Bacon's Rebellion

Justifiable Jitters or Unwarranted Worry?

Leslie Hartz, the Dominion executive in charge of pipeline construction, shows the width of steel to be used in smaller-diameter sections of pipe.

Virginians living in the path of the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline fret about the threat of explosions. Dominion Transmission says their fears are overblown.

by James A. Bacon

Irene Leech, a consumer studies professor at Virginia Tech, grew up on a farm in Buckingham County where her family has raised beef for more than a hundred years. The family has preserved many of the original structures, including the old ice house, granary and smokehouse. Her husband, she says, devotes half his time to help keep the farm going. “Our plan is to retire to the farmhouse. Our goal is to pass on a sustainable business to the next generation.”

But Dominion Transmission, managing partner of the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline, has thrown her for a loop. The company wants to route a high-pressure transmission pipeline through the farm. While Leech acknowledges that the odds of gas leaking and igniting anywhere near her are remote, if the gas does explode, the farmhouse and outbuildings are within the danger zone.

“From my perspective, they put my life at risk, all our property, all our heritage,” says Leech. “I know the odds of something happening are very, very small. But I had a brother killed in a farm accident. My grandmother died in an accident. My husband was working for the Pentagon on 9/11. I was at Virginia Tech during the mass shooting. Things happen. We’ll have to live with the risk for the rest of time.”

Leech is just one of thousands of residents along the route of the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) who worry about the safety risks. Like many others, she remains unpersuaded by Dominion assurances that the ACP will incorporate the latest, greatest technology, best practices, and specifications that exceed federal safety standards. Running pipe on the steep slopes and through sinkhole-ridden karst geology of the mountainous Nelson and Augusta counties poses issues that pipelines don’t encounter in less rugged terrain.

“The possibility of an explosion is the really frightening thing,” she says. “You can come up with statistics that make it seem very remote. The problem is, if it occurs, it’s really deadly.”

Dominion responds that it is pushing the envelope of industry best practices to ensure the safe operation of the pipeline, which, if approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), would run from West Virginia through Virginia to North Carolina. “We’re a safety first company,” says Dominion Transmission spokesman Aaron Ruby. That’s not a P.R. slogan, he insists. An emphasis on safety permeates the organizational culture and informs everything the company does.

Dominion makes every reasonable effort to accommodate landowners like Leech, says Ruby. The company has offered to re-route the pipeline from an 800-foot distance from her farmhouse to 1,900 feet, he says, “but she has refused to let us survey her property to see if the alternative is suitable.”

In the meantime, the company is designing safety into pipeline construction and operations at every step, says Leslie Hartz, vice president of pipeline construction. The quality-control process entails a rigorous inspection protocol for fabricating the pipe in the mill, and then X-ray and hydrostatic testing of pipes and welding in the field. When up and running, ACP will use robots to inspect the pipe interior and will deploy aerial patrols and sensors to monitor the exterior. If conditions deviate from narrowly defined parameters, operators will not hesitate to shut down the pipeline.

Pipelines co-exist with people all around the country, and hardly anyone thinks about it, says Ruby. As an example in Virginia, he cites Lake Monticello, a bedroom community in the Charlottesville metropolitan region with a 2010 population of almost 10,000. “Lake Monticello …. developed over many decades alongside four large-diameter natural gas pipelines!”

The Big Picture

Interstate gas pipelines are the safest mode of energy transportation, says Catherine Landry, a spokesperson for the Interstate Natural Gas Alliance of America (INGAA). “Last year 99.999997% of gas moved without incident.” That compares very favorably to moving propane or petroleum by truck or rail.

Interstate pipeline safety has been regulated since 2004 by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA). In 2011, PHMSA added to existing protections by requiring pipeline companies to implement Integrity Management Programs in populated areas. These measures, along with new technology such as sensor-laden robots, known as “pigs,” brought about a dramatic decline in pipeline leaks and other incidents.

Nevertheless, devastating explosions still occur. In 2015 PHMSA reported 143 transmission pipeline “incidents” involving six fatalities, 14 injuries and $51 million of property damage in the U.S. The number of incidents that year was the highest in 20 years, and the number of fatalities and injuries the third highest. The picture for Virginia was more benign. There have been only nine “incidents” reported in the past 20 years, with zero fatalities, zero injuries and only $6.2 million in cost, according to PHMSA data. (For whatever reason, the twenty-year PHMSA data does not reflect five injuries sustained in a 2008 explosion on the Williams Transco pipeline near Appomattox.)

