Will new gas pipelines take away landowner rights, shave off mountaintops and disrupt clean water?
Nancy Andrews (@NancyAndrews)
Newport, Va. – The proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline has not been approved, much less built, but it is as real as the wooden stakes already in the ground to mark its probable path.
The 42-inch diameter natural gas pipeline would start in West Virginia’s Marcellus and Utica Shale drilling region and draw a path south for 303 miles to connect with the Transcontinental Pipeline in Virginia. From there, the gas can go anywhere.
Along the way, thin wooden spikes with blaze-orange plastic ribbons mark a path through blooming flower beds next to homes, across fields, roads, creeks and rivers, up steep mountain sides, along mountain top ridges, through rolling valleys of West Virginia and Virginia’s most pristine areas, including crossings at the Greenbrier River and the Appalachian National Scenic Trail.
The Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) is one of multiple major pipeline projects underway in the Appalachian region making way for increased natural gas production from fracking. More than a thousand miles of new large-diameter pipelines are being built and existing pipelines are being reversed to send gas to the Gulf Coast rather than from it. 27 new liquid natural gas export facilities are in some phase of the approval process or have been approved for construction. Only two import such facilities already exist, according to data from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Also underway are several pipelines to cross into Canada and Mexico to export natural gas.
While the nation has focused on oil pipeline fights such as Dakota Access and Keystone XL in the west, the natural gas industry here in the east has been planning and building a system that experts and industry analysts say will increase the number of natural gas wells drilled and completed in the Appalachian region. In short, fracking will increase once these pipelines are in place.
MVP’s and its proposed neighbor, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP), 42-inch in diameter pipeline proposals are currently under review by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), the government agency charged with approving or denying interstate pipeline projects.
FERC’s record is one of pipeline approval and with few, perhaps only one lone denial in the last decade. According to FERC spokesperson Celeste Miller, FERC doesn’t just “approve or not approve” pipeline applications. “The pipelines that come in the door – a lot of them don’t go out the door the same way,” she said.
‘We don’t live in Russia’
For homeowners like Fern Echols that means the thin wooden stake she can see outside her kitchen window will likely be replaced by steel pipe big enough to swallow her kitchen stove and still have some room to spare. She and her husband Earl Echols are against the pipeline.
“We have worked hard all these years, raised our family, paid our taxes, paid our bills, and moved on and we mind our business. And one day someone comes up and tells me what they are going to do with our property and possibly do with me. The last account I had this was America. The way I’m feeling right now is this is a form of Communism. We don’t live in Russia. This is Newport.”
For the Echols family, their land and tranquility are being taken against their will. If FERC gives approval, the private pipeline company will be able to take their property under eminent domain laws. The Echols argue there is no public gain to be had from the pipeline, but rather only the profit of private companies that produce or ship natural gas. This includes the pipeline company itself and the private Mountain Valley Pipeline, LLC — a partnership of multiple investors led by Pittsburgh’s Equitable Gas’ EQT Midstream Partners, LP.
Only 500 feet of pipe this size is in West Virginia
“I’m afraid that pipeline – it’s 42-inches in diameter…It won’t be safe,” Fern Echols said, “I won’t ever see no peace. I might have to stay here, but I won’t be comfortable.” The orange tasseled pipeline stake is 62 feet from Echols’ home, sticking straight up in the middle of her beloved purple, pink and white blooming phlox bed that she’s tended for 47 years.
There are millions of miles of natural gas pipelines in the U.S., but the majority of those millions of miles are the small, one or two lines that distribute gas to the end customer. In fact, MVP and ACP would be bigger than 99 percent of all natural gas pipelines in the ground today, according to data by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHSMA). The size of these pipelines has increased the fears.
“Having that potential atom bomb right there, 500 feet away from your house,” worries Jerry Deplazes. “If that thing leaks and explodes you’re probably cinders when they’re done,” Deplazes said. If approved, the pipeline would run through the Deplazes farm just outside of Newport.
For many, the peace has already been disrupted. Pamela Humphrey, who lives near Newport in Giles County, is “always composing something, trying to get someone in Virginia to care about what’s happening to us and the way we’re being treated,” she said. Humphrey sleeps with a pencil and pad at her bedside. When a thought comes to her in the middle of the night, she quickly jots it down. “It’s absolutely consuming,” she said of her letter-writing and calling efforts.
