Nansemond Indian Nation escalates dispute with pipeline company, claiming human rights violations
The Nansemond Indian Nation is elevating its fight with TC Energy, the company that’s planning to replace and expand a pipeline in Hampton Roads.
The tribe recently sent a formal grievance to TC’s leaders in Canada, claiming the company has violated its own policies on Indigenous relations as well as human rights outlined by the United Nations.
“We have done everything that a good-faith participant in the whole permitting process should do,” Nansemond Assistant Chief David Hennaman told WHRO. “And yet (the company) still just refuses to give us even the basic respect so far as consultation and keeping us aware of what they’re doing.”
The grievance is the latest in a series of debates over what’s called the Virginia Reliability Project.
TC Energy plans to dig up and double the size of about 50 miles of an existing, 70-year-old pipeline that stretches from Surry and Sussex counties through Suffolk and Chesapeake.
The company owns the larger Columbia Gas Transmission system, which runs from New York to the Midwest and Southeast, with Virginia the southernmost portion.
TC says the project is meant to replace aging infrastructure and accommodate growing energy demand in Hampton Roads.
“That’s why the project has received such strong bipartisan support from community leaders and citizens throughout the region,” company representatives wrote in a statement.
Several local environmental groups are fighting the expansion and call it the “Virginia Ripoff Project.”
The Nansemond Indian Nation started raising its own concerns last year through the federal regulatory process.
The pipeline runs near or through portions of the Nansemond River and northern boundary of the Great Dismal Swamp, both of which are ancestral lands key to the Nansemond tribe’s heritage, Hennaman said.
He said they’re not opposed to the project itself, but want more information about its potential cultural and environmental impacts.
“We understand that we cannot stop such a thing, nor do we want to, but we want the utmost information and data and to know that everything is going to be done in a way that is as safe as it possibly can be and to protect the environment,” he said. “And I think that's just reasonable.”
Because the Nansemond Nation was not federally recognized when the pipeline was first built in the 1950s, it has very little information on what happened or what was found during initial construction, said Marion Werkheiser, one of the tribe’s attorneys with Richmond-based Cultural Heritage Partners.
Gaining federal recognition in 2018 gave them a new seat at the table for such projects, and they’ve invested in doing so, Hennaman said.
“Sadly, at every turn (TC) has treated the Nation with disdain or indifference,” the tribe wrote in recent comments to federal regulators.
The tribe says the existing pipeline has damaged or destroyed at least 13 archaeological and cultural sites associated with the Nation and they worry the expansion could harm more.
They also say that TC has mischaracterized the Nation’s history by stating that it relocated to North Carolina centuries ago and no longer exists in its homelands.
Werkheiser said the tribe sent the recent grievance to TC Energy because communications have worsened in recent months.
The letter from Chief Keith Anderson last month says the “nation wishes to call out the behavior” of the company’s personnel as inconsistent with its Indigenous relations policy, code of business ethics and the UN’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
In response, TC Energy’s senior vice president Danika Yeager said the company will “carefully consider” the concerns.
“We understand that our business activities have the potential to affect these groups in tangible ways and by working together and ensuring open communication with Indigenous groups, we strive to earn their respect and trust to establish and grow positive long-term relationships,” Yeager wrote.
TC Energy did not respond to WHRO’s questions about the Nation’s specific claims, but wrote in a statement that it “has great respect for the Nansemond Indian Nation and Indigenous peoples and communities across the country.
“We have maintained a consistent dialogue with the Nation and its representatives on how best to protect important cultural and environmental resources as we move forward with the Virginia Reliability Project and are taking specific action in response to their feedback. Meaningful dialogue with the Nation is an important part of this project, and we look forward to continued engagement with them.”
A major current point of contention is what’s called an ethnographic analysis. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission last year asked the company to conduct one to identify any historic properties and cultural sites in the project area.
Hennaman said they were grateful to FERC for the order, but that TC has yet to comply.
The company is now starting that process – but Hennaman said the tribe hasn’t been consulted. In documents to federal regulators, TC Energy states that the company has tried to meet with tribal leaders to resolve the issues.
Greg Werkheiser, another of the tribe’s attorneys, said he feels like little has changed since the pipeline’s initial construction.
“It shouldn’t be the tribe’s cultural heritage that gets sacrificed, again, on the same project, with modern legal standards, because the company is acting as if this was a period where tribes didn’t exist and they could just ignore them out of existence,” he said.
TC Energy hopes to start construction on the Virginia Reliability Project in 2025.
To move forward, it needs permitting approval from FERC and other entities including the Norfolk District of the Army Corps of Engineers.