The US Forest Service recently published an assessment of the proposed Atlantic Coast pipeline, calling the report "independent."
DeSmog has learned, however, that in reality the assessment was performed and written by none other than a contractor working for the pipeline company. The contractor was hired by the Forest Service to conduct the assessment.
The Forest Service, a government agency housed in the US Department of Agriculture, is playing a key role in the review of the Atlantic Coast pipeline. The 550-mile-long natural gas pipeline, the project of a partnership led by Dominion Energy, is planned to run through two national forests as it crosses West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina.
However, the pipeline's authorization requires a special use permit from the Forest Service in order to build the project through the Monongahela and George Washington National Forests and to modify existing standards related to water protection and soil stability.
Forest Service Tells FERC Assessment Was "Independent"
In a letter sent in early April to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), Monongahela Forest supervisor, Clyde Thompson, provided comments on Dominion's proposal to run the pipeline across the Appalachian Trail and Blue Ridge Parkway using a method called horizontal directional drilling, or HDD. Thompson stated that the Forest Service reviewed the proposal and concluded it was feasible "based on our independent assessment." The actual assessment documents were not attached to the letter.
From an April 4, 2017 letter by the Forest Service to FERC, claiming it performed an "independent" assessment of drilling through national forests.
What Thompson did not mention in the letter is that the assessment was conducted and written by GAI Consultants, one of Dominion's main contractors on the pipeline project. GAI Consultants, a Pittsburgh-based environmental and engineering firm, has been working on the pipeline since its original proposal in late 2014.
Last month, only after an activist opposing the pipeline inquired about the actual report and threatened to file an open records request did the Forest Service upload it as a supplement to the FERC docket. In an attached note, the Forest Service stated that GAI Consultants was its third-party contractor working on the report.
Forest Service Stands by Hiring Decision
In response, Thompson told DeSmog that it was his decision to use GAI Consultants on the Forest Service report, saying:
"I had to make the call whether to allow Dominion to complete the HDD before they do anything else. So we first needed to see if this was at all feasible or not. However, we didn't have any other information on this process. And since GAI had done some good work for us previously on a different pipeline and our scientists thought highly of them for their capabilities, we decided to hire them as third-party contractor for this particular purpose. The Forest Service paid them for this work, not Dominion."
According to Thompson, when hiring GAI Consultants, the Forest Service asked the firm to assign employees that weren't working at the time on the Atlantic Coast pipeline.
"If I thought that the connection between these people and those working on the pipeline was too close, I would not have used GAI Consultants," said Thompson.
Thompson disagreed that using the same company which is planning the pipeline to independently evaluate the feasibility of a portion of that project could present a conflict of interest.
"I don't think it's a conflict of interest. The people who performed this assessment were from a different part of the company," he told DeSmog. "Also, this field of expertise is extremely small. It's hard to find consultants who are not, or have not in the past been working for pipeline companies."
When asked about his characterization of the assessment as "independent" in his letter to FERC, Thompson replied with the following:
"I'll sign the document, but I'll always ask the questions internally and verify the information with my staff. We didn't give GAI Consultants any guidance, but supplied them with the relevant information and let them assess this case."
Thompson took responsibility for the decision to use the same contractor.
"Ultimately, this was my call," he said. "Another person may have made a different decision in using this firm, but I think that given all the information we have and the circumstances, it was a reasonable call. Our role as the Forest Service in this project is to make the soundest decision using the best information we can obtain."
Gaps in Forest Service Assessment?
Rick Webb, coordinator for the Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition, an association of regional environmental groups, said that once he learned of the use of Dominion's contractor, he expressed his concerns to the Forest Service over possible conflicts of interest.
"I was surprised to learn they had hired GAI Consultants," he said. "It was out of character for them since the Forest Service has done its job well up to this point. I really do not understand why they used this contractor."
It should be noted that in early 2016 the Forest Service rejected Dominion's original proposed pipeline path, saying that it failed to align with its forest management plans. The agency is continuing to address a variety of issues and concerns related to the project.
Webb points to a report, written by members of the coalition opposing the pipeline, on the risks of drilling through the Blue Ridge Mountains. The GAI Consultants' assessment, he claims, had ignored this report.
"In the GAI assessment there's no real discussion or analysis of the issues [in the report] or even reference to most of the issues -- just an opinion -- no reference to the lack of geophysical info for most of the drill-path or the extreme conditions," Webb argued. "By using HDD there's both high risk of failure and for an extreme environmental footprint, but those are not addressed. Saying that something is feasible does not mean it is not risky."
In response, Clyde Thompson from the Forest Service agrees that it may be risky, but says that in this particular case, GAIConsultants was only asked to conduct a feasibility assessment. Furthermore, he says that he provided GAI Consultants with the coalition's study on the risks of drilling.
A spokesperson for GAI Consultants declined to comment, citing "confidentiality considerations."
This latest story joins DeSmog's previous reporting on other problematic ties among the government, those working on its behalf, and the companies behind the Atlantic Coast pipeline.
It turns out that FERC's own third party contractor reviewing the project, Merjent, is linked to Dominion's main environmental permitting contractor, Natural Resource Group. Furthermore, the two sitting FERC commissioners have ties to lobbyists and executives of Southern Company, a minority owner in the project.