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With Hurricane Camille in mind, Nelson County worries about potential steep price for pipeline

OLD MYNDUS — Roberts Mountain looms above the Oak Hill Baptist Church Cemetery here where so many victims of Hurricane Camille lie, 50 years after torrential rains brought a flood of mud, boulders and trees out of the mountain hollows along Davis Creek.

Standing at the cemetery’s edge, Jim Bolton points to a slight dip in the mountain crest where the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is planned to reach the top of Roberts Mountain from the north and then follow its ridgeline east toward U.S. 29 near Woods Mill, another scene of Camille’s destructive power a half-century ago where Davis and Muddy creeks met.

Dominion Energy and its partners chose an alternate route for the 42-inch natural gas pipeline through Nelson County four years ago to avoid crossing Davis Creek where Camille triggered the worst debris flows, killing more than 50 people there after at least 27 inches of rain fell overnight on Aug. 19-20, 1969.

But the $7.5 billion project — currently stalled in federal court — still would top the mountain above Huffman Hollow, home to some of the roughly 20 members of the Huffman family who perished during Camille and now lie in the cemetery here.

“They moved it from one bad area to another bad area,” said Bolton, a Davis Creek resident who recently urged federal regulators to reconsider approval of the pipeline’s path through the steep mountains that Camille proved vulnerable to catastrophic landslides.

Dominion officials say they have detailed plans to guard against landslides on 439 steep slopes identified in the path of the 605-mile pipeline, including 224 in Virginia and 72 in Nelson County.

Their plans include site-specific designs for 20 of the steepest, most sensitive slopes — 12 in Virginia — and use of “best in class” measures that exceed federal and state requirements to control water and reduce landslide potential on the rest.

“This will establish the industry gold standard,” Dominion spokesman Aaron Ruby vowed.

The scope of Nelson’s vulnerability has become clearer in the early stages of a new federally funded study by the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy that has already identified more than 5,900 landslides and debris flows, almost all caused by Camille.

About 4,800 sites identified by the study represent debris flows — each a narrow flood of mud, rock, trees and other debris that moves quickly and crushes anything in its path.

“They’re very dangerous,” said Anne Carter Witt, a state geohazards geologist who is directing the study, focused on mapping landslide hazards in western Nelson and Albemarle counties. “Everything coming down Davis Creek was pretty much an enormous debris flow.”

A report released more than two years ago by Friends of Nelson, a local opponent of the pipeline, warned that Dominion and its partners had not adequately identified and avoided areas where the risk of landslides is high to ensure “the safety of the pipeline as well as protect the surrounding slopes, waterways and residents from a potentially catastrophic failure.”

The study by Blackburn Consulting Services relied on field testing of geology and slopes that focused on three areas vulnerable to landslides: Roberts Mountain on the north side of Davis Creek; the mountains along Wheelers Cove Road east of U.S. 29; and Wintergreen, a resort community next to the planned site of a pipeline tunnel that Dominion wants to drill through the Blue Ridge from Augusta County into Nelson.

The pipeline company’s plans for reducing the threat of landslides “do not appear to fully take into account the potentially dangerous conditions that the project poses to Nelson’s slopes and residents,” Blackburn states in the report, which raises concerns about the effect of removing trees, excavating soil and blasting rock on already unstable mountain ridges.

Friends of Nelson estimates that the pipeline route passes through or near 60 debris flows and 10 debris slides documented from Camille in the new state study.

Dominion officials say they accept the challenge of building a pipeline through the Appalachian Mountain ranges of West Virginia and Virginia to reach natural gas markets on the Atlantic coast from Hampton Roads to southeastern North Carolina.

Steep slopes

Steep slopes have been a major issue in how the pipeline would cut through the George Washington National Forest in Virginia and Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia. In December, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals threw out permits the U.S. Forest Service issued to allow the project to cross 21 miles of national forest and tunnel beneath the Appalachian Trail at Reeds Gap above Wintergreen.

