West Virginia Rivers Coalition staff scientist Autumn Crowe has been closely following the Mountain Valley Pipeline since it was first proposed and says that pipeline construction through the steep slopes of West Virginia has taken a dangerous toll.
“They’re trying to [work through] steep slopes with highly erosive soils, and we’re seeing that over and over again where slopes are failing, erosion is occurring,” Crowe said. “There’s just nothing they can really do to control the amount of soil they’ve exposed.”
A volunteer group that has been monitoring and reporting environmental issues related to the construction of the 303-mile natural gas pipeline from Northwestern West Virginia to Southern Virginia filed evidence with federal regulators Thursday suggesting that the pipeline is eroding areas along the pipeline right-of-way in Braxton and Lewis counties.
Mountain Valley Watch submitted three pages of aerial photos showing bare, unvegetated areas and slips along the pipeline route, reporting collapsing slopes and sediment in a stream crossing south of Copley Road in Lewis County.
“The photos are conclusive evidence of unvegetated areas requiring corrective action for lack of ground cover,” Mountain Valley Watch wrote in the filing to the FERC.
Mountain Valley Watch cofounder Kirk Bowers noted that exposed soil surfaces increase runoff into streams.
“They need to go in and reseed the areas that are not under grass and don’t have adequate vegetative cover,” Bowers said. “It’s that simple.”
Mountain Valley Watch has been on watch before. The group submitted aerial documentation of what it concluded were inadequate ground cover and stabilization measures in Doddridge, Lewis, Braxton, Webster, Summers and Monroe counties last summer to the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, which in 2019 fined Mountain Valley Pipeline, LLC $266,000 for more than two dozen notices of environmental violations, which included failing to operate and maintain erosion control devices, resulting in stream sedimentation.
Natalie Cox, spokeswoman for Equitrans Midstream Corporation, the Canonsburg, Pennsylvania-based developer of the pipeline, said that the pipeline project team has coordinated efforts with the DEP to address potential environmental concerns and will keep doing so.
“[Mountain Valley] has consistently stated that completing construction work and fully restoring the right-of-way is best for the environment, as well as for the affected landowners along the route,” Cox said.
Cox said that the project is 92% complete. Bowers disputes that figure, citing aerial photography of the project and analyses of its permits. Most of construction in West Virginia is complete other than stream crossings, for which the project lacks permit approval.
The most recent weekly FERC environmental compliance monitoring report for the project for Jan. 10-16 found erosion controls throughout the pipeline were in good condition.
But the project remains in legal and regulatory limbo. Mountain Valley said in a FERC filing Tuesday that it is changing its water permit strategy, announcing it would request individual water crossing permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers after having waited for litigation to be resolved over a Corps-issued blanket water crossing permit that a federal appellate court stayed in November.
That filing came a week after a split vote among the FERC’s commissioners stopped approval for Mountain Valley’s request to bore under 69 waterbodies and wetlands along the northernmost 77 miles of the pipeline in West Virginia.
The move called into question Mountain Valley’s goal of getting the pipeline in service by the end of 2021, a target date that already has been pushed back three years amid legal and regulatory challenges that have helped drive up the project’s estimated cost to at least $5.8 billion, over 50% more than its original price tag.
Height Capital Markets, a Washington, D.C.-based broker dealer, predicted this week that the pipeline won’t begin service until 2022 due to expectations that the 4th Circuit Court will vacate the pipeline’s “one size fits all” water permit authorization under Nationwide Permit 12 and the incoming Biden administration will force Mountain Valley to apply for individual permits.
The Florida-based energy company NextEra Energy reported in an earnings call this week that the carrying value for NextEra’s investment in the pipeline now exceeds its fair market value, causing a $1.2 billion impairment charge as legal challenges to the project have piled up.
“The handwriting is on the wall. The industry is on its way out,” Bowers said. “It’s probably not going to be around too much longer. We need to stop the madness because it’s polluting our environment.”
Crowe has heard from landowners reporting that the pipeline has caused sinkholes opening up on their properties and sediments running off hillsides into their pastures and contaminating the spring they get water from, in addition to traffic issues that include road blockages caused by construction.
“There’s tons of inconveniences that these communities are facing,” Crowe said.