As Dominion presses ahead with plans to build an interstate natural gas pipeline across Virginia, state officials vow to have new regulations and staffing in place to limit the massive project’s environmental impact.

Secretary of Natural Resources Molly Ward said the state will ensure that the construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline does not add to the sediment fouling the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. A spokesman for the Department of Environmental Quality said new rules should be in place before construction begins.

Some environmentalists remain skeptical, though, contending that the state has done little to ride herd on such projects to date. Though the state’s erosion and sediment control regulation already applies to pipeline construction, environmental activist Rick Webb asserted that the DEQ has failed to enforce it, other than to approve variances from the rules.

Moreover, Webb, coordinator of the Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition and a retired University of Virginia environmental scientist, said that he believes current erosion and sediment control best management practices are ineffective, particularly on the steep mountain slopes the pipeline would traverse in western Virginia.

The route has not been finalized but as currently proposed, the 42-inch diameter pipeline would transport gas about 550 miles from the Utica and Marcellus Shale deposits in Ohio and West Virginia to southeastern Virginia and North Carolina. Most of Virginia’s portion of the project would be in the James and Potomac watersheds.

The $5 billion project is led by Dominion, with three other partners: Duke Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas and AGL Resources.

Dominion spokesman Aaron Ruby said the pipeline is essential because his company and Duke Energy are closing coal-fired power plants throughout Virginia and North Carolina and replacing them with facilities fueled by cleaner-burning natural gas.

Contracts have been signed for gas supplies that will use 96 percent of the pipeline’s capacity for 20 years, according to Dominion.

Environmentalists, though, contend that the forest loss and construction would produce significant detrimental impacts. Construction would require extensive land disturbance, much of it on hilly or mountainous terrain, which environmentalists fear could produce major sediment pollution. If construction coincides with unusually heavy wet weather, they warn, the project could reverse Virginia’s progress toward meeting the sediment reduction requirements of the Bay cleanup blueprint.

Ward dismissed those fears.

“After all Virginia has done to reduce sediment pollution, we’re not going to let that happen,” the natural resources secretary said while attending the 27th annual Environment Virginia Symposium in Lexington.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe supports the pipeline. He has touted natural gas as a cleaner, more climate-friendly alternative to coal for power generation

Virginia is not the only Bay state to have new pipelines planned across its landscape. The 36-inch diameter Penn East Pipeline would move gas 118 miles from central Pennsylvania to New Jersey. The Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline project would lay a 42-inch line 196 miles through central Pennsylvania to an existing East Coast pipeline that runs from the New York City area to just north of Athens, GA.

Dominion formally proposed the Atlantic Coast Pipeline project to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission last year and had hoped to have it up and running by the end of 2018.

Numerous comments, pro and con, have been filed, and FERC staff are studying the proposal. FERC action beyond that — including the release of a proposed environmental impact statement — awaits finalization of the proposed route, according to commission spokeswoman Tamara Young-Allen.

A major hurdle involves the proposed route through the mountains of the George Washington National Forest. The Forest Service blocked a stretch of pipeline that would have cut through the habitat of endangered salamanders. Dominion has proposed rerouting that portion, adding about 30 miles to the overall length. The Forest Service is reviewing the change, and recently allowed surveys of the alternate route, Dominion spokesman Ruby said.

The Southern Environmental Law Center has condemned Dominion’s revised route as “a knee-jerk and ill-conceived adjustment to its favored route, rather than a solution that truly attempts to minimize the harm to this region.”

Construction of the pipeline would require clearing trees and vegetation from a corridor generally 125 feet wide, and excavating a ditch 7–10 feet deep.

Wherever and however it is built, some environmentalists said they’re convinced, based on past pipeline construction in Virginia, that it will result in large amounts of sediment runoff.

Regulation of pipeline construction was handled by the state Department of Conservation and Recreation until 2014, when the General Assembly moved the jurisdiction to the DEQ. Both agencies are part of the natural resources secretariat.