The ruling by a three-judge panel, led by Chief Judge Roger L. Gregory of Richmond, cited the shifting position of the Forest Service, which previously had questioned whether it was possible, in the words of one national forest supervisor, to permit pipeline construction on steep slopes and “keep the mountain on the mountain.”

The pipeline company and the U.S. solicitor general have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review and reverse the 4th Circuit’s decision to block the Appalachian Trail crossing, but Dominion expects the Forest Service to issue a new permit that addresses the panel’s concerns about the project’s protection of steep mountain slopes.

Nine of the 20 steep slopes Dominion identified for specific site designs lie in the two national forests. Six of the 12 most sensitive slopes in Virginia lie in Highland County, four in Augusta County and two in Nelson.

The two Nelson sites lie on Roberts Mountain near Woods Mill and Piney Mountain near Wintergreen.

Dominion says it will use “best in class” techniques for the remaining 212 steep slopes identified in Virginia — 74 in Augusta, 70 in Nelson, 47 in Bath County, 19 in Highland, and two in Buckingham County.

Those techniques target sources of water that can destabilize both the soil surface and the 10-foot-deep trench that holds the pipe. “The management of water ... is paramount to the success of the program,” said Robert Hare, manager of technical services for the project.

The plans also include the excavation, retention and restoration of soil and rock in a 125-foot construction right of way that would require leveling of narrow mountain ridgelines and their restoration after the work is done. The company says it would generally follow ridgelines because they are more stable and drier than side slopes and the tops of hollows.

Bolton, a retired biomedical research scientist at the University of Virginia, doesn’t believe it’s possible to safely restore excavated ridgelines to keep them from sliding down the mountain.

“It’s loose fill — no compaction, no trees on it, no nothing,” he said.

Dominion says its plans are informed by extensive work along the pipeline route, where its crews will reassess and adjust their work on steep slopes as they proceed.

“I’ve personally hiked most of the [439] steep slopes,” said Alex Greene, an engineering geologist for Geosyntec Consultants, a contractor based in California.

West Virginia

Construction of the pipeline was suspended in December after the 4th Circuit vacated a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service permit for protecting endangered species, but the company said it had already begun using “best in class” techniques to build the pipeline in West Virginia.

“We’ve seen it function like it’s supposed to,” said Greg Park, who is supervising pipeline construction in West Virginia.

But federal regulators warned Dominion last month about “probable violations” of pipeline safety rules at two sites in West Virginia where inspectors found the pipeline laid in cramped trenches lined with rocks, including “unsupported boulders susceptible of damaging the pipeline from settlement above if allowed to remain.”

“The identified conditions also have the potential to be exacerbated in the event of heavy rains and/or washouts,” an administrator for the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration said in a July 25 letter.

The notice, first reported by E&E Energywire on Thursday, ordered the company to correct the problems but did not propose a fine or further enforcement action.

Ruby, Dominion’s spokesman, said the inspections occurred before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission accepted the company’s plan for stabilizing trenches after halting work in December. “Once the stabilization work was authorized by FERC, we remediated the issues found in the inspection,” he said.

Park, now construction supervisor in West Virginia, took a lead role in plotting the entire pipeline route, including the “east of Lovingston” alternative, adopted in May 2015, that shifted the path away from the portion of Davis Creek in Nelson County hit hardest by Camille.

Dominion made the change early in the planning process, so he said he can’t attest to the differences in terrain between the original and alternative routes.

But Park said, “Why go into that area knowing the history of it?”

Camille

Wisteria Johnson was 18 years old and preparing to leave Harris Cove to attend Virginia State University when Camille swamped the mountain hollows along Wheelers Cove Road.

When Johnson awoke the morning after the storm, she saw nothing but water from the road to the mountains that surround the house where her family has lived for more than 120 years. Somehow, the house had been spared, even with two creeks running through the property.

“God had to have a hand in it,” she said. “It was because of the mountains he made and had been in place without man’s heavy disturbance.”

