The news came unexpectedly on July 5, 2020, giving many residents along the 600 mile route that snaked through West Virginia, Virginia and 160 miles of eastern North Carolina another reason to celebrate.
Six years after being approved for construction, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) was dead. Dominion Energy and Duke Energy said the natural gas pipeline that would have run through eight North Carolina counties was no longer tenable. Delays and cost overruns added $3 billion to the already $5 billion price tag.
Opponents of the pipeline soon learned that many other battles lay ahead. Duke and Dominion had negotiated or invoked eminent domain to acquire the properties needed for the pipeline. Despite having no further use for the easements, the utilities have not returned to the original owners the hundreds of tracts of private land it had acquired 18 months after canceling the ACP.
In late 2017, the ACP began suing property owners who refused to sell their land for the planned natural gas pipeline. The energy consortium filed seven condemnation actions in U.S. District Court against recalcitrant landowners in Cumberland and Nash Counties and threatened to sue hundreds more. Sometimes the landowner agreed to settle after being sued. Other times, the court issued an order to seize the property. In the end, the ACP used eminent domain to take property from 80 people who refused to sell.
Even though there are no plans to revive the ACP or any other pipeline, ACP says it will hold landowners to the terms of their individual easement agreements. Since many of the agreements have no end date, property owners may never get their property back.
ACP acquired the property under the ‘public use and benefit provision’ that no longer applies but the landowners are still governed by the terms of the easements. The landowners won’t be required to return the money they received but since the utilities still have legal rights to the easements, they are hobbled by what they are allowed to do with it.
This is particularly vexing for the owners of dozens of acquired tracts that are heir properties. In North Carolina, heirs property is usually rural land that is jointly owned by Black descendants of a deceased person whose estate was never handled in probate court and is passed down from generation to generation. They have the right to use the property, but without a clear title.
The NC DEQ said the agency “expects all disturbed areas to be returned to original contours and permanently stabilized.” That seems unlikely, however. The good news is that ACP plans to restore and clean up the construction and disturbances along the pipeline’s route by the end of 2022. The bad news is that the plan will leave behind the more than 30 miles of completed pipe and 100 miles of felled trees.