This massive natural gas pipeline will run right through Native American communities

Dominion’s Atlantic Coast Pipeline disproportionately affects Native communities.

Community residents, including members of North Carolina tribes, protest the Atlantic Coast Pipeline in Pembroke, North Carolina, in November 2016. CREDIT: Alliance to Protect Our People and the Places We Live/Steve Norris
Community residents, including members of North Carolina tribes, protest the Atlantic Coast Pipeline in Pembroke, North Carolina, in November 2016. CREDIT: Alliance to Protect Our People and the Places We Live/Steve Norris

Protests against the Dakota Access oil pipeline in North Dakota escalated more than a year ago when Native Americans realized the pipeline’s developers and government officials intended to ignore their request to reroute the pipeline around the Standing Rock reservation.

The decision to proceed on building the Dakota Access pipeline on a path opposed by Native Americans highlighted how federal and state government agencies are accustomed to ignoring or downplaying the concerns of indigenous populations.

Now, a similar scenario is playing out in Virginia and North Carolina, where Native Americans are urging federal, state, and local officials to listen to their concerns about the 600-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a pipeline system that would transport fracked gas from West Virginia into Virginia and North Carolina.

Native Americans “didn’t have opportunities to learn how the route was chosen or to provide input on bodies of water or specific landscapes that their tribes consider sacred and that they might have problems with a pipeline passing through,” Ryan Emanuel, a member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina who serves on the environmental justice committee of the North Carolina Commission of Indian Affairs, told ThinkProgress.

About 30,000, or 13 percent, of the people who live within one mile of the proposed route of the pipeline in North Carolina are Native American, even though Native Americans represent only 1.2 percent of the state’s total population.

The pipeline originates in northern West Virginia, a region that is seeing heavy natural gas production, and ends in Robeson County, North Carolina, a county with one of the highest percentages of Native Americans east of the Mississippi River.

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s proposed route crosses territories of four Native American tribes in North Carolina: the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, the Haliwa-Saponi, the Coharie, and the Meherrin Nation. Of the eight counties in the state through which the pipeline would travel, four have large Native American communities.

Members of tribal groups worry the pipeline could damage sacred Native American sites and the surrounding environment. Last Friday, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) issued a final environmental review of the pipeline, concluding that the impact on the environment would be reduced to “less-than-significant” levels if the developers follow certain mitigation measures.

FERC did not conduct a comprehensive assessment of the pipeline’s impact on Native American communities along the pipeline’s route. But the agency did instruct pipeline developer Dominion Energy to submit documentation showing that it met with tribes in North Carolina prior to beginning construction. The project is also owned by Duke Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas, and Southern Company Gas.

“I still don’t believe that the FEIS [final environmental impact statement] acknowledges the disproportionate impacts on indigenous peoples in North Carolina,” Emanuel said.

In an article published in the July 21 issue of Science, Emanuel, a professor of forestry and environmental resources at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, North Carolina, wrote that the Dakota Access Pipeline controversy “demonstrates that all parties suffer when environmental justice analyses and tribal consultation are treated as meaningless rote exercises.”

One of the biggest issues in the Dakota Access dispute was the issue of consultation, a term used to describe official communication between the federal government and tribes. The Standing Rock Sioux is a federally recognized tribe, which gave it standing to have formal consultation with the federal government.

In North Carolina, the tribes whose land would be impacted by the Atlantic Coast Pipeline are not federally recognized. By statute, federal agencies are not required to offer consultation to these tribes. However, the advisory body for the National Historic Preservation Act recommends that federal agencies offer formal consultation to non-federal tribes if they can demonstrate an interest in a particular issue. In the case of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, FERC did not offer formal consultation to the North Carolina tribes.

Dominion had not responded to a request for comment at the time this article was published.

Even though FERC approves almost every pipeline application it reviews, the indigenous population along the pipeline’s route remains hopeful in its opposition. “It’s definitely not a done deal, even though they’re presenting it like it is. It falls upon us as citizens to make people understand that it’s not something that’s set in stone,” said anti-pipeline activist Jorden Revels, a Native American student at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke in Robeson County.

CREDIT: Atlantic Coast Pipeline
CREDIT: Atlantic Coast Pipeline

Fix Cain, a representative with the Coalition of Woodland Nations, a group formed to unite Native people to protect the environment, sacred sites, and areas of cultural and historical significance, said he had heard reports that the pipeline route was originally designed to travel west of the current route, through the Piedmont region of North Carolina, where communities are not as economically disadvantaged as the eastern part of the state.

“They didn’t want the pipeline to go through their backyards,” Cain told ThinkProgress. Instead, the modified route is “hitting almost every single contemporary and historical native community between western Virginia all the way down to southeastern North Carolina,” said Cain, a member of the Skaroreh Katenuaka Nation, which is part of the Tuscarora community.

“These same communities are also some of the most economically fragile and not just in the Native communities. You have impoverished white communities, you have impoverished African American communities, and various other minority communities here as well. There’s nobody here who can afford to fight it,” he said.

New industries are emerging in the region that could help strengthen local economies without causing significant pollution — unlike fossil fuel infrastructure or the region’s ubiquitous hog and chicken farms. From 2007 to 2014, Robeson County had the highest eight-year investment in solar farms in the state with $170.6 million and the second-highest total renewable energy investment with $188.6 million, according to a report.

“In the midst of all these negative stories, eastern North Carolina is starting to see a boom in deployed solar panel operations. There are a lot of people who think these communities should be looking at things like solar power and not be the dumping ground for the types of industries that pollute air and water,” Emanuel said.

North of the border, in Virginia, the pipeline also threatens sacred sites of the Monacan Indian Nation, according to anti-pipeline activists. During the regulatory review process, the Monacan Nation wrote to FERC voicing its “strong opposition” to the pipeline’s construction through Nelson County, Virginia due to its impact on archaeological sites.

Pipeline protesters walk the route of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline in North Carolina in March 2017. CREDIT: Sierra Club/Caroline Hansley
Pipeline protesters walk the route of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline in North Carolina in March 2017. CREDIT: Sierra Club/Caroline Hansley

“Our tribe was one of the first formally in opposition to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and we were the first to send a letter to FERC outlining our opposition and the reasons for our opposition,” said Dwayne Painter, a member of the Monacan Nation and a representative with the Coalition of Woodland Nations.

Opposition to the pipeline is growing among Native Americans along the East Coast, Cain said. With the Monacan people, if they want us to stand with them and block the pipeline, “that may not be completely out of the question,” he stated.

“We want to make sure this is done as peacefully as possible. We want to exhaust all legal methods before we have to get out there on foot and protest,” Cain said. The protest against the Dakota Access pipeline was the largest Native American unification in history, Cain noted. Virginia and North Carolina, on the other hand, have traditionally been “pretty shaky” on unification of the tribal people for any issue.

Witnessing how the Dakota Access pipeline developers trampled on sacred Native American grounds in North Dakota, Cain said, invigorated tribal members in Virginia and North Carolina to oppose the Atlantic Coast Pipeline by encouraging them to educate fellow members.

FERC has 90 days after issuing its final environmental analysis to make a decision on the pipeline. Dominion Energy also must receive state water permits for the pipeline. The original targeted in-service date for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline project was late 2018, but the company now expects the pipeline will begin serving customers in early 2019.