Fire on the Mountain: Rural Residents Battle Pipeline
By James Miessler
Residents of Bath County and neighboring localities say the area’s beauty is threatened by plans to run a natural gas pipeline through the western part of Virginia.
BOLAR — Nestled in a valley flanked by two steep mountains, this unincorporated community is easy to miss.
To get here, take Route 220, which twists through scenic views and entails gasp-inducing turns before arriving at Monterey (population 147), the seat of Highland County. Then head down Jackson River Road, past a breathtaking landscape of farms, pasture and tree-topped mountains before reaching a narrow but surprisingly well-maintained road. It leads into deep woods and eventually to Bolar, which straddles the line between Highland and Bath counties.
Tucked away in the thick foliage of the George Washington and Jefferson national forests, it’s not an easy place to visit or live. Cellphone reception is spotty at best, and in most places nonexistent. Going to the store means heading to Monterey or Warm Springs (population 123), the Bath County seat.
Yet for the handful of people who live in Bolar, its isolation and natural beauty are what make the struggles of rural life worth it. That beauty, residents say, is threatened by plans to run a natural gas pipeline through their community.
Dominion Power, which has partnered with three other energy companies to build the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, initially proposed routing the project through the national forests. But because of concerns from the U.S. Forest Service, Dominion offered an alternative: redirecting the pipeline through Bolar and the nearby mountains.
Bolar’s long-time residents fear the pipeline would not only mar the area’s beauty but endanger their lives and livelihoods as well.
The anti-pipeline sentiment in the area is as visible as the mountain ranges that tower over the farmlands and rivers. The winding road leading up Bolar’s hilly terrain is peppered with pipeline protest signs, many proudly displayed in front of houses and other properties.
In Bath, Highland and neighboring counties, there is strong opposition to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. “Dominion Power a piping land-grabber,” declares a sign near Weyers Cave in Augusta County.
Dominion says the pipeline is critical for meeting the energy needs of Virginia and North Carolina. The project’s supporters, including Gov. Terry McAuliffe, say it will create jobs and provide clean-burning, low-priced natural gas to homes, businesses, manufacturers and power generators. Dominion has promised to minimize the impact on landowners and the environment.
But in the valley that cradles Bolar, residents dismiss such assurances. To many of them, the land has historical significance. Jeannette Robinson’s family has maintained land here since the American Revolution.
“Our fifth great-grandfather, Joseph Carpenter, came over from Ireland as an indentured servant,” Robinson said. “He enlisted and fought in the Revolutionary War and settled here.”
In 1792, Carpenter settled on the land given to him for his service in the war and had 13 children.
“We’re descended from one of those 13 children,” Robinson said. “He eventually moved over the mountain to Burnsville, but the family’s been here ever since.”
The land, passed down from generation to generation, includes a familial home, a family cemetery dating to the 1800s, and the home Robinson is building with her husband, a five-minute walk around the side of the hill on their property. Robinson, who was a librarian in the area for 25 years, has been vocal about her opposition to the pipeline.
“I haven’t talked to a single person that’s been in favor of it,” she said.
Jeannette’s husband, Gary Robinson, also has long-time ties to the valley, having lived in the area for around 30 years. He earns his living as an artisan broom maker, producing traditional brooms that have cultural ties to Appalachia. In addition, he manages an orchard of maple trees, producing maple syrup.
“We’ve been to a lot of the local meetings,” Gary Robinson said. “We’re just trying to get information about what’s going to be involved with the pipeline.”
One of his concerns is that the pipeline could hurt tourism.
“Bath County’s No. 1 money raiser for the economy is tourism,” Gary Robinson said. “That’s where they make the vast majority of the money for Bath County. People come to this area for the pristine nature.”
In particular, he said, the forests of Bath County are special.
“This is one of the last parts of the East Coast that you can come to and see the forest habitat that we have here,” Gary Robinson said. “You rip it apart with something like this to benefit one company — it’s just unfair, and it’s just not right that this is happening.”
