Leaders in three central Virginia counties in the path of a natural gas pipeline say the company behind the project isn’t returning their calls or showing up for meetings.
Hanover County Administrator John Budesky told the Board of Supervisors on Wednesday night that repeated attempts to reach out to Chickahominy Pipeline LLC since mid-July have been met with little response. It’s frustrating county officials, who want to advocate for residents who got letters over the summer that say Chickahominy wants to investigate their properties as potential sites affected by the construction of the pipeline.
The pipeline is part of an ongoing proposed project that involves a new power plant in Charles City County. The pipeline would run through the counties of Louisa, Hanover, Henrico, New Kent and Charles City and supply the gas for the plant. Chickahominy Pipeline is affiliated with a company called Chickahominy Power, which wants to build the plant.
Both are subsidiaries of a Northern Virginia-based energy firm called Balico LLC.
“We share our residents’ concerns,” Budesky said Wednesday night. “We have done our very best to reach out” to Chickahominy Pipeline for answers.
“They have been less than responsive,” he said.
Hanover isn’t alone.
Louisa Board of Supervisors Vice Chairperson Duane Adams said his county’s administration has also been trying to reach Chickahominy but getting nowhere. There was a glimmer of hope, he said, when a representative agreed to attend the Board of Supervisors meeting last Monday night.
But three hours before the meeting, Adams said a lawyer for Chickahominy reached out to Louisa’s county attorney and advised that the Chickahominy representative forgot to add the Louisa meeting to his schedule and would not be there.
That response from Chickahominy, which Adams called an “extraordinarily lame excuse ... went over like a lead balloon,” he said. The whole process thus far “has been very secretive ... very one-sided, and that’s not how you operate with the public; that’s not how you operate when you’re trying to get a right of way.”
He noted Chickahominy did provide a map of where the pipeline would go, which starts approximately at U.S. 15 and goes east through the middle of the county and into Hanover, north of U.S. Route 33.
But “I’m taking that with a grain of salt,” he said of the map, “because the lack of communication, the lack of responsiveness to the board on Monday night, doesn’t give me a great deal of confidence in this company.”
Adams said Louisa doesn’t have natural gas wells, so when asked if the gas would come from other existing utilities, he said simply, “great question, don’t know. That’s a question I wanted to ask Monday night [but] they weren’t here.”
Henrico Chief of Staff Cari Tretina echoed all of those communication woes, adding that her staff had to get the pipeline map from Louisa officials because Chickahominy did not respond to Henrico’s requests for information, including a map, “which to be frank, a locality should not have to ask for.”
Tretina said that while the pipeline is proposed to cross only through the northeastern tip of the county and could affect at least 18 to 20 properties, the area in question contains protected conservation easements and the environmental impact is among the biggest concerns.
“It doesn’t feel right — you don’t have any information,” Tretina said. “There’s something about this situation that lends itself for more time,” both for county officials to study the impact, as well as public engagement and understanding.
By phone Friday afternoon from Northern Virginia, Irfan Ali, managing member of Balico LLC, balked at the idea that he and his company have been anything less than forthcoming with information to the affected counties. He said he’s given his team, including the company’s legal representation, the “green light” to share as much information as possible and said they have done just that.
“I’m trying to be as transparent and forthcoming as I can be,” Ali said. “We have a process that’s public — we’re not trying to hide anything from anyone [and] we’re following the rules, regulations and laws in every conceivable way.”
With regards to the missed Louisa meeting, Ali said there were no “nefarious intents” behind it, but rather it was something planned months ago that never made it onto his calendar and on the day of the meeting, he wasn’t able to get there from Northern Virginia.
As for the pipeline’s natural gas supply in Louisa, Ali said the company plans to tap into existing natural gas lines there — the Transcontinental Gas Pipe Line, or Transco — which is owned by Oklahoma-based The Williams Companies LLC.
“We’re not tapping any wells; we’re not drilling any wells,” he said, adding that’s he simply focused on building “the cleanest and most advanced” natural gas-powered power plant in an environmentally friendly way.