Image credit: Pipeline Safety Trust

One might think that newer pipelines are safer than pipelines installed years ago, but that’s not necessarily the case, asserts the Pipeline Safety Trust, which broke down pipeline “incidents” reported to federal regulators by the decade in which the pipes were installed. As expected, older pipelines tended to experience more incidents during the 2005-2013 time period. However, the most recently installed pipelines showed the greatest frequency of incidents when measured by the number per 10,000 miles of pipe.

“Is this a reflection of “getting the kinks out” when pipelines are first installed?” commented the Pipeline Safety Trust? “Is it a pattern that will continue or change? Unfortunately, we don’t have the kind of data we would need to replicate this analysis in decades past, so it will only be in the future that we’re able to answer our questions. The graphs are concerning to us, though, as one interpretation of the results is that some pipelines are initially installed with weak and vulnerable aspects which fail; and only after fixing these initial failures do the pipelines operate safely.”

The Pipeline Safety Trust analysis neglected to mention that of the 11 transmission line incidents involving pipelines installed since 2010, there was only one rupture, zero fatalities and zero injuries, according to an INGAA critique of the analysis. The estimated cost of public property damage for 2010s-era pipelines likewise was zero. The incident resulting in an ignition involved a one-inch power gas line.

“What it comes down to,” says Landry, “is something called a bathtub curve” — a term in reliability engineering that describes how failure rates tend to be high in the early stages, decline as experience is gained and lessons learned, and then increase again as systems age and wear out. “You see more incidents at the beginning of the life of a pipeline. … Little tiny things come up when pipelines are run for the first time,” she says.

By definition, pipelines built since 2010 are newer and more likely to experience early-failure incidents, says Landry. But the incidents are minor. Pipelines are getting safer, not more dangerous.

Dominion quality control

Dominion executives speak with genuine pride about company measures to make the ACP safe. The precautions begin with the high-grade specifications for pipe fabrication. Dominion has contracted with Dura-Bond Industries in Steelton, Pa., to manufacture pipe up to 42 inches in width using steel up to 7/8 inches thick for the widest pipe, capable of withstanding considerably more than the maximum 1,440 pounds per square inch of pressure the pipeline will experience. All seams and welds are x-ray and hydrostatically tested, and inspected in the factory for minute imperfections. Dominion’s contract inspectors watch the manufacturing process and send back daily reports.

Each section of 40-foot pipe has many hurdles to pass before it can pass inspection, says Hartz. “Our mill folks says our specs are the tightest they’ve ever encountered.”

The attention to quality will extend into the field, where construction contractors will likewise be held to tight performance specs. X-rays will be made of seams and field wells, and lengths of pipe will be subjected to hydrostatic testing, in which water is pumped up to one-and-a-half times the design pressure to identify any potential weak points.

Every pipe section will be bar-coded with a unique identifier, and every test associated with that section will be archived. When the pipe is put into the ground, Dominion will record its exact position and will be able to call up its full documentation. “Everything is documented and field inspected,” says Hartz. In quality management lingo, the pipe is “traceable, verifiable and complete.”

Anti-corrosion coating on the steel will be supplemented by sending electric currents down the pipe to divert corrosive elements to “sacrificial anodes” that absorb the wear and tear and can be readily replaced.

Dominion also has designed the ACP to be, in the word of Christie Neller, vice president of system engineering, “piggable.” That means that virtually the entire length of the 600-mile pipeline will accommodate sensor-laden robots that will conduct periodic inspections of the interior. Turning a noun into a verb, Neller says Dominion is not required by regulations to “pig” the entire pipeline, but it will to meet its own standards.

The company will supplement the pigs with aerial patrols every month to look for anything that might effect the pipeline’s integrity. “If we identify anything, we send out a foot patrol,” says Neller, who is in charge of pipeline operations and maintenance. Dozens of sensors along the pipeline will continually monitor pressure, temperature and flow rate. Any deviation from tight parameters will trigger an alert for a controller to take a closer look. “We will know exactly what’s going on in real time.”

Aftermath of Appomattox explosion. Photo credit: Pipeline Safety Trust

The Appomattox explosion

Dominion’s commitment to quality and safety does not reassure everyone. Some still remember the explosion of the Transco pipeline in Appomattox eight years ago.

Williams Transco, a pipeline company with decades of experience, operates a major trunk line that runs from the Gulf of Mexico gasfields through Virginia to major Northern markets. In 2008 a failure on Line B released a large amount of gas, which ignited and produced a fireball, creating a a 37-foot wide, 15-foot deep crater and a burn zone approximately 1,125 feet in diameter. Emergency responders evacuated 23 families and closed nearby roads, including Route 26 and Route 460. Five people were injured, requiring hospitalization, and two houses were destroyed in the fire.

