The proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline would traverse this ridge in Highland County, according to the Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition
Building gas pipelines over steep mountains and sinkhole-prone terrain risks erosion, sedimentation and drinking-water pollution. Are state regulators on top of the situation?
by James A. Bacon
Early this year James Golden and Melanie Davenport, senior managers with Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), were hearing increasingly vocal concerns about the environmental problems posed by the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) and Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP), especially where routes crossed steep terrain riddled with sinkholes and underground rivers. Pipeline foes doubted it was possible to build pipelines in such adverse conditions without putting water quality at risk. Golden and Davenport wanted to see for themselves.
The two DEQ officials got their chance when their West Virginia counterparts arranged a tour of a major construction project, the Ohio Valley Connector, which runs 37 miles through rugged terrain. EQT, a principal partner of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, was managing the project. Golden, DEQ’s director of operations, and Davenport, director of DEQ’s water division, especially wanted to see how the pipeline diggers handled the challenge of steep slope construction.
The tour took them through several phases of construction on the West Virginia side of the border where IQT was clearing trees, digging trenches, and stabilizing the site. Although some mountain slopes in Virginia are steeper, the environmental and topographic conditions are comparable to much of what pipeline companies would experience in the Old Dominion.
“We saw clearing on a slope that was so steep it gave me vertigo,” Davenport told Bacon’s Rebellion. “A backhoe was rocking like it was going to slip down the hill. Sometimes its tracks started slipping. It looked so dangerous, but the driver was nonplussed. I couldn’t take my eyes off it.”
Despite the challenges of laying pipe in steep terrain, says Golden, “We came away with the impression that [construction] can be done that seemed acceptable under the regulations.”
Golden’s reassurances are scarce comfort to Rick Webb, program coordinator of the Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition. “We’re dealing with pipeline construction [in Virginia] on an unprecedented scale,” he says. While ACP and MVP have redrawn routes around the most sensitive environmental habitat, there is no avoiding the steep mountain slopes, which are prone to landslides and erosion, and karst limestone geology, with its easily contaminated caves and underground streams.
Governor Terry McAuliffe, who supports both pipelines, has said he has no authority to deny air or water quality permits. But Webb says that’s a cop-out. He is particularly concerned about the approach taken by DEQ, which plays a key role in regulating storm water runoff and protecting the quality of water in rivers, streams and aquifers. “I have a profound lack of faith in the process,” he says. “It is a fundamentally broken regulatory system. Virginia’s largest construction projects in the last 50 years are basically operating without state oversight.”
Environmental regulation of pipelines is a patchwork of federal and state rules. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) takes the lead role, conducting an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers has a say-so in activities that might impact rivers and streams. And DEQ regulates the erosion and sediment runoff resulting from pipeline construction.
There are two clusters of issues relevant to state oversight of pipeline construction: regulating how pipelines cross rivers and streams, and regulating the length of trenches that construction contractors can dig. In both instances, Webb says, DEQ is taking less forceful action than it could. But Golden and Davenport say there are safeguards are in place to provide ample protection of fragile terrain.
Slippery soil on steep slopes
DEQ maintains the Annual Standards and Specifications, a framework detailing how contractors address erosion & sediment control in major construction projects. The standards cover 19 best management practices such as silt fences, detention basins, and setback requirements. Like anyone else undertaking a big construction project, like the Virginia Department of Transportation, pipeline companies must submit a plan describing how they intend to meet these standards. They must give particular attention given to how they will manage disruption to stream beds they cross. And DEQ must approve the plan.
The problem with a standard framework, says David Sligh, senior regulatory system investigator with the Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition, is that the proposed pipelines cross four separate physiographic provinces, each with different habitats, geologies, soils and species. “To think that you can come up with an overall plan that is appropriate for each of these areas is dreaming.”
Webb says he would like to see plans tailored for each of dozens of streams, river crossings and steep mountainsides. Continue reading