One of their neighbors, Wrennie Harris Wright, wasn’t as fortunate.

Johnson’s mother, Doris Harris, was worried about the 75-year-old widow, who lived in a cabin between two streams on a steep mountainside along Wheelers Cove Road near Thoroughfare Gap. The roads were impassable for cars, so Johnson remembers walking 2 miles through water and mud with her mother and sister, Elizabeth, to check on Wright.

The two girls waited on the road while their mother went down the slope to check the cabin, which had been pushed to the foot of the mountain. Doris Harris sent them home to fetch their father, Wister, who returned to find the elderly woman crushed to death between heavy furniture and a bedroom wall in the dislodged cabin.

Wright was among 124 people killed in Nelson during Camille.

“It shows you how fragile the mountains are,” Johnson said.

The pipeline had been planned to pass in front of the home of her sister, Elizabeth Miles, on Wheelers Cove Road and behind her own home at the foot of Bailey Mountain, but Johnson said Dominion shifted the route to follow the ridge of Willoughby Mountain east of them.

Greene, the geologist for Geosyntec, said the pipeline route east of U.S. 29 generally avoided some of the steepest terrain. “We didn’t see anything near as steep as we saw up on Roberts Mountain,” he said.

Shifting soil

Last spring, a 5-inch rain brought an unwelcome surprise to Curtis Sheets, chief of fire and rescue for Wintergreen Resort and its surrounding community on the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge.

The fire road that connects the community to Nellysford in the Rockfish Valley more than 2 miles away suddenly had a 20-foot-wide gap about a half-mile down the slope.

“The entire road just slid off the mountain,” said Sheets, who also is deputy director of the Wintergreen Property Owners Association.

Landslides and shifting soil aren’t new problems at Wintergreen, a resort developed more than 40 years ago for skiing, vacation and retirement homes on the east side of the Blue Ridge. Wintergreen Development Co. was sold in a bank foreclosure in 1998, three years after a federal judge awarded $730,000 to a couple whose retirement home detached from its garage because of slipping soils on the mountain.

The resort has had to rebuild its tubing park twice since opening it in 2001 because water from a fault beneath the ground caused the slope to fail two times. Now, the slope is lined with drains to remove the water so the soil will stay in place.

Wintergreen also relocated a new 5 million-gallon water tank after concerns about the geology of the original site.

“We know what happens — the soil moves downhill,” said Jay Roberts, executive director of the property owners association. “There are plenty of examples.”

Mervin J. Bartholomew, a North Carolina geologist who wrote a 1977 state guide to the geology of the area that includes Reeds Gap, warned federal regulators more than two years ago that the planned pipeline route “is inadvisable and the risk of failure is high.”

Bartholomew said the pipeline would emerge from the mountain across from the only entrance and exit for Wintergreen and cross an area with a history of debris flows and avalanches.

Camille didn’t cause as much damage on the Blue Ridge above Nellysford as it did along Davis Creek and other parts of Nelson, but he said a similar deluge in that mountain basin “could literally ‘pull the plug’ and all of the deposits could be swept down the funnel scouring the base of the granite floor with debris tracks.”

Dominion officials and contractors say the mountain is solid where they plan to tunnel and collect any water that drains from faults in the rock. They know that shallow surface soil tends to slip on the bedrock in the area, as it did on the fire road, but they’re confident in their plans both for drilling though the mountain and keeping steep slopes in place.

“It’s very resistant rock,” said Andreas Kammereck, principal engineer at Golder Associates, which is designing the project’s plans for steep slopes.

However, Sheets said he learned soon after arriving in Nelson in 1999 that Camille “is in the front part of their brains” for every fire and rescue official in the county.

“I just don’t think anyone here in Nelson County who lived through Camille doesn’t think about it at least once a month,” he said. “It’s just never going to go away.”


