Pipeline stirs unrest in Lower Richland

Lower Richland County swamp near the Millaree Hunt Club. The area is near where a natural gas pipe is proposed.
Lower Richland County swamp near the Millaree Hunt Club. The area is near where a natural gas pipe is proposed. Sammy Fretwell/The State

Not long from now, an energy company hopes to dig a trench beneath the Congaree River for a natural gas pipeline that would extend 28 miles through the farms and forests of Lower Richland.

The pipe, intended to deliver a cleaner form of energy to an aging paper mill, would cross dozens of streams, wind past a nuclear fuel plant and cut through a string of private nature preserves known locally for good hunting. All told, some 160 acres would be cleared for the project, records show.

To a cadre of Lower Richland property owners, the pipeline is an intrusion they don’t want to deal with.

Dominion Carolina Gas Transmission is trying to acquire rights to a strip of their land for the pipeline, but landowners say it will disrupt the pastoral landscape – and they are reluctant to sell.

Some people along the route have retained lawyers and are considering legal action, worried that Dominion could condemn their property if they don’t want to negotiate.

Not only would the company chop down trees on their land to install the pipe, but the pipeline represents a safety threat if it ever broke and exploded, they say. And selling rights for the pipeline would grant Dominion perpetual access to their land southeast of Columbia, critics charge.

“I told them I don’t want them to do it,” said real estate executive Joe Edens, who owns a 2,200-acre preserve where the pipeline will cross. “They keep persisting, trying to get us to agree to something – but the money has nothing do with it. I don’t want the disturbance on the property and I don’t want the damned thing in the river.

“Pipelines burst. They are not infallible.”

Dominion says the pipeline is nothing to worry about. The line will have a relatively small environmental impact and be operated safely, the company says. Much of the pipe will be buried below creeks and wetlands. The company also says it is committed to dealing fairly with landowners in acquiring property for the project, reported to cost $36 million.

All told, the company’s pipeline affects about 100 landowners, Dominion says. The company wants rights to thin slices of private property so it can bury the pipe.

“We have a long track record of being a good neighbor and are committed to fair and equitable treatment of landowners whose property would be crossed by our pipeline,’’ company spokeswoman Kristen Beckham said.

At the same time, both Dominion and International Paper say the pipeline is needed so the paper giant’s mill at Eastover can rely on natural gas for energy – instead of coal, which causes more air pollution.

Either way, plenty of work lies ahead for Dominion in easing property owner concerns.

“They are screwing up part of my property,” said retired Columbia dentist Henry Asbill, one of about 20 owners of the Belle Grove Plantation preserve on Bluff Road. “They will cut swaths of 50 feet to put in this line that we can’t use. It’s going to be a scar.’’

National, regional concerns

Dominion’s foray into Richland County comes during a time of public concern nationally about the intrusion of oil and natural gas pipelines onto private land.

Many pipeline critics say they don’t understand how private energy companies can condemn property when it’s mostly for private profit – and not always a public need.

Landowners through the Great Plains have opposed the Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline that would extend from Canada across their property. Regionally, property owners from Virginia to Georgia have expressed concerns about pipeline projects this year.

That includes a 554-mile-long natural gas project through West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina that Dominion is affiliated with, as well as a 360-mile long Kinder Morgan petroleum project through South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. Lawmakers in South Carolina are so concerned about the possibility of people’s land being condemned for the project that they’ve introduced a bill to provide extra state review before condemnation could begin for oil pipelines.

Savannah Riverkeeper Tonya Bonitatibus, who has fought the Kinder Morgan pipeline in western South Carolina and Georgia, said people in Richland County should get involved if they want to stop or alter the pipeline’s route. Unlike oil pipelines, natural gas pipelines are more tightly regulated by the federal government.

“People have an opportunity to make their voices heard,’’ she said.

Many pipeline opponents say oil and natural gas lines can be both dangerous and polluting. A terminal where the Kinder Morgan pipeline would start in Belton spilled 250,000 gallons of gasoline late last year.

Natural gas pipelines, such as the one proposed by Dominion Carolina, aren’t as much of a threat to pollute waterways, but the high pressure lines must be maintained properly to prevent explosions.

“The likelihood of an incident, per mile (of pipe), is pretty low statistically, but when an incident happens, it can be catastrophic,” said Samya Lutz, outreach coordinator for the Pipeline Safety Trust, which is headquartered in Washington state.

In the past five years, the National Transportation Safety Board has investigated major gas transmission pipeline accidents in Florida, California and West Virginia, according to the non-profit pipeline safety group. Those accidents resulted in eight deaths, more than 50 injuries and the destruction of 41 homes, the Pipeline Safety Trust says.

Natural gas pipelines have in the past exploded in South Carolina, including one in the late 1990s that blew a crater in a cow pasture near Rock Hill.

Wild land

According to plans, the eight-inch pipeline would begin at a Dominion gas line near the DAK Americas manufacturing plant in Calhoun County along the Congaree River. The existing Dominion line receives natural gas from the Gulf Coast via a major transmission pipe operated by Southern Natural Gas.

After crossing beneath the Congaree River and into Richland County, the new Dominion pipeline would run through Edens’ property, the widely known Millaree Hunt Club, Belle Grove Plantation and land where a Westinghouse nuclear fuel plant is located. It would snake around McEntire Air National Guard base before ending at the International Paper plant near U.S. 601.