Susan Edwards might rather forget about the pipeline. She has nightmares. “I dream that Newport is on fire,” she said, “and that we can’t put it out.’’ Edwards lives in nearby Clover Hollow, and in her nightmare, she and her neighbors are separated from everyone by the fire that make her single exit road out of the hollow impassable. “We’re trapped,” she said of her nightmare.
Construction offers worries too
Stuck in the heart of some of Virginia and West Virginia’s most pristine land, stakes also mark access roads – and for some people, those stakes create a fear equal to the fear of the pipeline itself. The path weaves through backyards, front yards and barnyards, would take out beloved trees, and tranquility with it. The access roads come close to homes, some have their driveways fenced off from the construction.
“They said the access road would be 131-feet from my house. It’s not even 131-inches from my house,’’ Jerolyn Deplazes said. “It’s that close — trucks rumbling by the doorway, the farmyard, the barnyard— up the hill and disturbing the cattle.”
On the hills above Mayapple School, children play among the blue-and-white ribboned stakes in the woods. Mayapple is a nature-based school for children ages 2-1/2 to 6 years old. At playtime children run barefoot in the nearby fields, while some of the older students grab a shovel to move around mulch.
Melissa West, the school’s teacher and founder, fears she will need to close. She said she’s has had no luck finding an alternative space that would pass building code requirements and offer the nature-based setting that defines her program. Keeping Mayapple at its current location is not an option for her she said. “Even though the risks might be low, it’s not zero. An emergency with a pipeline could be extremely disastrous. Look, we’re talking about children’s lives here,” West said.
The original MVP plan brought the pipeline 211-feet from the building. The revised plan moved the 3½ foot-diameter gas pipeline several hundred feet farther away, but not out of the “potential impact radius” of danger. Moving the path of the pipeline away from the school, placed it closer to Newport’s historic Mt. Olivet United Methodist Church, a glowing-white, wooden structure built in 1852.
On a spring Sunday, Carter Craigie rang the church bells 20 times with the help of 8-year-old Kira Estes. The morning light streamed in through the colors of the arched stain glass windows, the sunlight bounced from one white wall to the next and back again.
“How can I not think about it?” asked Craigie of the impending pipeline. “I don’t understand how you can worship the U.S. dollar the way they do. I am trying to have a place in my heart for them, but it’s difficult. Remember, God loves us, each and every one.’’ He paused. “I struggle with that. I don’t think of the pipeline as being safe at all. I think the beauty will be destroyed and leave a permanent scar right through our county.”
There are no rules on how close a pipeline can come to a home
If the current proposal is approved, Fern and Earl Echols will find their home fenced in by construction and the pipeline. According to plans and the stakes in the ground, the pipe runs along one side of their house, with an access road along the other side. The Echols say no one has offered to purchase their one-story, yellow home. MVP spokesperson Natalie Cox, said the company is not buying houses, “typically if land is bought outright, it is for the construction of the station.”
Once the pipeline is in place, nothing can be built in the 25-foot right of way on each side of the center line of the buried pipe. But there are no regulations describing how close a pipeline can be put to a home or other above-ground structure. “We don’t have regulations with requirements or distances from structures,” Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration public affairs staffer Darius Kirkwood said. “We have classification requirements to increase safety factors,” based on number of structures and distance from the natural gas pipeline he said.
Those regulations, including CFR 49 192.903, take into account the diameter of the pipe and the pressure of the gas in the pipe in an attempt to predict the “potential impact radius” should an ignited pipe rupture occur. Some Newport residents refer to this impact zone as “the blast zone.” For a natural gas pipeline of the size and pressure of the MVP , the area “which the potential failure of a pipeline could have significant impact on people or property” is 0.42 miles wide.
The Echols home, Mt. Olivet Church and the Mayapple School are within the “potential impact radius” of 1115 feet to each side of the center line of the pipe. Just in case someone were to miss this point, Richard Shingles, coordinator of Preserve Giles County, put up signs along the main road through Newport to announcing, “ENTERING PIPELINE BLAST ZONE.”
