The Environmental Justice Implications of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline

In 2013, Dominion Energy, Duke Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas Company, and Southern Company Gas began planning their Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) project that would run 600 miles through West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina. In accordance with federal guidance about environmental justice, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) drafted an environmental impact statement (EIS) in December 2016 and published a final report in July 2017.[1] FERC’s EIS stated that “environmental justice populations would not be disproportionately affected by the projects,”[2] drawing criticism from many community groups along the proposed pipeline route who believe this to be false.


Many counter FERC’s claim by asserting that the siting of the ACP disproportionately affects minority populations. The counties crossed by the proposed ACP route collectively have a significantly higher percentage minority population than the rest of the counties in North Carolina.[3] For example, the pipeline threatens sacred sites for Virginia’s Monacan Tribe and North Carolina’s Tuscarora, Waccamaw, and Lumbee peoples. The terminus for the ACP is in Robeson County, NC, which is home to the densest population of indigenous people on the East Coast.[4] 30,000 of them live within one mile of the proposed route in North Carolina. The Northampton compressor station in North Carolina is in a census block group that is 79% African American and already home to other energy and manufacturing facilities that already have air emissions. Local asthma levels there already are more than state averages. The Buckingham County, VA, compressor would be between two predominantly black churches on land bought from absentee landowners whose family were former slaveholders. [5]


Some of the groups that believe the ACP would have a disproportionate effect include Clean Water for North Carolina, the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, and Concern for the New Generation. They and others submitted joint comments on the draft environmental impact statement, saying that it was fatally flawed because it did not include significant information about the environmental, socioeconomic, and cultural impacts of the pipeline project.[6] Many of these same groups also filed a Title VI environmental justice complaint against the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality. These groups allege that FERC and state agencies did not assess the cumulative environmental and health impacts on communities along the route[7]


There are many potential dangers of a pipeline project such as the ACP for both humans and the environment. These impacts can include visual impacts, intensive water usage during construction, noise impacts from compressor stations, air quality impacts, land use restrictions, and risk of injury from accidents or explosions.[8] There has been a significant increase in the number of incidents occurring along pipelines built since 2010 in the US. This is problematic especially since it is unclear whether local governments and emergency responders have the tools, training, and personnel to respond to these kinds of incidents.[9]


Some say that decision makers are being influenced by political motivations and money to disregard the risks of the ACP. For instance, FERC commissioners are criticized because they are political appointees who are frequently industry insiders. A Center for Public Integrity and StateImpact Pennsylvania study declared that FERC has only rejected two pipelines our of hundreds proposed in the past 30 years, another indication of potential bias.[10] They tend to dismiss concerns submitted in the commenting process according to a study on energy justice and natural gas infrastructure.[11] . Additionally, Dominion Energy is the largest political contributor in the state of Virginia, so it likely affects political decisions there.  In the past decade, it has contributed over $10 million to Virginian politicians including $75,000 to Governor McAuliffe, who appoints officials involved with the approval of the ACP. Of the five Virginia representatives that signed a letter to FERC in support of the ACP, three have received more than $80,000 from Dominion since 2007. Two of the North Carolina signers have been some of the biggest state-level recipients of Duke Energy political contributions.[12]


The Atlantic Coast Pipeline was stopped for other reasons. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals suspended the federal ACP permits from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service[13] and the U.S. Forest Service[14] based on the pipeline’s run through National Forests and areas where endangered species live.


Still, it is important to note that the ACP would have an adverse effect on environmental justice communities as well as forests and endangered species, even though the environmental impact statement did not consider this to be true. The FERC should re-assess its evaluation process for what constitutes disproportionate impact to better evaluate cases like this in the future.


[1] Wraight, Sarah, Julia Hofmann, Justine Allpress, and Brooks Depro. 2018. “Environmental Justice Concerns and the Proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline Route in North Carolina.” RTI Press Methods Report, March.

[2] Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. 2017. “Atlantic Coast Pipeline and Supply Header Project Final Environmental Impact Statement.” Washington, D.C.

[3] Wraight, Sarah, Julia Hofmann, Justine Allpress, and Brooks Depro. 2018. “Environmental Justice Concerns and the Proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline Route in North Carolina.” RTI Press Methods Report, March.

[4] Clean Water for NC. 2017. “The Unneeded Atlantic Coast Pipeline.”

[5] Finley-Brook, Mary, Travis Williams, Judi Caron-Sheppard, and Mary Jaromin. 2018. “Critical Energy Justice in US Natural Gas Infrastructuring.” Energy Research and Social Science 41 (July).

[6] “Joint Comments by Public Interest Groups on Draft Environmental Impact Statement.” 2017.

[7] Runkle, John. 2018. “Title VI Environmental Justice Complaint Against NC Department of Environmental Quality.”

[8] Wraight, Sarah, Julia Hofmann, Justine Allpress, and Brooks Depro. 2018. “Environmental Justice Concerns and the Proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline Route in North Carolina.” RTI Press Methods Report, March.

[9] Paranjape, Oshin, Hope Taylor, and Ericka Faircloth. 2017. “High Consequence Areas, Blast Zones, and Public Safety along the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.” Clean Water for North Carolina.

[10] Lombardi, Jamie, and Hopkins. 2017. “Natural Gas Building Boom Fuels Climate Worries, Enrages Landowners.” NPR.Org, July 17, 2017.

[11] Finley-Brook, Mary, Travis Williams, Judi Caron-Sheppard, and Mary Jaromin. 2018. “Critical Energy Justice in US Natural Gas Infrastructuring.” Energy Research and Social Science 41 (July).

