Members of St. Matthews Baptist Church couldn’t believe it when they learned that an energy corporation wants to run a natural gas pipeline through the church’s property in lower Richland County.
The proposal would mean tearing down one church building in the path of the pipeline, the members say. And it would limit the congregation’s plans to build a new family life center next year.
While church members don’t like the proposal, they aren’t sure whether their opposition can change or stop the project. If St. Matthews doesn’t agree to sell access to the land, Dominion Carolina Gas Transmission could condemn the strip of property and take it anyway.
“It’s hard to understand how the government would allow a private company like that to just invade property and condemn land,” said Rev. Tommy Gibson, pastor at St. Matthews for 22 years.
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The church’s complaint is the latest in an escalating dispute over the 28-mile pipeline Dominion Carolina proposes for lower Richland.
Since early July, a handful of organizations representing hundreds of people have written formal complaint letters to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission against the Dominion Carolina project between the Congaree and Wateree rivers in the eastern part of the county.
Property owners upset about the pipeline include members of the affluent Belle Grove hunting club on Bluff Road and prominent Columbia real estate agent Joe Edens as well as working-class folks like those who attend St. Matthews Baptist on old Congaree Run Road southeast of Columbia.
All want the pipeline route changed so it won’t slice through their land. All worry that some of their property could be condemned if they don’t agree voluntarily to sell to Dominion. Established law allows private utilities, in some cases, to condemn private land if they can show a public need.
“A different path or alternative route would be safer, less impactful on the environment, and would lessen the disruptive effect on existing private property interests,” according to a July 6 letter to FERC from Beckham Swamp LLC, a company Edens is affiliated with.
At the same time, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has written a letter saying that noise made while drilling the pipeline beneath the Congaree River could affect springtime spawning for certain species of fish, including the endangered shortnose and Atlantic sturgeon.
Other fish of concern include blueback herring, American eel and robust red horse, all of which are “at-risk species” proposed for possible protection under the Endangered Species Act, the service said in the letter received by FERC July 8.
The 8-inch pipe would run about 25 feet below the Congaree River. It would connect with an existing pipe near the DAK Americas plant in Calhoun County, then run beneath the river bed and through a strip of farms and forests before ending at a paper mill on the other side of lower Richland near the Wateree River.
Service officials recommend working on the Congaree River section of the project during the summer and fall, instead of the spring and winter. The project isn’t expected to run through Congaree National Park – the state’s only national park – but park officials are monitoring the plan.
Dominion officials say they don’t want to condemn anyone’s property or scar the landscape.
They say they will work with landowners, but need the pipe to provide cleaner-burning natural gas to a paper mill.
Dominion Carolina, a subsidiary of energy giant Dominion Resources, operates 1,500 miles of pipeline in South Carolina and Georgia and is preparing to establish at least two other pipelines in the Palmetto State.
Ultimately, FERC will decide whether to approve the project.
The agency must determine if the project serves a public need – and whether it can be done without undue harm to the environment. If FERC says yes, Dominion could move to condemn land under certain circumstances, although the company said that would be rare.
Because of the potential impact on the landscape, FERC officials said they will conduct an environmental assessment to determine if the pipeline project should be approved as planned, whether it should be changed or whether it should be denied altogether.
“We want to hear what the public has to say,” FERC spokeswoman Tamara Young-Allen said.” We’ll look at all these comments that come in.”
Young-Allen said a decision would not likely be made before May 2016.
As he stood behind the church on a sweltering day last week, Gibson reflected on why St. Matthews members are so worried about a pipeline running through the property.
In the late 1990s, St. Matthews built the church after the site where members had worshiped for decades had become too small. The sanctuary was cramped, the long-standing church graveyard was full and there was no room on which to expand, Gibson said.
So on July 4, 1999, St. Matthews opened a new and roomier sanctuary just a few miles away. The new church site contains more than a dozen acres. The church then erected a utility building for maintenance equipment and began discussing the family life center members had always dreamed of. Gibson said the church wants to begin the project by the end of this year. The property also included a graveyard to replace the one that had become full at the previous site.
Dominion has thrown a roadblock into the 400-member congregation’s plans, Gibson said.
Not only would it be hard to build the new family life center if the pipeline goes through the land, but the pipeline would run directly through the utility building, forcing it to be torn down, Gibson said.
The pipeline also would make it harder to reach the graveyard behind the church, he said.
“This is sacred property right here,” Gibson said. “We have people visiting our dead, the graves here. I can’t believe (Dominion wants) to come through here. And I can’t believe they want to come that close to the church.”
Church members have met numerous times and finally hired a lawyer, who filed a formal protest with FERC in early July. The letter, like those filed by other landowners, allows St. Matthews to appeal FERC decisions on the Dominion project.
“Imagine the feeling(s) of dejection and anger that are experienced when a proposal like the one for this pipeline .... will, in effect, undo all of the church’s existing and long-range plans,” according to the protest letter from Columbia lawyer Jamie Best. “These people are devastated that this sort of thing can happen and wish very strongly to be heard on the matter.”
In addition to concerns about the pipe’s route, the letter said church members have “extreme concern” about safety risks created by a natural gas pipeline. Natural gas pipelines, which move gas under high pressure, can explode if a break occurs.
Rev. Gibson said the company has offered St. Matthews $4,400 per acre for the right of way on 3 acres the company says are needed for the pipeline.
So far, Dominion has been unwilling to compromise on a different route or on a higher price for the right to use the church’s property, he said.
“We hope that they would reconsider and reroute this,” Gibson said.
Dominion won’t comment on specific land negotiations, but says it isn’t trying to hurt anyone’s rural lifestyle or the environment. It’s simply trying to do business – and provide a public service.
The company says the pipe will carry cleaner-burning natural gas to the International Paper Co. mill near the Wateree River. The mill in the past has used coal to fire its plant. But burning coal has been tied to mercury pollution in fish and is a major source of pollution linked to global warming.
“Our goal from the beginning is to determine the best route with the least environmental impact,” Dominion spokeswoman Kristen Beckham said in an email to The State newspaper.
“Dominion Carolina Gas Transmission prides itself on maintaining positive, long-term landowner and community relationships,” Beckham wrote. “DCGT has a strong history of being a good community partner and is committed to fair and equitable treatment of landowners whose property would be crossed by our pipeline.”
Dominion says it is doing its best to follow routes already approved for utility easements, such as power lines, that cross private land. Only about 25 percent of the project would cross anyone’s land outside of existing utility rights-of-way, the company says.
The company also notes that it is making progress with property owners. About 27 percent of the 95 property owners whose land is in the path of the pipeline have struck agreements with Dominion to use their property, the company said last week.
Beckham said the project remains on schedule to be in service by June 2016 if work begins next February. She also said it has received some letters of support.
The bigger picture
Passions erupting in Richland County aren’t unique when it comes to pipeline projects.
Landowners throughout the Great Plains have opposed allowing the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada to transect their land.
Regionally, property owners from West Virginia to Georgia have expressed concerns about pipeline projects this year.
In North Carolina and Virginia, Dominion is affiliated with a 554-mile-long natural gas pipeline that many have complained about.
In South Carolina and Georgia, a 360-mile long Kinder Morgan petroleum project has produced an outcry from people worried about their land being seized and protests from environmentalists worried about spills getting into the Savannah River.
Regardless of those issues, Dominion said the Richland County project won’t be done without hearing from the public.
“We will continue to use the FERC process to address all landowner and stakeholder questions for this project,” Beckham said.