Delays raise new questions for Mountain Valley Pipeline

Steve and Anne Bernard stand where the Mountain Valley Pipeline passes about 150 feet from their Franklin County home. A stop-work order and related legal action against the project have left areas of the pipe exposed, leading to concerns about deterioration of the protective chemical coating and weakening of the welding.

BOONES MILL — Of the two types of steel pipe that snake through their land, Anne and Steve Bernard are not sure which scares them more.

One they can’t see: the portion of the Mountain Valley Pipeline that construction crews buried last summer. The other is in plain sight: an approximately 120-foot-long section of the pipe floating in water that fills a trench.

As the Bernards recently stood near the pipeway’s path — which passes about 150 feet from their Franklin County home and a studio behind it where the two artists work — Anne recalled what happened the last week of July 2018.

“They came in with a storm of machinery and they dug the trench in two days and then they dropped the pipe in it,” she said. “They were in such a hurry.”

The next day, the Bernards saw where the buried 42-inch diameter pipe extended to a part of the trench that had filled with water in a low-lying pasture, before work crews had a chance to cover the pipe with dirt. “I called MVP and said, ‘Your pipe is floating here,’” Anne Bernard said.

Nearly a year later, the section of pipe remains suspended — as do key parts of a $4.6 billion project to build a 303-mile pipeline to transport newly drilled natural gas from northern West Virginia, through the New River and Roanoke valleys, to connect with an existing pipeline near the North Carolina line.

A Mountain Valley spokeswoman said June 6 that the company still hopes to finish the project by the end of the year.

But delays in construction, caused in large part by legal challenges from environmental groups opposed to plowing such a large pipeline across rugged mountain slopes and through clear-running streams, have raised questions that were not anticipated when the project was announced five years ago.

The welded joints that link the 40-foot pipe sections could weaken over time, especially when the unburied part of the line tips upward in standing water the way it does on the Bernard property, opponents say. That could increase the chance of a rupture and explosion once the line is shipping natural gas under high pressure.

And the longer that sections of the pipe remain stored above the ground, exposed to the elements before they are buried, the greater the chance that a protective coating could be degraded to the point that it contaminates the surrounding water, critics fear.

Natalie Cox, a spokeswoman for the joint venture of five energy companies building the pipeline, said Mountain Valley is using a pipeline coating designed for wet conditions. And the company will employ several different methods to ensure that the joints are sound before and after the pipe is buried, she said.

So far, the pipeline’s impact on water has mostly been from sediment washed by storm water from construction sites into nearby streams. But the Bernards wonder what will happen once the work is done, and natural gas begins to flow so close to their home.

“I can see what’s going on right here. I know that it’s in water,” Steve Bernard said as he looked at the pipe floating in a trench the width of a two-lane road. “Where it’s buried, is it still in water? I don’t know.”

“We can’t see the ghost,” he said of water that may be tainted. “But we know it’s there.

“We’re scared to death.”

Domino effects of a stop-work order

The 5.5-acre piece of property off Grassy Hill Road, where the Bernards have lived since 1980, shows the piecemeal work on the Mountain Valley Pipeline.

Last summer, workers showed up and began to dig a trench, about eight feet deep, through a pasture that was known to flood. After one heavy rainfall, “I saw actual waves in the field,” Anne Bernard said. “I said, ‘Steve, look at the waves in the field.’ ”

The work began shortly after a federal appeals court threw out a U.S. Forest Service permit allowing the pipeline to cross through the Jefferson National Forest, some 80 miles to the west. The decision was based on improper measures to control erosion and sedimentation in the forest, but its impact soon became much broader.

One week later, just after construction started on the Bernards’ property, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the lead agency overseeing pipeline construction, issued a stop-work order for the entire project.

FERC’s suspension prevented a special Mountain Valley team that deals with stream crossings from burying a section of the pipeline that approached Teels Creek on the Bernards’ property, Cox wrote in an email.

The stop-work order was lifted in large part in late August, but the team was not able to return to the area before Oct. 2, when a second ruling from the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals came down. In that case, the court vacated a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit that allowed stream crossings in West Virginia, citing Mountain Valley’s inability to cross major rivers within the required 72 hours.

