RALEIGH — The Public Schools of Robeson County stands to receive a $7.7 million windfall from the builders of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, although it’s unclear exactly has the money can be spent.
Sen. Danny Britt, a Republican whose district includes all of Robeson and Columbus counties, said it is a “done deal” after the Senate agreed to reallocate $57.8 the pipeline builders had agreed to set aside in an escrow account. He said in a Facebook post that he is confident fellow Republican, Rep. Brenden Jones, whose district includes part of Robeson County, will ensure the bill is approved in the House next week.
Gov. Roy Cooper had wanted the money for green energy project and any environmental issues that might arise from the pipeline, but “the way the state constitution works, the legislature is responsible for allocating funds,” Britt said. “The legislators agree that the money would be divided among counties that the Atlantic Coast Pipeline passes through.”
The counties include Robeson, Northampton, Halifax, Nash, Wilson, Johnston, Sampson and Cumberland. The 600-mile, $5 billion natural gas pipeline would start in West Virginia and end near Pembroke.
“We have not worked out how the money is to be spent,” Britt said. “This is not a blank check. It will have a specific purpose for education attached to it.”
If the House approved, Cooper would have to sign the legislation. If he were to veto, Republicans could override.
The exact amounts for the counties are: Robeson, $7,752,278: Cumberland, $15,547,610; Halifax $4,030,076; Johnston, $7,666,167; Nash, $3,590,678; Northampton, $2,797,992; and Sampson, $4,110,288.
The news was well received Friday by the chair of the Public Schools of Robeson County Board of Education.
“God, that would be wonderful,” Peggy Wilkins Chavis said. “I hope and pray that goes through because $7.7 million would do a lot for us.”
The local system always struggles for money, and is 99th out of 100 counties for per-pupil spending on a local level.
The purpose of the $57.8 million had been to help mitigate the effects of the pipeline on habitats and natural resources and provide economic development support for counties affected by the project, according to a release from Cooper’s office.
The pipeline project partners are Dominion Energy, Duke Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas and Southern Company Gas.
“This exchange, which was described as a ‘voluntary contribution’ by Cooper’s PR team, has raised a number of ethical and constitutional concerns across the political spectrum, especially since state and federal law already requires utilities building the Atlantic Coast Pipeline to meet environmental mitigation requirements before the project can receive approval,” Britt said.
Fifty percent of the funds from Britt’s legislation will be deposited and made available as soon as the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission gives a final notice to proceed with the project, according to Britt. The deposit of the remaining $28.9 million is required to take place no later than the pipeline’s first day in service.
“The right thing to do with this $57.8 million ‘voluntary contribution’ is to use the money to support the educational needs of students in the economically distressed, rural communities that are directly impacted by the Atlantic Coast Pipeline,” Britt said.
The account generated concerns among pipeline supporters and foes, with some speculating that Atlantic Coast Pipeline LLC effectively bought the permit with the account. Representatives of Cooper said the review of the permit and establishment of the account were not connected in any way.
The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality in January approved a water quality permit for the project, allowing the pipeline to come in contact with 320 bodies of water across the state. The escrow account requirement was revealed at that time.
Approval of the water quality permit also allowed the cutting of trees to begin along the pipeline’s North Carolina path.
Up to 1.5 billion cubic feet of natural gas will travel through the pipeline per day, supplying resources to North Carolina and Virginia.
About $600,000 in local property tax revenue is anticipated from the pipeline. Aaron Ruby, a Dominion Energy spokesperson, has said pipeline construction will begin in the spring and conclude late in 2019.
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