Bipartisan Support and Disapproval
Democratic governors in both Virginia and West Virginia are supportive of the pipelines. Virginia’s Gov. Terry McAuliffe touts interstate pipeline construction in economic briefs and has specifically spoken on benefits of the ACP, which is also on President Donald Trump’s priority list of infrastructure projects. West Virginia’s Gov. Jim Justice touts West Virginia’s recent and controversial permit approval for the MVP as “job creation.” On the ground in opposition, one can find members of the Pantsuit Nation Facebook page for Hillary Clinton supporters. In other homes, you’ll see Donald Trump’s red baseball caps with his, “Make America Great Again” slogan.
“You have people on both sides of the political aisle” opposing the pipeline, observes Mt. Olivet’s pastor Morris Fleischer. “Conservatives may really be upset about the property rights issues. Others may be more concerned about the environmental issues, but all-in-all their voices are united against the pipeline as it is,” he said of the people in Newport.
As Trump supporters, the Echols and their daughter, Dawn Cisek, proudly refer to themselves as “Deplorables.” Like many others along the pipeline route, they see the pipeline and the FERC process of approval as an invasion of their home and landowner rights. They object to the use of eminent domain to force them to sell to a private company allowing it and others to make a profit and give them a path to export the gas in the future. In addition to worrying about her parents’ home, Cisek has a potential pipeline access road that could go within 20-feet of her 19th century farmhouse and possibly take down her two front-yard trees.
Cisek said she’s written to President Trump. “I told him that we were some of his ‘Deplorables’ and that we voted for him. This is one of our struggles that we’re having with this pipeline and we hope that he would at least look into it before he continues with it.”
Earl Echols said he wanted to stay in the house despite the pipeline, but Fern Echols would rather go. She worries about the family gatherings at Easter where everyone – 27 people at the last count of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren – is in her kitchen and eating her deviled eggs.
MVP spokesperson Cox, “It’s difficult to find any route that’s not going to touch anything. Of course that’s our objective — to have the least impact possible, to keep people and their homes and their communities.”
Too many pipelines?
Outgoing FERC commissioner Norman C. Bay issued a statement in February calling into question the current method used by FERC for evaluating need for a pipeline so as it would, “not subject to costly boom-and-bust cycles.” He questioned the current method of defining the necessity of the pipeline through commitments to use the pipeline, especially if those companies lining up to say they needed the pipeline were affiliated with the pipeline company itself. This is the case with MVP and ACP. As a cautionary example, he cited the building of liquid natural gas import facilities in the early 2000s that are now “stranded” because of the lack of need.
Bay, who had previously been unwilling to have an overview or regional impact perspective on pipeline construction, also called for a look at the environmental impact of increased gas production in the Marcellus and Utica that would result in the increase of pipeline capacity.
Some members of Virginia’s Congressional delegation have announced plans to introduce legislation to prohibit the use of eminent domain “to be limited to situations in which the taking of property is for public, not private, use” and require FERC to review pipeline proposals in a more systemic rather than individual manner.
Concerns about mountaintop removal, water and the Appalachian Trail
Thousands of pages of documents have been filed on each of the pipelines. In some cases, thousands of pages are filed after the official public comment period has ended.
Even with all the information, there can be at times a lack of detail. For example, when residents look to find exactly how the pipeline will be constructed in their yard or on a mountain next to their home, little specific information is available. Both the MVP and ACP plans call for ridge line placement, where the top of a mountain is removed to make a level 125-foot work area and trench to bury the 3.5-foot wide pipeline.
“How do you put a 125 foot corridor on a ridge this narrow?” said Maury Johnson in Monroe County, West Virginia about the mountain ridge above his property. “This is mountaintop removal. But they don’t have to go through the permits that mountaintop removal has to go through. They just cut the Ridge off and throw it over the sides of the hill,” he predicted. Though he doesn’t own the ridge above his farm, the pipeline is proposed to go through Johnson’s property.
Nowhere in the MVP filings can one see how much of each mountaintop will be removed. “We’re not going to give out our actual construction drawings. Those are our construction drawings. That’s why examples are provided on techniques that would be used,” MVP spokesperson Natalie Cox explained.
“It’s a geometry problem,” said Allegheny-Blue Ridge Alliance’s Lewis Freeman, whose group has studied the issue along the ACP’s route. Their report estimates 38 miles of mountain ridge removal for that pipeline.
“They have to cut some of these ridges down 50, 60, 70 feet. There’s no way you could put a 125-foot wide corridor on a ridge that’s 18 feet wide. You just can’t do it. It is mountaintop removal, ” said Johnson.