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'It’s important we get reading right for kids': More than 1 in 4 Va. students are falling behind in reading

More than one in four public school students in Virginia aren’t reading on grade level by the end of third grade as results on the critical state test continue to slide.

Scores on the third-grade reading Standards of Learning test in the state fell for the third straight year, down from a 76% pass rate in the 2015-16 school year to 71% this year, according to data released last week by the Virginia Department of Education. The test, experts and studies have concluded, is an important — but not definitive — predictor of students’ future academic success.

“School divisions must ensure that all children receive research-based reading instruction — beginning in kindergarten — that addresses their specific needs, and that students are reading at grade level by the end of the third grade,” Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane said in a statement. “We must meet students where they are, but we must also move them to where they need to be: reading at grade level or above and ready for success in the 21st century.”

The data release, which also showed persistent achievement gaps among minority and low-income students, comes as the state Board of Education reviews the state’s requirements for schools, a process that could end up mandating more reading specialists in schools.

Why is third-grade reading so important?

When students come to kindergarten, their general reading development starts by learning the basics— turning pages, reading left to right and learning letters, for example. Then comes first grade, where they are identifying words. In second grade, they’re reading longer and more complex words.

The big moment in a child’s reading ability comes in third grade when they make the switch from learning to read to reading to learn. Once students start fourth grade, studies suggest, as much as half of what they’re being taught will be incomprehensible if they’re not proficient at the end of third grade.

Research has repeatedly drawn a connection between poor reading performance on the third-grade level and a failure to graduate high school on time.

“If you’re a poor reader early on, you tend to stay a poor reader,” said Tim Shanahan, the former director of reading for Chicago Public Schools and chair of the National Literacy Panel for English Minority Children and Youth, and the National Early Literacy Panel. “It really is a serious problem.

“It’s important we get reading right for kids.”

State outlook

The drop in third-grade reading scores is part of a broader decline in reading results across the state.

The scores on all reading tests dipped 2 percentage points over the past three years, from 80% in 2015-16 to 78% this year, according to the data released last week.

“I do think that’s cause for concern,” said Paul Thomas, an education professor at Furman University who taught English in South Carolina, of the third-grade decline. “Three years in a row, there’s something going on.”

Thomas teaches classes on literacy research and practice, as well as one on the foundations of literacy instruction.

The issue of not reading on grade level is especially stark among black and Hispanic students.

While 71% of all third-graders pass the reading test, only 57% of black students and 55% of Hispanic students do, the data show. It’s worse for students who are learning English; only two in five pass the exam.

Students whom the state describes as being eligible for free or reduced meals, Medicaid or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families money are 14% less likely to pass the third-grade reading test than their peers.

Nationally, more than 80% of students from low-income families don’t read proficiently at the end of third grade, according to federal data.

“Kids are being left behind,” said Shanahan, who now teaches at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “We all lose in it.”

Hitting home

The trend of declining literacy is also present in local schools.

Third-grade students in the Richmond region scored below the state average on the reading test, with 69% of students passing. That’s a 2.5 percentage point decrease compared to 2017-18 and a nearly 7 percentage point drop from three years ago, when more than three in four students in the region passed.

Petersburg has seen the biggest falloff in the past three years as only one in two third-graders is passing the test now, compared with 65% in 2015-16.

“Our SOL scores are not what we were hoping to achieve,” said the district’s incoming superintendent, Maria Pitre-Martin, in a statement last week.

Petersburg and Richmond have the lowest pass rates in the region at 50%.

Richmond schools chief Jason Kamras said he was “disappointed” by the reading scores.

“This is a marathon, not a sprint,” he said. “We need to continue to build momentum, week by week, month by month, year by year.”

The school district is adopting new reading curriculum this year, and part of its strategic plan is to have every third-grader reading on grade level, which includes the launch of a “Literacy Institute” for school leaders.

That part of the district’s strategic plan has a projected cost of $10 million.

The cities weren’t alone, though. Every district in the region has seen its pass rate on the test decline.

