Pressing Safety Concerns, Opponents of the Mountain Valley Pipeline Gear Up for the Next Round of Battle

As the U.S. Senate begins a month with two extended recesses, Maury Johnson of Greenville, West Virginia, has a proposal for how Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), someone he considers an old family friend, could best spend the break. 

“Joe is an outdoorsman,” Johnson said from his hotel room in Washington, where he and other opponents of the Mountain Valley Pipeline had spent the better part of a week urging Congress not to fast-track approval for the long-delayed natural gas transmission project. “He likes to hunt. He likes to get up in the mountains. He’s done many campaign ads about how beautiful West Virginia is in the fall.” 

“I can take him not far from his house in Farmington,” said Johnson, a retired educator and administrator who lives 800 feet from the pipeline. “I can take him to this pipeline route and show him some of the horrible things that are going on.” 

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For example, Johnson would like Manchin to take a close look at aging pipes that have been left above ground, exposed to the elements for years, and places where land slippage threatens pipe sections that have already been laid underground.

The 303-mile pipeline, which would carry fracked gas from northwestern West Virginia to southern Virginia, has stirred significant safety concerns and faced a series of legal and regulatory hurdles since it was first proposed in 2014. For those living near the pipeline, which is mostly completed, those worries remain front and center despite the latest political setback to the project.

Last week, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer agreed to a request by Manchin to withdraw a provision tying the pipeline’s approval to a must-pass budget bill, leaving the 8-year-old project’s completion in limbo. The provision, which had drawn bipartisan opposition, would have sped approval by revising the federal permitting process. 

Still, foes of the pipeline are bracing for more. Manchin, who chairs the Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has vowed to continue to push for a permitting bill that would speed approval of the $6.6 billion project. And Schumer, a New York Democrat, is in his corner: Over the summer, he pledged to help ease the way for the pipeline’s completion in exchange for Manchin’s recent support of the Inflation Reduction Act, which included more than $350 billion in climate and clean energy funding.

Although the Mountain Valley Pipeline Project is 94 percent complete, according to its developer, it still needs final approval from multiple federal agencies. 

Johnson and many other landowners along the pipeline’s route are campaigning to block those approvals: Already they view the project as a scar across two states that cuts through forests and farmland and fouls mountain streams and wells with construction sediment. They also worry about a potential for a rupture in the high-pressure pipeline, which measures three and a half feet in diameter.

If an explosion were to occur, said Johnson, 62, “I’ll be dust. I’ll be ashes.”

Over the past 20 years, an average of two fatalities per year from major gas transmission pipeline explosions or other “serious incidents” have occurred in the United States, according to the federal Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA). 

Echoing Johnson’s concerns, safety experts cite two factors that could make the Mountain Valley Pipeline prone to rupturing: aging sections of pipe that have been stored for years above ground, and the region’s steep, unstable terrain. 

If the Mountain Valley Pipeline were ever to explode, they warn, the impact could be catastrophic. When a Pacific Gas and Electric gas pipeline ruptured in San Bruno, California, on Sept. 9, 2010, the explosion killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes

That pipeline, measuring two and a half feet in diameter, was transporting gas that was pressurized to less than 400 pounds per square inch, according to the PHMSA. The Mountain Valley Pipeline is three and a half feet in diameter and is designed for much higher pressures, with a maximum operating pressure of 1,480 pounds per square inch, allowing it to ship higher volumes of gas. 

“This isn’t just another natural gas pipeline,” said Bill Caram, the executive director of the nonprofit Pipeline Safety Trust, based in Bellingham, Washington. “This is a very large, very high-pressure pipeline. It is a completely different animal that we really need to take seriously.” 

The pipeline was originally approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) in October 2017, pending additional approvals by multiple state and federal agencies.This year, citing environmental concerns that it believed had been overlooked, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond, Virginia, struck down federal approvals that the developers had received from the Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.

Manchin’s now-scuttled bill, the Energy Independence and Security Act, would have required FERC to take ”all necessary actions” to permit the timely completion of the project “without further administrative or judicial delay.” It would also have given the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, a venue that the pipeline company prefers, exclusive jurisdiction over any further litigation. 

