Pipeline Opponents Vow to Act as Environmental Watchdogs During Construction

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Michael Godfrey is one of 10 pilots flying over the valley Michael Godfrey is one of 10 pilots flying over the valley
Michael Godfrey Michael Godfrey
David Sligh David Sligh
Drones and planes will capture construction Drones and planes will capture construction
Footage of tree-cutting by Wintergreen has already been captured Footage of tree-cutting by Wintergreen has already been captured

Property owners and opponents of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline are banding together to keep a watchful eye over construction of the proposed natural gas project.

They're promising to serve as environmental watchdogs to document the pipeline’s impacts and to force regulators to enforce the law. This group is calling itself the Compliance Surveillance Initiative (CSI), and members are training hundreds of volunteers to observe and document the construction from both the ground and up in the air.

Michael Godfrey is a veteran of the Air Force and is now one of 10 pilots flying over the valley’s mountainous terrain on behalf of the Pipeline Air Force.

“There's wind and turbulence and it can be pretty rough, and kick you around a good deal,” says Godfrey.

Pilots like Godfrey are working by both plane and drone for the CSI to monitor the construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Already, a drone has captured footage of tree-cutting along the right-of-way near Wintergreen.

“It's a community obligation,” says Godfrey. “You do what you can on behalf of your community."

Besides the pilots, there will also be teams serving as environmental watchdogs on the ground. The initiative is also encouraging property owners along the pipeline’s path to monitor water quality and other impacts of construction, and then it’ll submit those reports to environmental regulators.

“The biggest thing is to be eyes and ears out there on the ground, because those are the folks who are going to see what's happening,” says David Sligh, the director of Wild Virginia Conservation. “They're going to see the changes to their land, and to the waters especially.”

Dominion Energy says more than 1,300 environmental and safety inspectors are watching over the construction.

In a statement, a pipeline spokesman says, "They'll closely monitor our contractors every step of the way to make sure they're complying with the law and protecting the environment. Additionally, there will be dozens of state and federal inspectors looking over our shoulder through every stage of the construction process."

Sligh, however, doesn’t trust any company to police itself. He says companies' track records show that completing construction as quickly as possible takes precedence over concern for the environment.

“We want everything to be transparent about this, and that is something that neither the agencies nor the companies have tried really hard to do,” says Sligh.

Godfrey plans to spend a lot more time behind the cockpit controls as pipeline construction is expected to begin this spring.

“All environmental enforcement is dependent on the local citizenry being observant, aware, concerned,” says Godfrey.

Organizers of the Compliance Surveillance Initiative are planning training sessions in communities along the pipeline. They've also created an online interactive map to document every location they check out, which you can take a look at here.