Three days later, a separate permit covering stream crossings in Virginia was suspended by the Corps, which said it would “await clarity on this issue.”

Mountain Valley has yet to receive a new Corps approval, known as a Nationwide Permit 12, and it could be several more months before it does.

What all that means for the Bernards it that a section of the pipeline on their land, originally planned for completion last year, is still in a state of flux. They worry that stress from the floating portion of the heavy pipe will weaken joints that were welded on parts of the pipeline that are now buried.

They have a valid concern, according to pipeline expert Rick Kuprewicz, a chemical engineer who worked for years in the gas industry and now consults on safety issues as president of Accufacts Inc. in Redmond, Washington.

“It’s fairly unusual” for a portion of a pipe to remain in water, unburied, for nearly a year, Kuprewicz said.

“Before they put it in service, they want to be darn sure the pipe is sound,” he said of Mountain Valley.

Cox, the spokeswoman for the pipeline company, wrote in an email that the welds are protected by a fusion-bonded epoxy coating that is designed for use in wet conditions. The welds are inspected by eye and X-ray, she said, and the coating is tested immediately before the pipe is covered with dirt.

After the pipeline is finished but before it ships any gas, hydrostatic testing — which involves pumping large amounts of water through it — is performed to make sure the line can withstand the required pressure, Cox wrote.

Other planned steps include a caliber tool survey, which is used to map the interior of the pipe to look for any abnormalities, and continuous remote monitoring once the line is operating.

Mountain Valley Watch, a citizens group monitoring work on the pipeline, has found about a dozen cases similar to what has happened on the Bernards’ property, in which a pipe has been submerged in water for an extended time, according to Roberta Bondurant, a volunteer with the effort and co-chair of the Protect Our Water Heritage Rights (POWHR) coalition.

While some of the cases have been for a week to 10 days, Bondurant said, most have lasted for months. The groups are concerned about “the potential for corrosion of pipes in water, on ground and underground,” she said.

Questions about the coating

As she walked along the pipeline’s route through her land, Anne Bernard ran her finger along a section of pipe that had been sitting next to a trench since last summer, when work was first suspended.

A powdery substance came off on her finger, as if she had rubbed it across a blackboard.

It was not clear what the powder was. But since last summer, Tina Smusz, a retired physician and assistant professor of medicine from Montgomery County, has been raising concerns about the coating material used to protect the pipe from corrosion, which has been identified in documents filed with FERC as 3M Scotchkote Fusion Bonded Epoxy 6233.

Smusz points to the product’s safety data sheet, which says the coating contains carcinogens. She says those toxins can be released in the environment in two ways: When the pipe is stored above the ground for longer that the manufacturer’s recommendation of one year, its coating can degrade in a process called chalking, which releases harmful toxins into the air.

And when the pipe is buried, Smusz wrote in a letter to FERC in January, the harmful chemicals can leach into nearby groundwater. “Chalking jeopardizes the health of citizens with household water sources originating near or downstream from the [pipeline] right-of-way,” Smusz wrote.

Smusz has also outlined her concerns in letters to the state health commissioner and the Department of Environmental Quality. Her views are shared by the Natural Resources Defense Council. In a blog post last October, council senior advocate Amy Mall also warned of an increased risk of explosions if the coating is not properly maintained.

Mountain Valley, however, says the coating will not be degraded by water. “This type of coating is routinely used on the interior of pipes that are used for the transport of drinking water,” Cox wrote in an email.

Emails and calls to the coating’s maker, 3M Manufacturing Co. in St. Paul, Minnesota, were not returned.

But in a March 21 letter to FERC, DEQ director David Paylor and State Health Commissioner Norman Oliver said that citizen concerns prompted them to contact the company, the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Sanitation Foundation. “To date, these organizations have not shared or identified any specific short-term or long-term risk” with the coating, Paylor and Oliver wrote. “To date, neither VDH nor DEQ has found a specific environmental or public health risk with use of the coating material.”

Nonetheless, they asked FERC for additional information and for “your view of risks to the potable drinking water supplies.”

