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Gas pipeline opponents charged with trespassing during sit-in at Cooper's office

Posted February 2, 2018 12:55 p.m. EST
Updated July 13, 2018 3:19 p.m. EDT

— Fifteen activists demanding the state rescind a permit allowing construction of a natural gas pipeline in eastern North Carolina were charged with trespassing Friday evening during a sit-in at Gov. Roy Cooper's office.

The state Department of Environmental Quality last week issued a critical water quality permit for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. The $5 billion project, which will be owned and operated by Duke Energy and Dominion Energy, will carry natural gas more than 600 miles from West Virginia to southeastern North Carolina, passing through Northampton, Halifax, Nash, Wilson, Johnston, Sampson, Cumberland and Robeson counties.

Activists complained that the permit was issued before Duke and Dominion supplied all the required information, a decision they claim was influenced by the utilities' agreement to put $57.8 million into a fund to expand renewable energy in the state and to ensure communities near the pipeline have access to the natural gas for economic development.

"We campaigned for [Cooper], but little did we know that he would sell us out for $57.8 million," Northampton County resident Belinda Joyner said. "Little did we know that supporting him would get us a slap in the face for standing up for what's supposed to be rightfully ours."

Eastern north Carolina has been a dumping ground, they said, for dangerous substances for years, from PCBs to coal ash to the planned gas pipeline. They also compared Cooper's opposition to offshore drilling with the approval for the pipeline.

"You chose to stand against drilling off of our coast. At the same time, you allowed an unwanted, unneeded, unsafe fracked gas pipeline to tear through our farms, our dreams, our homes and, most of all, our families," said Tom Clark, a Cumberland County resident who is suing to block the pipeline. "Governor, when you say that you're fighting for our state, you can't endorse one and fight the other. You should see our state as one and the same."

Tony Burnette, president of the Northampton County of the NAACP, said a black community in the county will be in the blast zone of a planned compressor station.

"They feel that those people won't stand up, but we're here today saying that we will stand up. We will come together," Burnette said.

"You're always sending us something that's going to poison our land and poison our water," Halifax County resident Gary Grant added. "When are we going to get something that is worthwhile?"

Sheila Holman, assistant secretary of DEQ, said federal regulators, not the state, signed off on the pipeline's route. Still, she said she understands the concern local residents feel.

"We have tried to look at how do we best protect the environment and therefore best protect those citizens living near the proposed pipeline," Holman said of DEQ's role.

Cooper spokesman Jamal Little said the governor remains committed to renewable energy future, but the pipeline is a necessary step in the transition from coal to cleaner fuels.

"We appreciate that North Carolinians are making their voices heard on this issue, and [we] will continue working toward a full renewable energy future," Little said in an email. "As we move away from reliance on coal-fired power plants, we will still need to rely on other fuels like natural gas, and the Department of Environmental Quality is taking rigorous steps to insist on clean water and good air quality along the path of the construction."

Meanwhile, Duke said DEQ this week issued permits allowing crews to begin immediately cutting trees and preparing the pipeline corridor for construction work, starting later this year.

"[The] approval brings North Carolina one step closer to a growing economy, thousands of new jobs and lower energy costs for consumers," Duke spokeswoman Tammie McGee said in a statement.

About three dozen people took part in the daylong sit-in, but many left when the building closed for the evening. Those who stayed behind were charged with second-degree trespassing and cooperated with State Capitol Police officers as they were led out without being handcuffed.