On Thursday, Hanover’s Budesky said by phone that he and his team have some idea where the pipeline will go, and it seems that Hanover is taking the largest share of it.
From Louisa, the pipeline would come into Hanover north of U.S. Route 33 and state Route 54 on the western side of the county and would run in an easterly direction but south of Doswell, cross Interstate 95 and continue east over to the courthouse area off U.S. Route 301.
From there, it would make its way over to roughly the Black Creek area off U.S. 360, then cross into Henrico’s northeastern corner. He said staffers are actively working to create GIS maps that paint a better picture of where the pipeline would go based on the limited data they have.
Budesky said he’s unsure how many Hanover residents received the pipeline letters, which are from Chickahominy Pipeline LLC and have a Northern Virginia address.
On Thursday, Budesky said staffers were putting any pipeline information they had on the county’s website at https://www.hanovercounty.gov/1143/Chickahominy-Pipeline. Tretina said Henrico is also doing that at https://henrico.us/chickahominy-pipeline-info/.
Part of the issue, Budesky said, is that the counties may not have much — or any — say in the development of the pipeline.
On Sept. 3, Chickahominy Pipeline petitioned the State Corporation Commission to be an unregulated utility because, according to its SCC filing, it’s not selling its natural gas to customers. The gas would be used only to operate the power plant, and the electricity it generates would be sold into a large market.
If unregulated, the company could enter into private agreements with property owners without county involvement, Budesky said, though being unregulated also means that property owners can say no to the company’s requests without fear of having their property taken though eminent domain.
The Chickahominy petition asked for an expedited judgment from the SCC by Nov. 1.
Balico’s Ali acknowledged that the company does not have eminent domain. While there have been some property owners who have declined to participate, he said, the majority of responses to the letters sent over the summer seeking access to properties has been “overwhelmingly favorable” thus far.
“We’re not looking to force ourselves on anyone’s property,” Ali said.
“We are reaching out on a voluntary basis,” he continued, and if a property owner is not interested in participating, “we fully respect that and we’ll go in a different direction.”
A Sept. 16 response from the SCC set Sept. 24 as the deadline for Chickahominy to provide notice of its petition or allow interested persons to file notice of participation as a respondent. That was also the deadline for the SCC or others to file responses to the Chickahominy petition.
Further, the notice deemed Oct. 1 as the date by which Chickahominy could file replies to any responses received after Sept. 24.
Last Tuesday, however, Louisa, Hanover and Henrico independently filed motions asking for an extension of both the Sept. 24 and Oct. 1 dates. SCC staff concurred with those requests and ultimately filed a motion requesting the same thing.
Those motions were granted on Wednesday, with new deadlines set for Oct. 8 — for those who want to file a notice of participation or a response to the petition — as well as Oct. 22 being the date that Chickahominy can reply to any responses received.
Whether Hanover is involved or not, Budesky said the county can’t take a position for or against the project with such limited information. That, and the lack of communication is troubling.
“We’re not sure what our role is going to be,” Budesky said Thursday, particularly if the company is approved as unregulated. In that case, “it’s not a county project or county regulated.”
“Other utilities are very intentional about meeting with us,” Budeksy said, but with Chickahominy, “to have next to no communication with them has been frustrating.”
He added: “We’re just trying to be an advocate to help our residents better understand what this means.”
Environmental groups say the power plant in Charles City and related pipeline are not necessary for Virginia’s electricity needs, and opposition is growing among landowners in the path.
“The SCC now has a key decision before it about how a proposed merchant gas pipeline is to be regulated,” said Lynn Peace Wilson of Henrico, who is helping lead opposition efforts and worries about the proposed pipeline’s impacts on soil and wetlands. “I’m eager to see the legislature deal with this question as part of our new clean energy law.
“Virginia need not become the Wild West as the fossil fuel industry takes its last gasps.”
Staff writer Patrick Wilson contributed to this report.