012, Charlotte Observer, "Davidson College protests plans for gas pipeline." - reporter Bruce Henderson's report on the college's objections. Feb. 6, 2012, Piedmont Natural Gas application for permission to construct the pipeline. (PDF) Feb. 13, 2012, Davidson College's letter to regulators. (PDF) - Includes details of the college's objections and a rough map. Feb. 16, 2012, Piedmont Natural Gas map provided to Davidson Lands Conservancy showing the proposed pipeline route. (PDF)