PAMPLICO, S.C. – The land agent who arrived at Reatha Jefferson’s door in May, unannounced and unmasked in the middle of the pandemic, told her he was giving her one more chance.
The agent was there on behalf of Virginia-based utility giant Dominion Energy. He wanted to see if Jefferson would let Dominion run a new natural gas pipeline through the land her great-grandfather, a rural Black farmer, had bought more than a century ago in Pamplico, South Carolina.
Jefferson sent the agent away and in July, the utility served her with court papers in an attempt to use eminent domain to build the pipeline.
The proposed 14.5-mile-long (23-kilometer-long) gas line is small in contrast to projects like the recently canceled Atlantic Coast Pipeline, or even a 55-mile-long (88.5-kilometer-long) pipeline Dominion built recently in the state. But for Jefferson, it threatens to stain the land where her relatives once grew tobacco, corn and wheat, and the river where her father used to catch catfish for dinner.
“This property’s been in my family for 100 years. How do they think they can tell me what they’re going to run through my property?" she said.
The company cites new energy demand spurred by economic growth in eastern South Carolina as the impetus for the project. Dominion declined to make anyone available for an interview but said in a statement that the project could help attract and grow businesses, adding jobs and possibly lowering energy costs for residents.
The gas main, designed to supply customers directly with natural gas, would run 14.5 miles from a valve station to a regulating station along the Great Pee Dee River, according to permitting paperwork Dominion submitted to the Army Corps of Engineers. It would traverse 65 pieces of private property along the way.
Some environmental groups think the pipeline's true purpose is to jump-start a natural gas-fired power plant that state-owned utility Santee Cooper has previously discussed building at the same spot where the proposed pipeline would end. The company had said it would use natural gas from a utility partner such as Dominion.
Shelley Robbins, energy and state policy director of Upstate Forever, an environmental watchdog group focused on preserving land in South Carolina, said she wonders if the proposed pipeline is being designed with a relatively large diameter so that it could connect to a natural-gas power plant in addition to supplying customers with electricity. Such a plant would have a far bigger footprint in the community than the proposed line, she added.
Dominion spokesperson Paul Fischer said in an email that the gas line would be solely operated and owned by Dominion, and is unrelated to any current or future projects by other utilities. Santee Cooper spokesperson Mollie Gore said the company was unfamiliar with the pipeline and had made no decisions about future sites for natural-gas power plants.
Kathy Andrews, a landowner in the area who, like Jefferson, is opposed to the project, says she's concerned about environmental damage such as leaks once the pipeline is in operation. She points to the explosion of a Dominion gas line in Ohio and allegations over pollution involving coal ash in Virginia.
In addition to worrying about the pipeline's possible effects on the environment, Jefferson is concerned that she will lose more of the property her father entrusted to her on his death bed. The 40 acres (16 hectares) Jefferson’s great-grandfather, Andrew Hyman, once owned has been whittled down to about 30 acres (12 hectares) over time. Jefferson is determined not to lose any more.
In recent years, the land has grown dense with trees and brush, obscuring the driveway that once led to the house Jefferson was born in. That house burned down a few decades ago, but lately, some of the other heirs to the land tell Jefferson they contemplate returning and rebuilding. Jefferson dutifully pays the property taxes every year, as her father asked her to.
But Jefferson and Andrews may be out of luck. In cases where a company or the government is arguing that a utility upgrade is for the public good, it's nearly impossible for property owners to fight, said Renee Gregory, a lawyer at the Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation in Charleston, South Carolina.
“In these situations, it’s not a matter of will the property be taken, just how much you will be compensated for," she said.
Andrews, who owns the parcel bordering Jefferson’s, said Dominion offered her $500, then $1,000 when she refused. She said she worries that the economic woes some people are experiencing amid the coronavirus pandemic will lead other property owners to take Dominion up on its cash offers.
Dominion held a community workshop in January at the town’s elementary school so residents could learn more about the proposed pipeline. But Andrews said the workshop was in the afternoon when most people were working; the explanations they got from Dominion weren’t that thorough, and there was no mention of a public hearing.
“It’s like we had no say in the matter,” Andrews said.
Other landowners reached by The Associated Press had varied reactions to the project, though most expressed unease at the thought of agreeing to an easement on their lands.
Andrews and Jefferson have tried to rally their neighbors against the project. The pandemic makes organizing hard. Instead of meeting in person, concerned residents hop onto weekly conference calls. And some community members are apathetic to their cause, the women say, assuming Dominion will win out in the end regardless.
Jefferson, who is still handing out photocopied, handwritten appeals to her neighbors and looking for an attorney to represent her in court, remains even-tempered despite the stress of the past few months.
“It’s not about money. It’s about principle,” Jefferson said.