This story was originally published by Mountain State Spotlight. For more stories from Mountain State Spotlight, visit www.mountainstatespotlight.org.
When Jeff Mills moved to Doddridge County with his wife nearly 50 years ago, he wanted enough land to hunt and fish. Now retired from decades with the West Virginia forestry division, Mills enjoys growing Christmas trees across from his front yard. A few cows live on a hill behind his house.
But in 2015, he got some unwelcome news. Mills learned that his 290-acre property was in the path of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline project, a natural gas pipeline planned to stretch hundreds of miles from West Virginia to North Carolina. An offshoot from the larger pipeline was supposed to run near the side of the Mills’ house.
Mills didn’t want the pipeline on his property. But ACP had the power — called eminent domain — to take it anyway. Federal regulators gave ACP that power as part of their approval of the project. So Mills, like many, said he agreed to negotiate.
“If they didn’t have eminent domain I would have told them to go fly a kite,” Mills said.
Ultimately, the company ended up getting a 50-foot-wide permanent easement in the middle of the property. Mills said the prospect of the pipeline buried near his home made him uneasy. But in July 2020, companies Dominion Energy and Duke Energy announced they were canceling the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.
Now, Mills and other landowners face a different question: What’s next for the land that used to be theirs?
In Doddridge County, the Mills’ property remains physically untouched, though contractors had already started clearing trees nearby when news of the pipeline’s cancellation broke. But there’s still an orange banner in one tree and a wooden stake in the ground, constant reminders that this swath of property doesn’t belong to him anymore.
And it’s the uncertainty of what could happen to that easement that Mills says he’s nervous about.
“A different company, a different pipeline … it’s not over,” Mills said.
Canceling the pipeline
When Dominion Energy proposed the 600-mile ACP in 2015, the company said it was needed to diversify the region’s energy mix as more coal-fired plants retire. Construction began in 2017, after the project was approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
But after years of legal battles — mostly from environmental groups arguing FERC had overlooked impacts on climate change, and on local water systems and utilities — the companies pulled the plug on both the main pipeline and the smaller Supply Header pipeline, the offshoot that was going to run across the Mills property in Doddridge County.
“At that point, a lot of times people throw in the towel,” said Megan Gibson, an attorney who advocates for landowners with the Washington, D.C.- based Niskanen Center. “‘We’re done, we won, the pipeline’s dead.’ For landowners, that’s obviously not true.”
Among the three states, FERC documents say the proposed pipeline would’ve crossed more than 2,600 easements, covering nearly 4,300 acres of land — all of which Duke and Dominion now own the rights to.
Some landowners have miles of the pipeline already installed on their properties. Contractors for Duke and Dominion also cleared trees along more than 110 miles across West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina, leaving about half of the felled trees on the property.
“Even if there’s nothing visible out on the land, there’s a public record out at the courthouse that restricts that landowner’s rights and that property’s value,” Howell said. “The easements all prohibit building a structure. That means if you want to put a barn there, you cannot. If you want to put a house or shed there, you cannot. And the company has the right to come onto the property to do what they want.”
Right now, the future of these easements is an open question, as the energy companies seek approval from federal regulators on a plan to restore the land they already started preparing for the pipeline.
FERC noted in July that they had “received a number of comments that the commission should require the relinquishment of the easements” that Duke and Dominion own. But so far, regulators have opted out of weighing in. Attorneys like Gibson are requesting FERC get involved before their next more official statement on Dominion’s restoration proposals, which is due in November.
In an emailed statement, Dominion Energy spokesperson Christine Mitchell said the company will hang onto the easements for the next few years to “develop the most responsible approach” for restoration.
“We plan to keep the easements until all restoration and monitoring are complete,” she wrote. “However, we will evaluate individual landowner requests on a case-by-case basis.”
Restoration will take one to two years, with work in West Virginia beginning last in mid-2022.
To Howell, a natural “next question” would be what Duke and Dominion plan to do with the easements after restoration is finished.
“I think that the thing that hangs in the back of the mind of the landowner, and reasonably so, is not only what I said about it affecting the land value of it,” Howell said, “but there’s also the possibility that [Atlantic Coast Pipeline] sells these [easements] to another company, who then uses that as a foothold to build a pipeline on the same, or similar, route.”
“Could this be sold?” Howell said. “And could it still become some other pipeline, down the road?”
So what now?
After the pipeline was canceled, Gibson and the Niskanen Center intervened during Dominion’s request for restoration approval, on behalf of a handful of Virginia landowners living along the pipeline’s proposed route.
“Landowners are in this mess because FERC authorized this pipeline to go out and start taking people’s land,” Gibson said. “FERC created this mess, it needs to help fix this.”
Back in Doddridge County, Mills said he has written public comments to FERC asking the agency to return his easement to him.
There are a lot of unknowns. Because FERC hasn’t addressed the relinquishment of easements, there’s been no word on what happens to payments the companies have made. Mills received $210,000, he said, for his 50-foot easement.
Still, he remains afraid Duke and Dominion might end up selling the land to another pipeline company, bringing back the same fears.
“If it blew [up] right where it was put, anybody living here would be gone,” Mills said.
FERC is expected to file a new, final environmental impact statement by Nov. 19. It’s unclear whether they will rule on easements.