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Federal regulators weigh in on environmental impact of Hampton Roads pipeline expansion

Part of existing right-of-way for the natural gas pipeline in Suffolk. (Image: TC Energy)
Part of existing right-of-way for the natural gas pipeline in Suffolk. (Image: TC Energy)

Federal regulators said they expect some, mostly short-term, environmental impacts from a proposed pipeline expansion that runs through Hampton Roads – but none that necessarily preclude it from moving forward.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission made the statements in a new draft environmental assessment of the Virginia Reliability Project.

Canada-based TC Energy plans to dig up, replace and double the size of about 49 miles of an existing natural gas pipeline that stretches from Surry and Sussex counties through Suffolk and Chesapeake.

The company owns the Columbia Gas Transmission system that runs from New York to the Midwest and Southeast.

To move forward on the Virginia Reliability Project, TC Energy needs permitting approval from FERC, along with other entities including the Norfolk District of the Army Corps of Engineers.

The new environmental impact statement is a draft up for public review.

Federal regulators wrote that constructing and operating the expanded pipeline would have limited and mostly temporary negative impacts.

They didn’t find concerns about groundwater, vegetation or species habitat — as long as construction takes place outside the active season for northern long-eared bats, which are endangered.

However, the project would likely permanently affect about 19 acres of forested wetlands, or swamps, in its path.

The commission did not evaluate climate change effects and said it’s not characterizing the VRP’s greenhouse gas emissions as significant or not.

“With the exception of potential impacts on climate change, FERC staff concludes that impacts would be reduced to less than significant levels.”

But local environmental groups are vigorously fighting the pipeline replacement, focusing on those climate change impacts. 

“We should not be developing any fossil fuel infrastructure buildout anywhere,” Lynn Godfrey with the Sierra Club previously told WHRO.  

“We oppose the VRP on that premise, that it is going to contribute to climate change, and in doing so is going to contribute to the disproportionate burden of the impacts of climate change by communities that are the least prepared.”

They call it the “Virginia Ripoff Project” and have been canvassing against the project in neighborhoods along the route.

About 71% of the census block groups within the VRP’s geographic scope are considered communities with environmental justice issues — home to people of color or low-income neighborhoods — according to FERC. 

The project could affect those communities mainly through short-term impacts to air and noise, water, increased demand for temporary housing and public services and traffic, FERC writes. 

“In general, the magnitude and intensity of the impacts would be greater for individuals and residences closest to the projects’ facilities and would diminish with distance,” they write in the report.

The Nansemond Indian Nation has also filed concerns with FERC, saying the project could impact its ancestral lands like the Great Dismal Swamp and Nansemond River, and that TC Energy has mischaracterized their local history.

The company said in an emailed statement in March that it “recognizes the unique connection Indigenous Peoples have with the land and is committed to ensuring meaningful and respectful engagement with Indigenous groups, including the Nansemond Indian Nation.”

TC Energy hopes to start construction in 2025. Officials announced last week they’re looking for applications from local businesses to become contractors for the project for services including transportation, catering and construction.

FERC will hold a virtual public comment session about the draft environmental review on Wednesday from 5-7 p.m. You can learn more on the Federal Register website.

Katherine is WHRO’s climate and environment reporter. She came to WHRO from the Virginian-Pilot in 2022. Katherine is a California native who now lives in Norfolk and welcomes book recommendations, fun science facts and of course interesting environmental news.

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