John Cowden, owner of the Fort Lewis Lodge, depends on tourism to make his living. The lodge, a historic country inn in Bath County, draws tourists who seek a taste of rural life.
“One of the aspects of Fort Lewis is we’re sort of the purity of the land,” Cowden said. “The Atlantic Coast Pipeline would significantly undermine progress towards economic development. It’s going to be very detrimental. Primarily, we hardly want to be known as the ‘pipeline county.’ It’s not the kind of mountain getaway destination that people are looking for.”
Even more urgent than the pipeline’s perceived impact on tourism are the environmental concerns. Bill Limpert, a Bolar resident and former environmental regulator for the Maryland Department of the Environment, believes the pipeline would threaten the area’s environment and residents’ health.
“Water quality, particularly drinking water, would be in severe jeopardy,” Limpert said.
The residents of Bolar depend on the clean well and spring water that the geography of the land provides. The pipeline, Limpert says, could have severe repercussions on the quality of that water and on the underground pathways the water travels through.
“If they put the pipeline in, they have to blast — set off explosives,” Limpert said. “Every expert I’ve talked to says that could change those underground voids and conduits. It could cut water off to the springs and to our wells. The worst-case scenario would be a complete cut-off of water. It could also cause contamination, sediments or construction-related contamination, diesel fuel, to enter the groundwater and taint people’s water supply.”
Limpert also raised questions about the safety of the pipeline. Because of the valley Bolar is located in, storms can cause excessive flooding. Landslides also occur — one even started when 4 inches of rain fell on the valley.
“We’re concerned that if they put the pipe in, there’s going to be a landslide to expose and break the pipe, and then there’ll be a catastrophic explosion,” Limpert said.
Aaron Ruby, media relations manager for Dominion Power, says the company is listening to concerned residents of Bath County and the surrounding area and taking action.
“We understand there are concerns in the community, and we’re working very hard to address them — not just with words but with meaningful actions,” Ruby said.
“Since adopting the new route in February, we’ve met with hundreds of people in Bath and other counties to hear their feedback and the concerns they want to see addressed. Based on the input we’ve received and the surveys we’ve done in the area, we’ve already adjusted the route numerous times to minimize impacts on landowners and avoid sensitive environmental resources.”
The pipeline route is awaiting final approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The commission plans to hold a public meeting, called a scoping session, to hear comments from Bolar residents about the project and its environmental impact. The agency has not yet set a date for the meeting.
Voices of Bath County: What Residents Are Saying
Ryan Hodges, a Bath County real estate agent and chairman of the Mountain Soil and Water Conservation District:
Bath County is sort of the high watershed of the state. So much is unused and wild up here. It seems like, for us, the most destructive place in the world to run a pipeline, and I think the reason is that it’s the most direct and cheapest route. Fighting the pipeline is a big challenge, and a scary impact for people who close their eyes at night.
Bill Limpert, a retired environmental regulator who lives in Bolar:
The pipeline would come within 700 feet of our home. We would be within the blast zone of this pipeline. If we survived the blast, we would be trapped in the evacuation zone because it’s a steep little valley with one road that comes in, and no other roads that come out.
Over the last five years, there’s been an average of one gas pipeline incident per week that involved death, hospitalization or serious property damage. They call them incidents, not accidents — that’s an industry term just to not make it sound as bad. So the industry says it’s safe, but the facts don’t really point that out.
Lee Brauer, a Bolar resident and professional photographer:
There are an amazing number of people from all walks of life and education out here. It’s one of the main reasons we live out here — not to mention it’s drop dead beautiful.
Eric Clegg, a retired U.S. Environmental Protection Agency employee who has expressed his opposition to the pipeline to U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia:
Sen. Kaine clearly is concerned that ordinary citizens be afforded due process. He is, however, supportive of the need for expanding use of natural gas. That said, Sen. Kaine is fully aware of major concerns of Virginians and fully supports not only our efforts to be heard but also the obligations of Dominion Power and the FERC to allow us scoping time and to comply fully with the law to provide thorough environmental and air quality reports.