FERC spokeswoman Tamara Young-Allen said last week that the commission does not regulate pipeline coatings, and had not responded to the letter. She referred questions to the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

A representative for that federal agency wrote in an email in November that it had determined that Mountain Valley “followed recommended storage procedures and found no evidence of degradation of the pipeline’s protective coating.”

He did not respond to questions about whether there have been any documented cases of contamination by the coating with other pipelines. Asked again about the matter last week, he said that additional inspections by PHMSA may be conducted.

The Pipeline Safety Trust, an independent nonprofit organization, is not aware of any studies that document groundwater contamination from the coating, according to the group’s executive director, Carl Weimer.

Mountain Valley has acknowledged that leaving the pipeline exposed for too long can cause problems for its coating.

“As it sits in the sun, it ages or oxides and actually becomes thinner,” Robert Cooper, head of the construction project, testified in Roanoke’s federal court. If that happened, he said, the coating would have to be reapplied or the pipes restacked with the opposite side facing the sun. “It’s kind of like turning over when you’re sunbathing,” he explained.

At the time of Cooper’s testimony in January 2018, Mountain Valley was arguing that it needed immediate possession of nearly 300 properties through eminent domain, the legal tactic the pipeline turned to after landowners in its path refused to sell easements.

Judge Elizabeth Dillon gave the company control of the land it wanted. But its plan at the time, to finish work on the pipeline by the end of 2018, did not happen.

Waiting for the ramp-up

Construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline is still emerging from a winter lull, when cold weather largely limited work to controlling erosion and sedimentation along the 125-foot-wide right of way that runs through six Virginia counties.

About 400 people are currently working on the project in Virginia, Cox said. Construction is expected to ramp up this month, and more than 2,000 workers are expected by later in the summer.

But while Mountain Valley is allowed to dig trenches and bury the pipe in areas away from water bodies, it still lacks permission from the Army Corps to cross more than 1,000 streams and wetlands in its path.

After the Nationwide Permit 12 was suspended last October, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection modified some of its conditions, including doing away with a 72-hour time limit to cross major rivers under certain circumstances — a requirement the 4th Circuit had ruled was improperly overlooked by the Army Corps.

On April 24, the Department of Environmental Protection submitted modifications that must now be approved by the EPA and the Army Corps before a new permit can be issued. A review by the EPA is still underway, a spokeswoman said.

The Army Corps must also approve the changes. After that, the Corps has a goal of deciding on Nationwide Permit applications within 60 days. “But we cannot predict how long the process may take on any specific project since each is unique,” said Chuck Minsker, a spokesman for the agency.

Even before Mountain Valley lost its stream-crossing permit, the company said last August that it would not complete the pipeline until the end of 2019 — one year later than its earlier projection. The delay came after FERC issued a stop-work order based on the 4th Circuit’s decision to throw out the permit to cross the Jefferson National Forest.

Even though it must now regain two key permits, Mountain Valley says it still hopes to finish the pipeline this year. But two partners in the joint venture and a financial analyst following the project say it will likely be next year before the company can sort out its regulatory problems and complete the job.

‘Wiped out’

Although opponents still hope to stop the pipeline, the damage has already been done for Carolyn and Ian Reilly.

The Reillys decided last year to cease operations at their Four Corners Farm in Franklin County, which has been cut up by the pipeline. Like the Bernards, the Reillys can see a section of the pipe in the water that fills a trench on their land.

After moving from the farm last fall — Carolyn Reilly declined to say where they went, other than they are still in the region — the Reillys recently talked about their decision to give up a biological livestock operation they started eight years ago.

While her parents and farm co-owners Betty and Dave Werner continue to live near the property, Carolyn Reilly said it became clear that its mission of land stewardship and restorative-based agriculture was no longer possible in the path of an industrial giant.

“A lot of blood, sweat and tears have been poured out on this land. We had steadily developed and grew our small family farm business,” Ian Reilly said.

“Now? So much of our family’s effort was wiped out almost overnight.”

Get business news delivered straight to your inbox with our email newsletter.

Laurence Hammack covers environmental issues, including the Mountain Valley Pipeline, and business and enterprise stories. He has been a reporter for The Roanoke Times for more than three decades.

Load comments