PEARISBURG — The occasional catcall, ringing loud and clear in the high school’s cavernous auditorium, ultimately pushed the chairwoman of the Giles County Board of Supervisors to chide the crowd for being rude.
Nearly 300 people turned out Thursday night in Pearisburg to listen and ask questions when two executives from the companies proposing to build the controversial Mountain Valley Pipeline met with supervisors at Giles High School.
A host of questions focused on the route of the natural gas pipeline and its potential impact on the environment, property values, tourism, safety, wells, historic and cultural resources and more. The pipeline representatives responded with varying degrees of specificity, ranging from detailed to what many in the audience considered vague or evasive.
As proposed, the 300-mile-long Mountain Valley Pipeline, a joint venture of EQT Corp. and NextEra Energy, would travel through West Virginia and cross into Virginia through Giles County. The pipeline would then travel through Montgomery, Roanoke and Franklin counties before connecting with the Transco transmission pipeline in Pittsylvania County.
The 42-inch-diameter buried high-pressure pipeline would transport natural gas that has been extracted through hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” from Marcellus and Utica shale formations in West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio.
Christopher Sherman, a director of regulatory and legislative affairs for NextEra Energy, and Maurice Royster, manager of government relations for EQT Corp., were the pipeline representatives on hand Thursday night.
The pipeline’s current route would traverse roughly 19 miles in Giles County. About a dozen of those miles would follow a corridor for a high-voltage transmission power line.
One questioner asked whether it would be possible for the pipeline to share the transmission line’s existing right-of-way. Sherman said such co-location will be considered but said the pipeline would likely be adjacent to the existing power line rather than beneath it.
John Shepelwich, a spokesman for Appalachian Power Co., has said the proposed pipeline route seems to parallel the right-of-way for the electric utility’s existing Glen Lyn-Hancock transmission power line. Shepelwich said there has been some initial contact between Mountain Valley and Appalachian Power’s transmission engineers. He said his understanding has been that those discussions were essentially a heads-up that Mountain Valley would be in touch about a possible co-location.
“We’re going to have a lot of analysis to do,” Shepelwich said, to determine whether such a co-location of a high-pressure natural gas pipeline and high-voltage power line is feasible and safe.
He said Appalachian would also need to know that the utility could still access its existing right-of-way with heavy equipment if the need arose.
Sherman emphasized repeatedly that the current pipeline route will likely be refined as sensitive environmental areas and historic and culture resources are identified. He said survey crews are beginning to flag a 300-foot study corridor for the route.
“This project is really in its infancy,” he said. “If this was a baseball game, we’d be in the first inning.”
More than one questioner asked whether the region’s geology, including karst terrain, would present unique problems. Sherman said it would not.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, karst terrain features “distinctive landforms and hydrology created from the dissolution of soluble rocks, principally limestone and dolomite.” Karst terrain is characterized by springs, caves, sinkholes “and a unique hydrogeology that results in aquifers that are highly productive but extremely vulnerable to contamination.”
Famous karst areas in the U.S., where about 20 percent of the land surface is classified as karst, include Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, the USGS reported.
Mountain Valley has noted that existing natural gas pipelines in the region, including the East Tennessee Natural Gas Pipeline and the Columbia Gas Pipeline, operate in areas of karst terrain. Both of those pipelines have provided natural gas to Roanoke Gas.
The pipeline would cross the Appalachian Trail in Giles County. On Wednesday, the board of trustees of the Blue Ridge Land Conservancy voted to oppose the construction of natural gas pipelines that would cross the Appalachian Trail and pass through national parks and parkways, including the Blue Ridge Parkway, federal wilderness areas and lands protected by conservation agreements.
When asked Thursday night about the impact on property values of hosting the Mountain Valley Pipeline, Sherman replied that there would essentially be no negative impact, a response that wrung jeers from the crowd.
Earlier this week, Joe Waldo, a lawyer considered an expert on eminent domain, said pipeline companies typically contend that research supports the position described by Sherman. That research is biased and flawed, Waldo said, observing that just compensation for property should include both its market value and the negative impact on property value.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission will ultimately determine whether the Mountain Valley Pipeline should be built. Sherman said there is clearly adequate demand and supply of natural gas to justify the pipeline’s construction. He said the abundance of natural gas is boosting the nation’s economy and contributing to the revitalization of American manufacturing.
Sherman said Mountain Valley’s goal will be to make the pipeline as benign as possible, a comment that elicited a catcall. “Why don’t you put it by your house?” one woman yelled.
A separate shout, apparently targeted at Sherman and Royster, asked, “How do you sleep at night?”
Later, when Barbara Hobbs, chairwoman of the board of supervisors, sought to close the meeting, one man in the crowd stood defiantly and said his question had not been answered.
Howdy Henritz, a resident of nearby Monroe County, West Virginia, said the pipeline executives had avoided his question once before. Henritz said he wanted to know how Mountain Valley would respond if his spring and well were contaminated during construction or operation of the pipeline.
“Our philosophy is, ‘If we break it, we fix it,’ ” Royster replied.
“How?” Henritz asked.
The question hung in the air as the crowd filed out.