Residents protest pipelines at state office in Woodbridge

Chris Tandy, center, the co-chair of environmental group 350 Loudoun, delivers a speech to other anti-natural gas pipeline protesters outside the Department of Environmental Quality office in Woodbridge on Sept. 14.

The pair of natural gas pipeline projects currently roiling Virginia politics are not set to run anywhere near Woodbridge, yet dozens of environmental activists descended on a local regulatory office to register their displeasure with the pipelines all the same.

With cries of “No fracking pipelines,” about 40 people from across Northern Virginia made their way to the Department of Environmental Quality office just off Minnieville Road on Sept. 14. The Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines have attracted fierce opposition along their proposed routes through central and southwestern Virginia, respectively, but the activists with the Chesapeake Climate Action Network’s Action Fund organized a series of protests all over the state to make it clear that all manner of Virginians want to block the projects.

Several of the protesters in attendance met briefly with Thomas Faha, regional director of the DEQ’s Northern Virginia office and delivered a letter to Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe and the head of the DEQ.

They are urging the regulators to press for “site specific” reviews of how the pipelines would affect water quality in the hundreds of locations the projects would cross waterways — the DEQ is currently relying on a blanket permit from the Army Corps of Engineers certifying the suitability of the project. However environmentalists are pressing regulators to embrace the more thorough approach instead. A DEQ spokeswoman declined to comment on the protests and noted that the agency is still studying public comments on the review process.

These issues may seem very far off for residents of Northern Virginia, but the activists in Woodbridge on Thursday said it is vital that people all over the state engage with the issue.

“It’s all connected. These pipelines are going to dramatically increase emissions everywhere, so it doesn’t matter where you live,” said Chris Tandy, co-chair of 350 Loudoun, an environmentalist group participating in the protest. “We’re all downstream from somewhere.”

Amanda Tandy, Chris’s wife and fellow co-chair of 350 Loudoun, also noted that people in Northern Virginia may have resources that some of the rural residents directly affected by the pipelines may not, particularly those living in sparsely populated places like Nelson or Montgomery counties.

“We can add numbers to this fight,” she said. “Whether it’s people or money or time, we can help.”

In all, the activists argue the pipelines — backed by a variety of companies, most notably Dominion Energy — would be environmental disasters. They charge that the pipelines would not only encourage the use of environmentally dangerous fossil fuels, but the threat of potential leaks or explosions also threaten the communities they would cut through.

Even conservative communities have come to oppose the projects, as they would involve the seizure of swaths of property through eminent domain.

“There’s both a liberal and a conservative case against these,” Amanda Tandy said. “There’s no reason not to oppose them.”

But the project backers, including McAuliffe, claim the pipelines will be constructed responsibly and bring scores of jobs to the region.

Yet environmental advocates have spent years arguing that whatever economic benefits the pipelines bring to the state will be minimal, especially when compared to the environmental threats they pose.

“You can’t build pipelines without harming our drinking water,” said Kelsey Crane, a staffer with the Northern Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club. “I don’t want Virginia to be the guinea pig for proving how destructive these pipelines can be.”

McAuliffe’s embrace of the project has particularly disappointed activists. Several pointed to Dominion’s handling of the coal ash storage at the Possum Point power plant in southeastern Prince William as evidence the company cannot be trusted, and blamed the governor’s administration for deferring to the massive utility.

“I changed my voter registration just to be able to vote for him four years ago,” said Erica Bardwell, a nurse in Arlington and activist with the Chesapeake chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility. “But he seems to be in love with these pipelines...and he’s running out of time to protect his legacy.”

Pipeline activists have also kept a close eye on the race to replace McAuliffe in Richmond this year. Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, the Democratic nominee and McAuliffe’s running mate, has so far declined to take a firm position on the pipelines, other than urging that their evaluation process be a thorough and scientific one. Republican nominee Ed Gillespie firmly supports the projects and has frequently derided Northam for failing to take a stand on the issue.

Many anti-pipeline activists have found common cause with Gillespie on that front, regularly disrupting Northam’s campaign events to register their displeasure with his position.

Amanda Tandy said her group is split on whether to pressure Northam on his stance, but given the urgency of the issue, she understands why some people might feel the need to make their voices heard.

“A lot of people believe there’s no better time to push a candidate than when they’re running for election,” she said. “And all of us are frustrated that both candidates are less than vehemently opposed to these projects.”

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