Controversy rages over Lake Gaston pipeline to Virginia Opponents of project again take their case to Supreme Court


VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - The water is flowing and restrictions are lifted, but the battle over the Lake Gaston pipeline continues.

Opponents in North Carolina and Southside Virginia took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, contending that Virginia Beach should not be allowed to draw water from Lake Gaston without North Carolina's permission.

Their request marks the second time opponents have turned to the nation's highest court.

In 1992, the Supreme Court, which hears less than 2 percent of cases presented to it, declined to let North Carolina appeal a pipeline permit issued by the Army Corps of Engineers.

Lawyers for North Carolina and Southside Virginia said they think their chances could be better this time.

"It's a long shot," North Carolina Special Deputy Attorney General Alan S. Hirsch said, "but the chances are much more likely in this case than in others because of the importance of this case to all the other states."

The current case arises from a permit the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission issued in 1995.

North Carolina argues that the permit is invalid because it was issued without its permission. The energy commission and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit concluded that South Hampton Roads does not need North Carolina's permission to draw up to 60 million gallons of water a day from the lake.

The attorneys general of 39 states sided with North Carolina, saying a Virginia Beach victory would set a bad precedent. They said that states, not the federal government, should be able to decide when a project affects water quality in their state.

"If the decision is allowed to stand," North Carolina's petition reads, "states will be stripped of their ability to preserve water quality in one of the most critical areas of environmental concern, i.e., regulation of the flow of water over hydroelectric project dams."

The petitions come too late to stop the flow of Gaston water into South Hampton Roads. Beach officials held an official dedication ceremony for the 76-mile pipeline Nov.7.

The City Council recently lifted 5-year-old water restrictions on Beach residents and restaurants.

Norfolk, Va., which will treat Gaston water for Virginia Beach, is in the process of expanding its purification and pumping facilities to handle the increased flow.

Eventually, Virginia Beach could tap 48 million gallons a day, Chesapeake 10 million gallons a day, and Suffolk and Isle of Wight up to 2 million gallons a day.

But pipeline opponents said they will keep trying to shut down the water supply project.

"North Carolina will take every step necessary now and in the future to protect our vital resources," Hirsch said. "We're going to continue fighting until our legitimate needs are met, however long that takes."

The Supreme Court is expected to decide in several months whether to hear the case. Regardless of its decision, North Carolina believes it can kill the pipeline at the turn of the century.

Virginia Power, which runs a hydroelectric power plant on the lake, will need to renew its 50-year operating license in 2001.

North Carolina has vowed to block that license until Virginia Power withdraws its support for the pipeline.

Pub Date: 1/20/98

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad