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Facing Down Dominion

The grey and green lichen and moss-covered walls of stone meander through the forest like silent sentinels of history. To 84-year-old Hazel Palmer, these centuries-old rock walls embody her struggle against Dominion Energy, the utility that Palmer says will destroy the essence of her family’s mountain land with its natural gas pipeline. Her 125-acre property on the western slopes of the Blue Ridge Parkway in Augusta County has been in Hazel’s family since 1880.

Palmer has refused to negotiate with Dominion for an easement on their property. “It doesn’t matter what they offer,” says Palmer. “I just want to keep the land the way it is.”

The diminutive, silver-haired great grandmother is soft-spoken. But she has an inner strength that is as tough as those stone walls. Despite being in her eighties, she still rides a four-wheeler up to the top of the mountain to visit the spot marked with a tiny cross where her husband Joe lost his life in a logging accident, and she can scramble down the slopes and over the rock walls as easily as those many years younger.

As a child, Palmer lived on the property in the house with her grandparents. “We raised chickens, cows, and pigs. We were self-sufficient. Even after I moved to Lynchburg with my family, I always said that I had a place to go back to if the world got too bad,” she explained.

Little did she imagine that the bad of the world would come to her. The first letter from Dominion arrived in February of 2015. She couldn’t believe what she read.

“I was devastated,” said Palmer. The letter explained Dominion’s plans for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a natural gas pipeline slated to run 600 miles from fracking wells in West Virginia to Hampton Roads, Va., and into North Carolina. Dominion claims that the pipeline is needed to supply gas-fired power plants, but Palmer doesn’t buy it. There are already plenty of existing pipelines running well below capacity, she says. And no company has ever attempted to build a pipeline of this size through the steep, rugged terrain in West Virginia and western Virginia, including the slopes of the Blue Ridge Parkway where Hazel’s land is situated.

The proposed route would clear-cut a 125-foot swath diagonally across all three tracts of Palmer’s land to a point just beneath the Blue Ridge Parkway. A trench would be dug for the pipe, and excess dirt and rock excavated from the trench would be hauled back across their property. From Palmer’s property, the company plans to conduct a risky horizontal directional drilling project nearly a mile under the Blue Ridge Parkway and Appalachian Trail. One side of the tunnel will be on the eastern side of the mountain in Nelson County, and the other will be on Hazel’s property at an area that will be leveled and graded.

The company also wants to take over the driveway belonging to her daughter, who also lives on the property, and turn the four-wheeler paths through the mountains into access roads.

“It will be like having a four-lane highway through our property. No trees will be allowed to grow back on the 75-foot easement, so it will cause erosion and flooding in heavy rains and thunderstorms,” says Palmer.

And the rock walls? Dominion’s construction documents show the pipeline path going through at least one wall.

After she received Dominion’s letter, Palmer refused to let Dominion’s surveyors on her property. In Virginia, however, the General Assembly passed a law in 2004 that allows public utilities to survey private property without permission.

Dominion sued Palmer for access to her property, and last year, the Augusta County judge ruled in favor of Dominion. Today, a walk up the mountainside reveals pink and orange survey tape fluttering in the forest.

But Palmer appealed the case. The Virginia Supreme Court agreed recently to hear the appeal. This time her legal team argued that the company—Atlantic Coast Pipeline LLC—is not a Virginia public utility. Rather, it is a private corporation created in Delaware and therefore should not be allowed to operate under Virginia law. A ruling on the appeal is pending.

“I feel like doing what is necessary to fight for my constitutional rights,” says Palmer. “Just don’t try to take something away from me that’s mine.”

Palmer is a woman of quiet but resolute religious faith, and she knows well the Biblical story of David and Goliath.

Says the 84-year-old Palmer, “I am not afraid to fight.”

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