by Katie Orlando

DAVIDSON – Davidson College is protesting a planned Piedmont Natural Gas pipeline that would cut through the school’s ecological preserve, saying it could damage the sensitive natural habitat.

The plans for a 127-mile pipeline ending in eastern North Carolina include an 8-mile loop through the college’s ecological preserve, the site of sensitive streams and wetlands, hardwoods and ongoing experiments, according to the college.

The pipeline would hurt the preserve and ruin experiments, according to the college. Davidson officials said Piedmont failed to follow correct and open procedures, keeping the college out of the loop until it was almost too late. Construction is set to begin on the pipeline in March.

Davidson College lawyer Douglas W. Ey Jr. of McGuire Woods sent a letter Feb. 9 to Robert Krebs of the N.C. Department of Environmental and Natural Resources and Steve Kichefski of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, asking them to consider the college’s concerns before allowing Piedmont to continue the project.

In the letter, the college criticizes Piedmont for not filing for N.C. Utilities Commission approval for the pipeline before Feb. 6 and not mentioning the loop in its October report to the commission. The college says that omission effectively hid the project from the college, the utilities commission and Public Service of North Carolina, which holds the franchise for natural gas in the area.

“Simply put, DENR and the Corps should not proceed with issuance of certifications and permits for a project that has not been approved by the N.C. Utilities Commission,” the letter said.

The college also emphasizes the value of its ecological preserve and the research performed there. The pipeline would disturb the site of ongoing stream tests by Biology Professor Michael Dorcas and his students that have provided widely-used data.

“It is a unique, long-term ecological project that would be devastated by the proposed siting of this pipeline,” the letter continued.

In a statement to media, Piedmont responded, “When selecting a route for any pipeline, Piedmont considers many factors, primary among them is public safety, environmental impact, disruption to existing homes and businesses, and costs to our customers.  Based on physical surveys, environmental analyses and an extensive review of multiple alternate routes, we are confident that the proposed route crossing Davidson College’s property meets all of those criteria.”

Davidson College wants Piedmont to use one of the six pipelines already running through the campus.

The larger project that this pipeline is a part of, bringing cleaner natural gas to replace a coal-fired plant in eastern North Carolina, demands a capacity that would be too much for the existing pipeline, Piedmont Natural Gas spokesperson David Trusty said.

Davidson College representatives said multiple calls to Piedmont asking for a map and plans for the proposed line were ignored or deflected. Documents Piedmont submitted to DENR, however, said plans were in the works in the fall of 2010, according to the college’s letter.

When the college learned of the plan in January, Piedmont had already acquired 40 percent of the right of way for the line.

“The obvious goal was to corner Davidson College by refusing to share information,” Davidson’s letter said. “The refusal to deal openly and honestly with Davidson yielded a sitting decision that devastates the Davidson College Ecological Preserve.”

The college also criticizes Piedmont for sending contractors to survey the preserve without permission.

By withholding information so close to the start of construction, the college said, “Piedmont has created a false sense of urgency.”

Davidson College spokesman Bill Giduz and Trusty both said Piedmont and Davidson are now in productive conversations.

“We’re in consultation,” Giduz said. “We’re talking with the Piedmont Natural Gas folks, and I hope that those conversations will yield a solution that everybody can live with.”

Piedmont is preparing to release a response this week to the Army Corps of Engineers and DENR.

“We certainly do strongly disagree with the way Davidson College has characterized our means and our intent on this project,” Trusty said. “That said, we are indeed working, trying to work very productively with Davidson College.”