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Leaders of the Nansemond Indian Nation say they’re concerned a proposed local pipeline expansion could impact centuries-old natural and cultural resources.

The proposed route of the Virginia Reliability Project would cross the Nansemond River and the northern boundary of the Great Dismal Swamp, both of which are key to the tribe’s heritage.

“We've been there the whole time,” said Assistant Chief David Hennaman. “We're there now, and we like to think of it as a cultural and spiritual place of refuge.”

The pipeline project comes from Canada-based TC Energy, which owns the Columbia Gas Transmission system that runs from New York to the Midwest and Southeast. Virginia’s the southernmost of the 10 states it touches.

TC Energy plans to replace and double the size of about 49 miles of existing pipeline that stretches from Surry and Sussex counties through Suffolk and Chesapeake.

Marion Werkheiser, a founding partner with Cultural Heritage Partners, represents the Nansemond Indian Nation.

In a recent filing to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on its behalf, Werkheiser wrote that the pipeline expansion “will directly and adversely affect the Nation’s ancestral and contemporary lands, historic properties, natural and cultural resources, air and water quality experienced by contemporary Nansemond citizens, and could impact human burials of the Nation’s ancestors.” 

Because the tribe 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, Werkheiser told WHRO.  

The Nansemond Nation gained federal recognition in 2018, giving them a new seat at the table.

Tribal leaders also take issue with how TC Energy has characterized their history in documents about the Virginia Reliability Project.

The company described the Nansemond tribe as having relocated entirely to North Carolina in the early 18th century, Werkheiser said, and has not yet corrected the error.

The Nansemond tribe’s roots predate the written record, according to an interactive history produced by the Nansemond Indian Tribal Association

Colonization of the area forced some Indigenous people south to North Carolina or east to what’s now Bowers Hill. But the Great Dismal Swamp, an ancestral foraging and hunting ground, became a stronghold for the dispersed tribal community, according to the online interactive.

“We would like for the company to acknowledge the fact that we still live here and for them to really seriously take a real good look at the potential impacts of this pipeline expansion,” said Hennaman, the assistant chief.

TC Energy said in an emailed statement it “recognizes the unique connection Indigenous Peoples have with the land and is committed to ensuring meaningful and respectful engagement with Indigenous groups, including the Nansemond Indian Nation.”

Officials said they’ve engaged regularly with the Nation’s counsel and plan to continue addressing their concerns. 

“TC Energy is taking the necessary steps to protect the environment and cultural resources throughout the project footprint in compliance with federal regulation,” they wrote.

That includes re-routing upgrades in the area of the Great Dismal Swamp to north of the National Wildlife Refuge.

tcmap sized
Screenshot from TC Energy map 

A map showing part of the route proposed by TC Energy to replace existing pipeline in Hampton Roads.

TC Energy told WHRO last year that would mean a “lift and lay,” digging up 70-year-old, 12-inch-diameter pipes to replace them with 24-inch ones, mostly within current right-of-way. 

Officials say the pipeline is meant to accommodate growing energy demand in Hampton Roads.

Virginia Natural Gas — the pipeline’s buyer — has seen an increase in customers of about 73% in the three decades since the infrastructure was last updated, a spokesperson said last year.

“This project will help address the region’s need for reliable and resilient energy to meet the organic growth in energy demand as well as support new economic development opportunities in southeast Virginia,” TC Energy officials wrote in a statement to WHRO. 

“With energy systems that are already fully subscribed and operating at their capacity, the Virginia Reliability Project allows an existing transmission system to be updated near or in the same location as the existing footprint.”

Though the size of the pipeline will double, the energy capacity won’t. TC says it’s expected to be boosted by about 50%.

The company hopes to begin construction next year. 

But it still needs several more approvals, including from FERC.

Many Hampton Roads officials and businesses have supported the project in comments to federal regulators

A Huffington Post investigation last year revealed emails in which TC appears to have drafted letters of support for local mayors to send to FERC, including Chesapeake’s Rick West and Bobby Dyer in Virginia Beach.

Some local environmental groups and civic leagues are fighting the expansion, calling it the “Virginia Ripoff Project.”

Charles Brown II, Hampton Roads organizer with the nonprofit Chesapeake Climate Action Network, said he’s been going door to door in the communities near the pipeline, and many residents know little to nothing about it. 

The organization says the construction would happen closely to 13 schools, a hospital, the Albert G. Horton, Jr. Memorial Veterans Cemetery in Suffolk and several vulnerable communities. 

“I hate that so many low-income areas, Black and brown communities, have to be impacted by these kinds of things,” Brown said. “And I hate that the environment is a throwaway in the conversation. There’s little to no consideration for protecting and safeguarding these fragile ecosystems.”

Brown cited an explosion accident that happened along the Columbia natural gas line in Stanardsville in 1979, which injured 13 people and destroyed several buildings. The National Transportation Safety Board said the pipeline was likely ruptured by excavation equipment from unrelated construction.

Lynn Godfrey with the local chapter of the Sierra Club said the region hasn’t had any issues filling existing energy needs.

For the future, she said, instead of re-committing to fossil fuels, officials should invest in renewable energy sources.

Some other companies in the industry, including the EQT Corporation, claim in comments to FERC that TC hasn’t adequately proven the need for the expansion. 

TC Energy recently applied for permits through the Norfolk District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. 

The Corps is accepting public comments about the project through Friday and will then determine whether to hold a public hearing. Godfrey said the Sierra Club is pushing the Corps to extend the comment period.