Part of the area where the pipeline would extend contains some of the wildest private land remaining in ever-developing Richland County. Most of the property is wooded and swampy, with a sprinkling of farms, and acts as a wildlife corridor to Congaree National Park, about 10 miles down the road.

An environmental report on the project said the pipeline would cross more than 70 streams, including Mill Creek, Cedar Creek and Cabin Branch.

Belle Grove’s Asbill said he’s concerned that landowners would be barred from replanting trees that Dominion cuts to clear a path for the pipeline. Some 15 to 25 acres of the 800-acre Belle Grove property would be affected by the project. Asbill said visiting Belle Grove is one of the things he most looks forward to.

“I like going there because I like to get away from Columbia,” he said. “I like to hunt. I like to watch the crops grow. I like to get on the tractor. I like to cut grass with the tractor. I like to plow. I like to plant. I like to encourage game to come in. We have doves and deer and ducks and hogs and turkeys. That’s my thing.”

Columbia attorney Monty Todd, also a member of the Belle Grove organization, said the group likely will protest the route of the pipeline to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. He said he expects to file the protest Monday.

Dominion wants to begin construction of the pipeline in November, with operation next May, but the company needs FERC’s approval. It also would need authorization from state and federal environmental agencies for parts of the pipeline that run through wetlands, creeks and rivers.

Edens’ 2,200 acres are an example of what the area looks like. The property is heavily forested and contains an array of river bluffs overlooking the Congaree, as well as deep swamps filled with big hardwood trees. Edens has hired people to actively manage the timber and the land to attract wildlife, which includes deer, wild turkeys, bald eagles and bobcats, as well as a variety of song birds.

Known as Big Lake, Edens’ land isn’t open to the public, but he regularly invites people down to visit. The property, which has about six miles of river frontage, includes a large home for guests, a boat landing, places to cook out and ample space for camping. A few areas of the property are farmed, including an expansive field of sunflowers that stood tall on a recent June day.

The land, however, also includes power lines that existed there before Edens purchased it. All of the area beneath the power lines is cleared. Edens said he doesn’t want to see more paths cleared for a pipeline or the existing power line area widened.

“The concern here is the environment and the effect it is going to have on wildlife,” said Big Lake property manager Bobby Fulmer, as he stood on a river bluff in Richland County and pointed at the spot in Calhoun County where the pipeline would begin.

Potentially complicating Dominion’s effort in acquiring rights-of-way for the pipe is the presence of the Westinghouse factory next to Belle Grove Plantation. A slice of the 1,150-acre site, which makes nuclear fuel for power plants, is targeted by Dominion for part of its route.

Any potential hazards from the pipeline may need to be incorporated into a Westinghouse safety plan that would require review and approval from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, a spokesman said this week. The NRC would prefer, “in a perfect world,” not to have a natural gas pipeline running through a nuclear site it regulates, said Marvin Sykes, a regional fuel plant inspection official.

Meanwhile, supporters of Congaree National Park have expressed reservations that it will unnecessarily chew up chunks of undeveloped land. Federal park officials say they have not identified any concerns because the pipe would be miles away from the park, but they are reserving their right to comment.

Air pollution remedy?

Dominion Carolina, a subsidiary of energy giant Dominion Resources, operates 1,500 miles of pipeline in South Carolina and Georgia, and it is preparing to establish at least two other pipelines in the Palmetto State. Those are a 53-mile pipe between Moore and Chappells in the Upstate and a 5-mile pipe in the Dillon area of eastern South Carolina.

Dominion Resources grabbed a firm toehold in South Carolina late last year after purchasing many of energy company SCANA’s pipeline holdings in a $492 million deal. Dominion says it is one of the nation’s largest producers and transporters of energy.

In documents filed with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Dominion Carolina says most of the natural gas pipeline in Richland County will follow an existing power line easement, rather than moving into new territory. That, the company said, will minimize the impact on people’s land, even though the easement would have to be widened in many places.

Dominion Carolina also says the environmental impacts will be relatively small. A May report to FERC says Dominion will install pipe below streams and rivers, rather than running the lines through wetlands and waterways. The pipe crossing the Congaree River also will be 26.7 feet below the river bed, the company says.

While the company says it may need to clear up to 163 acres of farmland and forest for the pipeline and for access roads, the pipeline work would have little, if any, impact on sensitive wildlife species such as the federally protected shortnose sturgeon or the bald eagle.

Both Dominion and International Paper Inc. also emphasize that the project is being constructed to help the environment – not hurt it. The project is so important to International Paper that Dominion says the paper giant is paying the entire cost.

Air quality should improve because natural gas will be used to fuel the paper mill at Eastover – instead of the coal and oil that has been relied on in the past, company officials said.

Burning coal to make electricity releases more toxic air pollutants, such as mercury, and contributes gases that cause climate change. Mercury from coal-burning also can affect rivers. Coal plant air pollution has contributed to a buildup of mercury in fish in most major South Carolina rivers. The buildup is so pronounced in some species that the state health department advises people to limit their consumption of those fish.

“In order to continue driving improvement, International Paper has established sustainability goals that outline specific environmental targets we plan to achieve by 2020,’’ the company said in an email to The State. “Conversion from coal and fuel oil to natural gas will have a significant positive effect on greenhouse gas emissions and help us accelerate progress on our sustainability goals.”