PHMSA levied a $950,000 fine against Williams Transco after federal regulators found possible failures “to address regulatory requirements for monitoring and preventing external corrosion.”

Orange shows the potential impact zone of the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline route through Deerfield in Augusta County; yellow shows the evacuation zone. Image credit: Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition. (Click for larger image.)

Pipeline foes point to the Appomattox explosion as an example of what could happen anywhere along the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. While Dominion has made an effort to avoid populated areas, the pipeline does run through some rural communities. People living within the “potential impact radius” — the area that potentially could suffer injury in a pipeline explosion — number in the hundreds.

People living within the evacuation zone number about 10,000 out of 70,000 residents in Augusta County alone, says Nancy Sorrells, co-chair of the Augusta County Alliance. People living in a larger zone subject to evacuation would have to drop everything and leave in the event of an incident.

While the chances of an explosion or even an evacuation may  be slim as “winning the lottery,” says Sorrells, pipeline construction will prove very disruptive for locales like the Deerfield Valley, which have limited options for getting and out.

“Construction accidents could shut down roads and close people off,” she says. “Even if there’s not a construction accident, if someone has a heart attack or a house catches on fire, would emergency services have access? If a farmer’s barn is burning, could a fully loaded, 59,000-pound firetruck get through the construction work? … [Construction] is going to be a huge inconvenience as it progresses for a few weeks. And after the pipeline is in operation, a fully loaded truck could only cross the line in designated areas, so one better hope that the firetruck is near one of those reinforced crossings.”

No one wants to live under the threat, no matter how small, of a pipeline explosion, Sorrells says. “That can affect your property values. I get get calls from real estate people wanting to know how far a house is from the pipeline route. … I know a lady whose husband has Alzheimers. She says her husband loves living out there in Deerfield, but one day soon she will have to sell the property in order to move to where her husband’s needs can be met. She wonders if anyone will want to buy it.”

Ruby gets frustrated when he hears such concerns. “It’s a construction project! We’re using the roads to get to work sites. It’s not as if the roads will be impassable or life will grind to a halt. Do people raise these kinds of issues for major road repairs or installation of a sewer line?”

In a study encompassing Highland, Augusta, Nelson, and Buckingham Counties in Virginia, Key-Log Economics found in a study funded by pipeline foes that 8,762 homes and 15,128 people would be located within the 1.4-mile evacuation band along the route. More than 31,000 parcels in the four-county area would have a view of the pipeline. Total property value lost would run between $56 million to $80 million, not including the loss in value due to disrupted viewsheds or ecosystem services. A Key-Log study of the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline found a comparable impact.

By contrast, an INGAA study of pipeline impact on property values in communities in Ohio, New Jersey, Virginia, Mississippi, and Pennsylvania found “no measurable impact on the sales price of properties located along or in proximity to a natural gas pipeline versus properties which are not located along or in proximity to the same pipeline.” While that conclusion held true collectively for the five areas studied, the one rural area studied, in New Jersey, did show a modestly negative impact on property values.

Augusta County sinkhole. Photo credit: Augusta County Alliance

Sinkholes and Landslides

Pipeline foes worry that the ACP will run through rugged terrain that could trigger landslides, and karst geology that could expose the pipeline to sinkholes, either of which conditions that could undermine the pipeline foundations, stress the pipe and cause gas leaks.

Ideally, pipelines would traverse up and down slopes and avoid running along mountainsides that would expose them to landslides. But in its effort to side-step populated areas and historical, cultural and environmental resources, Dominion has been forced to route the pipeline along some mountainside slopes.

“Pipeline integrity is threatened by landslides and slope failures,” says Rick Webb, coordinator of the Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition. “On these types of mountains with shallow soil, there’s not much to hold the surficial material there. The backfilled material will not be well anchored. You’ve also got a problem in stream beds. … During the Hurricane Camille and other floods in the 1990s, he says, “we had whole mountainsides slip and slide into the valley. Valleys were scoured. Forest-covered riparian areas were just barren rock. … Pipelines in situations like that just won’t hold up. Dominion has had problems with slope failures in conditions that are much less extreme.”