Appalachian Trail crossing
Both the ACP and MVP cross the Appalachian National Scenic Trail. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s Andrew Down said he is particularly concerned about the MVP proposals and the precedent it will set for other scenic trails. According to Downs, the MVP impacts nearly 80 miles of the Appalachian Trail. The MVP “does not follow best practices when siting infrastructure this size. They essentially parallel Appalachian Trail for about 12 miles, which we consider a completely avoidable impact source,” Downs said.
“There 58 pipelines that cross the AT currently,” Downs described “and hundreds of power lines. It’s almost unprecedented for us to offer opposition at this level,” the Conservancy’s Central and Southwest Virginia Regional Director said.
“We vastly prefer and have had greater success standing shoulder to shoulder with these energy companies and coming up with win-win solutions that are better and the Appalachian Trail better for the infrastructure. That may sound pie in the sky, but I’ve got projects that we’ve done with,” Downs said.
The Peters Mountain crossing is of particular concern for those interested in not only the Appalachian Trail, but spring water in general.
Karst terrain and water concerns
Never heard of karst? Perhaps you’ll remember the sinkhole that swallowed, 8 classic Corvettes at the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green,Kentucky? That’s an example of the power and unpredictability of karst terrain.
Karst terrain describes ground that has relatively soft and soluble limestone layers that give way to water to form caves, sinkholes and create almost pipeline-like networks for water to travel underground. These pathways carry water for springs and sub-surface streams. Parts of the MVP and ACP cross karst terrain and come near or over known sinkholes and caves. The unpredictability of the terrain has raised fears of pipeline accidents.
Some residents, like the Jana Peters and Dana Olson who live on the side of Peters Mountain, worry that blasting to break up bedrock in order to create the pipelines trench will cause unknown changes in underlying karst terrain and divert the flow of existing springs. Like others along the pipeline routes, spring water is their only water they have for themselves and their livestock.
It’s not just any water, some of Monroe County’s water has been judged among the world’s best tasting water. It’s so good, they sell it.
“My big concern is the springs. This is karst terrain. We’re likely going to disturb our water. We have wonderful springs, real strong springs – the best water you could ever ask for,” Jerry Depalzas explained in nearby Giles County, Virginia just the other side of Peters Mountain. They chaff at the idea their water can simply be replaced by water trucked into the farm. Their water is so important, Jerolyn Deplazes takes her own water with her in jugs when she and Jerry Deplazes travel.
Others such as Ashby Berkley see the beauty of the land and tourism as the better economic path in the long term. The pipeline is set to cross his property and the Greenbrier River at Pence Springs, West Virginia. The MVP plan is to dam and trench the river, rather than bore underneath. That’s significant given the Greenbrier is a free-flowing river, meaning it does not have any dams along its route.
“I look at it from a different industry point of view. We sell recreation in the beauty and fun.” Berkley said, “and it’s sustainable.” Berkley owns an historic resort dating back to 1791 in nearby Sweet Springs. He plans to restore the building, and hopes to employ as many as 200 people. He noted there was a time when the area thrived because of its great water and plentiful sulphur, hot and warm springs.
“People turn a deaf ear to ear to the concept of pollution, unless it affects the water. When they get yellow water and green water through the faucets. Then they want somebody to come and fix it,” Berkley said.
The task of fighting the pipeline is daunting for people like Berkley, “the idea of fighting this – the federal government, the state government, the industry – is awesome,” Berkley explained.
“We are fighting it because, my God we just can’t continue to live this way. It’s an abomination, seriously,” Berkley continued. “The whole emphasis is on a job and on making money instead of the educational thing that this is the earth, ” Berkley said. “You know we only have one earth. And what good is a job going to do if you can’t live here?”
This is part of a series of people and places along the proposed pipelines routes in Appalachia.
In ‘100 Days, 100 Voices’ Nancy Andrews presents photographs depicting the diversity of voices across Appalachia. These portraits strive to show the varied faces, passions, issues and opinions from around the region. These interviews have been edited for brevity and clarity. If you have an idea for ‘100 Days, 100 Voices’ please contact Nancy Andrews on Twitter @NancyAndrews or email at nancy.andrews [at] mail.wvu.edu. Follow her on Instagram @NancyAndrews.