“I am not aware of any previous congressional action to override this many court decisions and direct FERC to issue the license forthwith regardless of any other laws,” said Patrick Parenteau, a professor of law emeritus and senior fellow for climate policy at the Vermont Law and Graduate School’s Environmental Law Center. 

Critics also point out that Manchin and Schumer have received donations from pipeline industry players. Manchin was the top recipient of donations from oil and gas companies during the 2021-2022 election cycle, netting $337,710, according to the nonprofit tracking organization Open Secrets. Schumer, meanwhile, is the single largest recipient of donations from NextEra Capital Holdings, one of the pipeline’s backers, taking in $283,000 this election cycle, The New Republic has reported.

As Manchin looks to override the usual federal and judicial approval process for the pipeline, safety experts worry that legitimate concerns will be ignored. “Clearly they’re trying to use politics to overcome the science and the routing, and that may not be the best thing to do,” said Richard Kuprewicz, a pipeline safety expert and independent consultant, citing the pipe corrosion and landslide concerns. 

Manchin’s office did not respond to a request for comment on safety issues raised by Johnson, Kuprewicz and others. 

Natalie Cox, a spokeswoman for Equitrans Midstream Corporation, the operator and primary owner of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, said in a statement that “the safe construction and operation of the MVP project remains our top priority.” Other partners in the joint venture include Con Edison Transmission, WGL Midstream and RGC Midstream in addition to NextEra.

A critical concern for safety experts is the state of the pipes that have yet to be laid. Sections of the Mountain Valley Pipeline have been sitting above ground for years due to the common industry practice of starting construction before final permits are secured and the delays resulting from lawsuits filed by environmental organizations.

Johnson says, for example, that two sections of pipe measuring around 200 feet each have been lying on his 150-acre farm for the past three years. 

Experts have long warned against leaving pipe sections outside for prolonged periods, as sunlight can cause the pipe’s protective coating to break down. The National Association of Pipe Coating Applicators, an industry group, states that “above-ground storage of coated pipe in excess of six months without additional ultraviolet protection is not recommended.”

Pipe manufacturers coat pipe sections with epoxy to protect the underlying steel from rust and corrosion. If the Mountain Valley Pipeline uses an epoxy coating that has been stored outside and exposed to sunlight for years, “you can damn well bet that coating has deteriorated,” said Kuprewicz, who has advised Congress and the PHMSA on such issues. 

In federal court testimony related to a lawsuit filed by the Mountain Valley Pipeline Project against property owners whose land it sought to take through eminent domain, Robert Cooper, the senior vice president for engineering and construction for the venture, confirmed that the pipeline uses an epoxy coating and acknowledged that risk. 

“As it sits in the sun, it ages or oxidizes and actually becomes thinner,” Cooper said at a 2018 hearing in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia. “We have to continue to monitor that and inspect it.” One option, he added, is periodically restacking the pipe sections to limit their exposure to ultraviolet light. 

Cox said that sections for the project had been restacked or rotated as they were taken from large-pipe storage yards and moved to the construction route, but not afterward. “Once the pipe is on the right of way, it generally is not rotated because it is welded and bent for an engineered ditch line,” she said. 

Over the past three years, Johnson has watched with concern as the external coating of the pipe sections on his property have turned from turquoise-green to chalky white.

Cox said the coating on each individual pipe is inspected for damage and thickness before the pipe is installed underground and that a change in color is no cause for concern.

“The project team continuously surveys and monitors its above-grade pipe, both in the material yards and along the rights of way, to ensure the pipe is safe for installation and use,” Cox said. “The project’s exterior pipe coating is designed to protect the pipe from direct sunlight and in doing so, the coating may change from a shiny green to a chalk-like whitish green color. This is normal.”

Kuprewicz disagreed with Cox’s characterization, countering that chalking itself is a sign of degradation that compromises pipeline safety.

And “it’s not just a chalking issue,” he said. “It really changes the properties of the external coating.”