Neither the DEQ to date nor the DCR before has scrutinized sediment and erosion control plans for any proposed pipeline, nor have the agencies inspected the construction sites for compliance, according to Webb, whose coalition represents 14 environmental groups. That’s contrary to regulatory requirements and the agency’s practice with other types of construction, he said.

“The only thing DEQ does is grant variances from the state’s 500-foot (length) limit on open trenches,” he said. In one case, the state allowed a ditch excavation 15 miles in length without a break. About the only time the agency does inspect, he added, is when a citizen files a complaint about stream contamination during pipeline construction.

As evidence of his concerns, Webb supplied a photo of pipeline work, taken by a coalition photographer in 2014, that shows a mountainside stripped bare. There appear to be no erosion control devices in place, which Webb said are required every 20 feet on such steep grades. According to the activist, the photo is of a 12-inch pipeline that Columbia Gas of Virginia was laying outside the Bay watershed.

The DEQ spokesman, Bill Hayden, declined to discuss the photo or Webb’s allegations.

“DEQ has enforced and will continue to enforce the erosion and sediment control regulations in Virginia. That’s as direct as I can make it,” he said.

But Hayden added that “Virginia fully expects to have appropriate measures in place to properly oversee pipeline construction. That means we expect the regulatory situation to change.”

Dominion spokesman Ruby said the company is committed to environmental protection and compliance with all state and federal requirements. He added that the company has extensive experience installing pipelines in a variety of landscapes, including mountainous terrain made up of karst, a highly erodible landform that’s common throughout western Virginia.

Nonetheless, the stakes are high for the Bay, said Peggy Sanner, senior attorney and assistant director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Virginia office.

The project would cut a wide swath through the region’s forests, Sanner said, removing nature’s best sponges for soaking up nutrient and sediment pollution. Runoff from the cleared land would harm water bodies of all types, she asserted.

About 250 miles of the proposed route would cut through forests and disrupt 3,500 acres of woodland during construction. Once completed, the pipeline right-of-way would occupy almost 2,200 acres of formerly forested land, Sanner said.

Some environmentalists, in fact, think there’s no satisfactory pipeline route, and no amount of regulation that will prevent the project from disrupting communities and harming water quality.

SELC attorney Greg Buppert called on Dominion to “take a step back and reconsider the need for this pipeline, rather than continuing to blindly push forward a destructive proposal in the face of tremendous community opposition.”

Six county boards and numerous citizens in the pipeline’s path oppose it, SELC noted.

Some environmentalists argue that the pipeline is unnecessary and that the power companies could meet electricity demand by investing instead in energy conservation and solar and wind energy.

“We absolutely feel that in 2016, the idea of investing over $17 billion in gas infrastructure in Virginia is the wrong choice for our climate and for consumers,” said Drew Gallagher, Virginia organizer of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.

Environmentalists also contend that by enabling more use of natural gas, the pipeline will lead to increased drilling and extraction of the fuel, increasing emissions of methane into the atmosphere. Catherine Thomasson, executive director of Physicians for Social Responsibility, noted that methane is a potent climate-warming greenhouse gas and that it also contributes to ground-level ozone pollution.

The CBF’s Sanner noted that natural gas-fired power plants emit large amounts of carbon dioxide, albeit less than coal-fired power plants. “Climate change and the resulting sea level rise currently threatens massive losses to our coastal regions,” she observed.

Increasing the state’s renewable energy portfolio and reducing its dependence on nonrenewables is imperative, Sanner added. She declined to say whether the CBF believes the pipeline is needed. She said her group would have more to say after FERC’s proposed environmental impact statement comes out.

Company spokesman Ruby said that while Dominion is committed to expanding generation of renewable energy and supporting conservation, the company won’t be able to fulfill electricity demand that way in the foreseeable future. Natural gas needs to play a growing role in meeting those power needs, he contended, as well as to meet air quality and climate change requirements.

And while Dominion is building an export terminal on the Bay in Calvert County, MD, the company spokesman said the Atlantic Coast Pipeline will solely serve the domestic market:

“Our gas utility customers need additional supplies to meet the home heating needs of a growing population and to support new industry, particularly in areas where natural gas is in short supply. The gas transported through ACP is not for export.”