The karst geology poses another problem. The limestone rock is riddled with caves and underground caves, and large sink-holes are prone to appear out of nowhere. “Karst is a problem in terms of structural integrity,” says Webb. If a large hole opens up under a pipeline, it can put enormous pressure where the sections are welded together. “If a weld breaks, the gas leaks. … All that pressurized gas escapes and comes into contact with an ignition source, and it explodes.”

Dominion executives counter that they are well aware of the challenges of building in mountainous terrain.

“Dominion Transmission has built 400 miles of pipeline in rugged terrain in West Virginia and Pennsylvania,” says Hartz. “We have lots of experience.” While the company has not yet settled upon a contractor to build the ACP, it has narrowed the field to firms that have extensive experience in mountains. Furthermore, Dominion is hiring a geotech consulting company that specializes in slope stability. “We’re taking soil samples and analyzing them to tell if the soil is prone to slipping.” The engineering design will incorporate best-in-class standards to ensure that the pipeline “stays put.”

Pipelines in Mid-Atlantic states crossing karst terrain. Map credit: Dominion

As for karst, limestone geology is hardly limited to the Blue Ridge Mountains. “Forty percent of the land mass, including almost all of Florida, is karst,” says Ruby. Many east-west pipelines running through the Mid-Atlantic encounter karst and steep slopes.

The construction challenges are well understood, and the industry has learned to deal with them, says Ruby. In an Environmental Impact Statement for the Sabal Trail Transmission project in Georgia and Florida, FERC concluded:

Based on an extensive review of publicly available information, we have found no evidence that karst hazards such as sinkhole development pose a safety or integrity risk to interstate transmission pipeline facilities. For these reasons, we conclude that the SMP Project would not significantly affect public safety.

“We have identified sensitive karst features to avoid, like voids, sinking rivers, springs and water discharge areas,” says Hartz. “We avoid known caves and sinkholes. We’ve walked the route with karst experts and made adjustments. We’ve conducted electrical resistivity tests to identify voids underground not visible to the eye.”

Even if a sinkhole materializes directly under a pipeline, “it would have to be huge to cause a safety problem,” Hartz says. The pipe is not only strong but it is surprisingly flexible. The ability to bend reduces the chances of incurring stress fractures that might cause leaks.

The photo above shows a 30-foot sinkhole that suddenly appeared in Augusta County on a Dominion underground power line easement, exposing telephone, cable and electric lines. County officials and the landowner asked Dominion to fill in the hole, but after hiring a consultant to look into it, declared that it was not responsible for causing the sinkhole. The company moved its power lines but did not volunteer to fix the pit. For a modest sum, says Sorrells, Dominion could have filled the hole and proved to Augusta residents that it was a good neighbor and knew how to deal with sinkholes. “They proved they could do none of that.”

Dominion’s response: (a) It didn’t create the sinkhole, so it shouldn’t have to pay to fill it in, and (b) a 30-foot sinkhole would not threaten the integrity of a 40-foot pipeline section. The company’s engineering analysis shows that it would take a sinkhole “well over 100 feet” across — and that, says Ruby, is a conservative estimate — to threaten the structural integrity of the pipeline. Sinkholes of that size are an extreme rarity, he adds.


Dominion officials can say what they want, but Webb and pipeline foes do not trust the regulatory system.

“The largest construction projects in the last 50 years are basically operating without state oversight. Federal oversight is, if possible, even less rigorous,” Webb says. “I have a profound lack of faith in the process. It’s a fundamentally broken regulatory system … We’ve seen over and over how contractors have cut corners and created environmental and safety issues.”

The only authority that the Department of Environmental Quality exercises over interstate pipeline construction the granting of variances to erosion and sediment control standards plans, says Webb. Dominion has indicated that it plans to ask for variances to the 500-foot open-trench limit, allowing one-mile stretches and longer. In projects permitted by the state since 2012, DEQ and the Department of Conservation and Recreation have issued some 15 variances, effectively providing no oversight. “They’ve basically made state law moot.”

In effect, Webb charges, Dominion is allowed to self-regulate.

For their part, Dominion executives insist that they adhere to PHMSA safety regulations, are subject to FERC and DEQ oversight, and abide by their own strict inspection protocol. Dominion inspects the pipe fabrication, inspects the pipeline construction, uses pigs to inspect inside the pipeline, and employs aerial surveys and sensors to monitor performance. The company documents tests and inspections for every piece of pipe and every piece of welding.

“We’ll meet not only the letter of the law, but the intent” says Hartz. “Ignoring a safety issue that could shut down the pipeline for an extended pipeline is not good business. There are reputational costs and regulatory costs. We take safety very seriously.”

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