[12] Seidman, Derek. 2017. “The Power Behind the Pipelines: Atlantic Coast Pipeline.”

[13] Murawski, John. 2018. “Atlantic Coast Pipeline Construction Halts as Court Reviews 4 Endangered Species.” News & Observer, December 10, 2018.

[14] Schneider, Gregory. 2018. “Federal Appeals Court Rejects Permits for Atlantic Coast Pipeline.” Washington Post, December 13, 2018.


7 thoughts on “The Environmental Justice Implications of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline

  1. I really like how you chose to focus your blog on the environmental justice issues of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, even though these issues are not what caused the progress of the pipeline to be stopped. Ultimately, as you mentioned in the blog and we discussed as a class, the pipeline was halted because of its route through National Forests and areas where endangered species live. All of the studies and groups that demonstrated how the ACP would disproportionally effect minority groups were not able to stop the pipeline, which in my mind further demonstrates how environmental justice concerns are not taken into strong enough consideration. I like how you show this tension in your blog by choosing to focus on the environmental justice issues, but noting that in the end, it is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Forest Service that were able to stop the pipeline, not concern for minority groups.

  2. The implications of decision-makers essentially ignoring the disproportionate impact of the pipeline’s siting on minority groups (and on endangered species and habitats) are immense, though not surprising given our country’s history of discrimination, slavery, and genocide. I agree that FERC should not consider lightly a project that could vastly impact human health and the environment, through mechanisms which you identified. This ACP case makes me wonder whether a court decision on environmental justice could pave the way for environmental impact statements being more inclusive of environmental justice considerations and the involvement of community groups in decision-making for FERC. In the absence of this type of decision, however, it seems to me that using any legal method that results in the disruption or cancellation of this project is valid–fighting injustice through whatever means possible.

  3. Elizabeth, great job writing this blog post! I didn’t realize the EIS found there not to be environmental justice implications, the opposite so clearly appears to be true. I also didn’t know a county in North Carolina has the densest population of indigenous people anywhere on the East Coast. While the Dakota Access pipeline raised awareness of the issue of environmental justice implications from new pipelines, its unfortunate that this history still repeat itself. As I have learned a lot about the Atlantic Coast Pipeline through our ENV course, events in Washington D.C., and individual research, I continue to discover new reasons to oppose this project. I’m very glad to hear about the Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision, and hope that the influence of utilities in politics as you highlighted does not cause this pipeline to move forward via another avenue. Thanks for providing such a detailed analysis of how the ACP would impact communities which would surround it.

  4. Good discussion of how environmental justice was (or was not) considered in this decision. It’s sobering to think about how the lack of sufficient consideration of the needs of indigenous people could impact the decision-making process for approval of pipeline—endangered species were taken into account before the people who lived in the area. One of the issues I remember with the ACP was that of tribal recognition; for example, the Lumbee are recognized by the state of North Carolina, but not federally. In the case of the Dakota Access Pipeline, the Standing Rock Sioux are federally recognized; however, even with widespread protests, the project went ahead. I would be interested in seeing if there is a legal precedent for halting construction of pipelines and other large energy projects around the United States due to concerns over negative impacts for nearby indigenous groups and what other factors (tribal recognition, non-human environmental impacts, etc.) influence these decisions.

  5. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this post, great job! I think that environmental justice implications are some of the most underestimated and misunderstood problems that face our country. Through conversations with friends, adults, and other people in my life, I have found that most people have never even heard of the term “environmental justice.” It is so interesting, and in my opinion, appalling, that they didn’t find any environmental justice implications of this proposed pipeline. As you have effectively outlined in your blog post, there are very clear environmental justice issues that would be violated through the construction of this pipeline. It is shocking to me that the EIS did not see these, and it calls into question whether or not they were even looking (or more honestly, if they even cared). While I can’t be sure what was going on that caused them to ignore such glaring environmental justice implications in this area, I am glad you were able to bring them to light. We learned a lot about this pipeline through the course, but reading about it through your words was still impactful. I applaud your writing and you make a fantastic argument! I think it’s important to continue discussions on policies like this, whether they were passed or not. Education is key!

  6. This is a really great article, Elizabeth! In one of my other classes, a group actually did a project about the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, and someone researched the environmental justice impacts in North Carolina. They looked at the Social Vulnerability Index of various populations and found that many of the communities along the path of the pipeline in North Carolina had higher rates of vulnerability than in other areas of the state. They also pointed out the lack of information about this found in the environmental impact statement! The environmental justice implications of issues are often overlooked by environmentalists and government agencies alike, so it is really important that these issues are discussed and brought to light. Your article really brings to light the influence that money has over important decisions and how it can lead to negative impacts for various communities!

  7. Thanks for this post, Elizabeth! I think that there are a lot of environmental justice concerns with the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, and this post did a great job of summarizing them in an understandable way. As someone from rural North Carolina, I am deeply concerned for some of the residents of Robeson County who would feel the impacts of the ACP at its terminus. This impact is particularly concerning because I predict that the inevitable negative impacts of the ACP on Robeson County’s infrastructure will be substantial — and they will be the ones to pay the price. Despite the fact that this project involves multiple states and dozens of stakeholders, the negative impacts are felt by ordinary citizens, while corporations take all of the benefits. It’s definitely deeply concerning that prominent politicians, such as Gov. McAuliffe, are in support of such a plan because of special interest money during elections. I value the stance that Gov. Cooper has taken in addressing some of his concerns with the ACP, and I would strongly urge my representatives to do the same.

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