Henrico County’s scores are down to 70% from 75% three years ago and 77% two years ago, putting it almost directly in line with the state’s decline.

The district, spokesman Andy Jenks said, has hired five more reading specialists for the coming school year and plans to put reading specialists in every elementary school over the next five years.

“We’ve also developed a new K-2 curriculum, implemented during the 2018-19 school year, with a strong emphasis on building foundational skills in concepts of print, phonological awareness [how sounds work] and phonics,” Jenks said. “A strong foundation develops strong word recognition and opens the door for reading comprehension, which is the focus of third-grade reading and beyond.”

Third through fifth grades in Henrico will be implementing a new English Language Arts curriculum this school year, he added.

Schools in Chesterfield and Hanover counties both had pass rates above the state average, but still saw a slight decline this year.

The lowest pass rate in the area was at Richmond’s Fairfield Court Elementary School, where only 1 in 10 third-grade students passed the reading test. The highest was at Chesterfield’s Bettie Weaver Elementary School (97%).

What can be done?

A 2015 study from the Center for Public Education found that one in six children who aren’t reading proficiently in third grade do not graduate from high school on time, a rate that’s four times higher than that for proficient readers.

“It’s predictive, but we can disrupt predictions,” Shanahan said.

Thomas, the Furman professor, said the issue can be addressed by tackling what’s going on outside of school in a student’s life and to have them read more.

“The most important thing for literacy development is access to books,” he said. “If we spent money on giving children’s books to take home instead of on testing them, their achievement would go up.”

He added that confronting food insecurity — an issue common in Virginia as one in six children in the state live in families that struggle with hunger, according to a national nonprofit — could help as well.

Lane, Virginia’s public schools leader, said state Education Department staff will work with districts to improve reading skills, an effort that will include looking at what schools that didn’t see drops are doing and replicating that.

“The reading results underscore the importance of the Board of Education’s current discussion about promoting equity — providing the assistance students need when they need it — by including early reading intervention in the Standards of Quality,” said Board of Education President Daniel Gecker in a statement. “This would provide a dedicated state funding stream for reading specialists in elementary schools based in part on the percentage of students not reading on grade level by the end of the third grade.”

School systems in Virginia are currently required to intervene with students who do not meet specific benchmarks on diagnostic tests. The Standards of Quality — the requirements from the state that must be met by every school and district — do not mandate that school systems provide reading specialists.

Those standards, which are revised every two years, currently recommend that one reading specialist be in every elementary school at the discretion of the local school board.

The state Board of Education is currently reviewing the Standards of Quality and will make recommendations to the General Assembly, which has the power to actually change them.

Charles Pyle, the spokesman for the Education Department, said the board plans to submit its recommendations for the 2020 General Assembly session.


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Police, family and friends of couple slain in 1984 still seeking answers and justice

It has been described as Henrico County’s most mystifying crime of the 1980s, the slaying of a young couple that remains a mystery today.

On Aug. 21, 1984, a man walking his dog in the county’s western end discovered the bodies of Michael S. Margaret, 21, and Donna L. Hall, 18, near Margaret’s Jeep, parked in a wooded area behind the Kings Crossing Apartments where Hall lived.

They had last been seen four days earlier. According to police, the two had been stabbed repeatedly and their throats had been cut.

Joe Schihl, a retired Henrico investigator working cold cases for the department, said, “That case really stands out in our agency as one of those cases that everybody would like to solve. If we can, we will.”

“It’s still being worked,” Schihl said. “It’s one of the biggest cases that still lies on the county doorstep.”

Efforts over the years have included convening a special grand jury and consulting a psychic who has helped law enforcement officers solve murder and missing person cases.

But answers remain elusive.

“Time helps, but it doesn’t heal,” said Scott Margaret, Michael’s younger brother. “You always have hope. Of course, as the years and the decades go by, hope always fades a little bit each day, each month, but you always kind of cling onto it.”