An industry study published in 2020 in the journal Corrosion Management came to the same conclusion. Engineers working for the Canadian pipeline company TC Energy concluded that the “aesthetic change of gloss and chalking clearly is accompanied by an embrittlement of the coating” and a reduction in its flexibility. If the coating is rigid rather than flexible, it can crack or fail to adhere to the pipe as it is transported and lowered into the ground, increasing the odds of corrosion. 

The engineers recommended covering pipe sections with tarps or making frequent applications of whitewash in cases of prolonged above-ground storage. Johnson said that Mountain Valley Pipeline had taken neither step for the pipe sections stored on his land.

Kuprewicz said that a measure known as cathodic protection, or running a low-voltage electric current to the pipe, can also protect against pipe corrosion by changing the chemistry of the interaction between the pipe and surrounding soil. When done right, he said, cathodic protection can compensate to some extent for degraded pipe coating. 

He cautioned, however, against relying too heavily on such protection, as it is poorly regulated by federal authorities. The degree to which such systems are deployed by pipeline companies can vary significantly, he added. 

“The better the coating quality, the less demand is placed on your cathodic protection design and approach, and if [the coating is] so bad, you can’t come up with a design that will work,” Kuprewicz said. 

Amy Mall, a senior environmental advocate with the Natural Resources Defense Council, argues that FERC, which approves natural gas pipelines, and PHMSA need to oversee independent testing of each pipe section before it goes underground. 

A spokesperson for PHMSA said, “Pipeline operators must inspect the external protective coating for each section of pipe to ensure that it meets required specifications immediately before lowering the pipe into the ditch.” 

“Pipe coating that does not meet given criteria must be repaired,” he added.

Mall asserts that the risks have been overlooked. “The issue of explosions and safety is something that has gotten a bit less attention and is extremely important,” she said. “Corrosion in the pipe can lead to very, very dangerous situations. Those situations are actually exacerbated by the steep slopes and the landslide potential that you have in Appalachia.” 

Johnson said that over the past three years he has noticed a slippage, or slow-moving landslide, on his farm, where a section of pipeline for the project was buried in 2018. 

 “You can see the ground moving and kind of slumping,” he said. “It’s a very slow-motion slide.”

In 2020, Johnson adds, he noticed that the two long sections of pipe that had been sitting above ground on his farm had begun to slide off their plastic pedestals and start inching downhill. So far they have slid 40 feet, he said. 

Mountain Valley Pipeline did not respond to a request for comment on the land slippage or Johnson’s other observations. However, a landslide mitigation plan prepared by Mountain Valley Pipeline LLC in 2016 noted that “many portions of the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline Project route are in landslide-susceptible areas.” 

The report estimated that most landslides in the region “move no faster than about three feet or six feet per year.” The company stated that it had developed special procedures that it would apply during the pipeline installation and post-construction periods to mitigate the possibility of a landslide.

Approximately two-thirds of the Mountain Valley Pipeline route crosses areas susceptible to landslides, according to FERC. E&E News has reported that in 2018-19, landslides in the region caused at least five gas pipeline explosions. 

An April 2020 report issued by FERC after monitoring the project’s compliance with environmental regulations noted that one section of installed pipe had already shifted due to land slippage in “at least three locations.” 

Kuprewicz warns that if a major landslide occurs along the pipeline, the added force would cause the pipe to rupture. “You cannot design a steel pipeline to handle massive landslides, period,” he said.

Mindful of all those factors, opponents of the Mountain Valley Pipeline are not giving up.

Over the decades, Johnson said, he has gotten to know and like Senator Manchin as the longtime West Virginia politician helped him and his family with various constituent needs, like getting a road rebuilt after it was washed out in a flood and securing a Gold Star honoring his brother  who was killed while serving in Vietnam.

He said he was still waiting to hear back from Manchin’s office about his most recent request for a meeting to discuss his concerns about the Mountain Valley Pipeline and an invitation to attend a town hall meeting and tour the pipeline route. If the senator were to visit his farm, Johnson said, he’d be sure to show him the deteriorating pipe that is slowly sliding downhill.

“In my mind it isn’t a question of if it will explode, but where it will explode, when it will explode, and how many times it will explode,” Johnson said of the pipeline project. 

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