Margaret, 53, who now lives in Gloucester County, said the families of both victims and their many friends still hope the crimes will be solved and urge anyone with information to contact the police.

He said his brother was outgoing and friendly. He loved going to the Outer Banks and driving his Jeep.

“He was an outdoorsman type of individual, hunting, things like that,” he said.

Blue Hall was a classmate of Hall’s — no relation — and met her on the first day of seventh grade at Byrd Middle School.

“They assigned lockers alphabetically and so Donna and I were side by side,” Hall said. “She asked my birthday and after discovering she was a few months older than me, stated that she was now my big sister and that she would look out for me.”

While they never had a close friendship, the comment meant a lot, he said. “She had a knack for befriending people that didn’t have many friends, and making them feel welcome, an endearing quality,” Hall said.

According to police accounts, Margaret, who had planned a camping trip with Hall, took off early from his job at Virginia Power, now known as Dominion Energy, on Aug. 17, a Friday.

He picked up Hall from her place at Kings Crossing Apartments and they drove to Margaret’s home on Yolanda Road about 4 miles away to get his camping gear. They stopped by a friend’s house about 10:30 p.m. to borrow a tent, stayed for an hour and then left, police said.

Their bodies were found four days later, about 70 feet from Margaret’s bronze-colored Jeep, which had splatters of blood inside. A blanket was spread on the ground behind the Jeep and butts from the type of cigarettes Margaret smoked were on the ground nearby.

In a video the department put together on the slayings in 2006, investigators said Margaret had defensive wounds and the assailant is also believed to have been wounded because three blood types were identified at the scene.

Capt. Lauren Hummel, a spokeswoman for the department, said, “We believe we have DNA from a third party that could be helpful in the investigation.”

Schihl said Friday that between the time the two disappeared and the bodies were found, “there were three days of rain at the scene so a lot of the evidence that was there was destroyed.”

Police said the area was frequently used by people riding dirt bikes and Jeeps and drinking beer. They did not know why the two ended up there instead of camping.

Margaret and Hall had used marijuana socially, and investigators believed the slayings could be drug-related.

Scott Margaret said anyone with information they may be worried about sharing with police because of their possible involvement with drugs back in 1984 need not be concerned.

“There’s no worry about that because the police do not care about what kind of drug or paraphernalia you may have been into 35 years ago. That’s not what they care about,” Margaret said. “They just want to solve the murders.”

A Facebook group, “Justice for Donna Hall & Mike Margaret,” has nearly 3,000 members and was formed in 2015 to help keep the case alive until the killer or killers are caught.

Hall attended Douglas Freeman High School and Margaret went to J.R. Tucker High School. The slayings were being discussed on a Facebook page for Freeman graduates, said Blue Hall, an administrator for the Facebook group.

“That thread soon took over the page. A group of us decided that since people had certainly not forgotten about these horrific murders and that many people had a lot to say, we would give this story its own Facebook page,” Hall said. “The page exploded with activity with friends and classmates sharing memories of these two victims. But people also shared an abundance of theories and we soon realized that there were people that were still apprehensive about speaking to the police.”

Hall said he believes the group was providing valuable information to police, but then the investigation slowed with the retirement of one investigator. He said he believes there is an issue between the police and the Virginia Department of Forensic Science over promises made by the crime lab that were not kept.

The forensic science department, which does not discuss ongoing cases, declined to comment. Schihl said the alleged issue was incorrect. “The state lab has been nothing but good to us with regard to this specific case,” the investigator said.

“You’ve got to remember, the case, as old as it is, a lot of the evidence deteriorates,” Schihl said. “A lot of people, they jump to conclusions about the technology that has come about.”

In any case, Hall said, “Donna and Mike deserve justice. The thought that nobody has been held accountable for this vicious crime simply disgusts me. We will not give up hope.”

Hummel said anyone with information on the case can reach out to cold case investigators at (804) 501-5000 or Crime Stoppers at (804) 780-1000.