A 50-foot wide, permanently treeless right-of-way for the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline portends a fresh scar for the region’s scenic vistas, especially in areas where steep slopes and erosion-prone soils will challenge efforts to reestablish vegetation.
But what sort of scar could result from a swath carved through the Jefferson National Forest that might be 500 feet wide — a corridor whose width would exceed by 200 feet the length of a football field?
And what might the implications be for private properties adjacent to such a swath, something the U.S. Forest Service describes as a Designated Utility Corridor and Mountain Valley project foes are referring to as “pipeline alley?”
Residents of the region who are watch-dogging the environmental review process for the pipeline project are asking these questions and more.
Rick Shingles, a member of Preserve Giles County, says pipeline opponents are alarmed about the possibility of a 500-foot utility corridor through the Jefferson National Forest and its potential effects — both for the forest and adjoining private properties.
After all, Shingles said, a pipeline or transmission power line hosted by the corridor would not stop at a forest boundary but continue across the landscape.
“A utility corridor would maximize the threats to private property, safety, water, wildlife and scenic views tenfold, with horrific consequences for many communities,” Shingles said.
Changes frequently demand sacrifices — a relative truth that often provokes contention about whether the changes merit the sacrifices required. That debate is vigorously underway as the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission solicits comments about its draft environmental impact statement for the Mountain Valley Pipeline.
Routing the pipeline through the Jefferson National Forest would require changes by the Forest Service to the forest’s 2004 land and resource management plan — and related sacrifices.
For example, project-specific amendments to the plan would allow removal of old growth trees in the pipeline construction corridor, relax standards for “scenic integrity” where the pipeline would cross the Appalachian Trail and authorize more disturbance than would typically be permitted to habitat along streams and creeks.
But the proposed amendment linked to the Mountain Valley project that has triggered the most concern is the one that would create in the Jefferson National Forest a Designated Utility Corridor that could be 500 feet wide.
As currently envisioned, the route of the pipeline — a 42-inch diameter, buried pipeline that would transport natural gas at high pressure — would travel through about 3.4 miles of the Jefferson National Forest. That mileage could change as route revisions continue.
The Forest Service says Mountain Valley’s proposed permanent right-of-way of 50 feet requires the new utility corridor designation — a prescription compelled by the land and resource management plan approved in 2004.
The goal is to encourage co-location of utilities in one linear corridor to reduce the number of such human-wrought tracks through the Jefferson National Forest and thus “minimize the negative environmental, social and visual impacts that can be associated with long, linear corridors,” according to Jennifer Adams, a special project coordinator for the Roanoke-based George Washington and Jefferson National Forests.
“The Forest Service preference for a single large corridor — sacrificing one stretch to preserve the rest — may conform with the U.S. Forest Service mission,” he said. “However, it creates an essential threat to private lands and communities beyond the forest edge.”
Shingles said the Forest Service makes it clear that the 500-foot corridor is designed to co-locate multiple utilities, a reality he said could attract additional projects to the region.
“That is the new, much greater peril we now must contemplate,” he said.
The 303-mile, $3.5 billion Mountain Valley Pipeline would transport natural gas from Wetzel County, West Virginia, to the Transco pipeline in Pittsylvania County. As an interstate pipeline, the project requires approval from FERC.
The Forest Service emphasizes that the utility corridor ultimately would not have to be 500 feet wide. It could be as narrow as the 50 feet currently proposed by Mountain Valley for a permanent right-of-way, said Karen Overcash, forest planner for the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests.
Overcash said the Forest Service ultimately will recommend what width the utility corridors should be in the national forests.
Shingles said any assertion that the corridor might be narrower “offers no solace.”
He noted that other pipeline projects could end up being housed in a Designated Utility Corridor. An early map of the Appalachian Connector pipeline, a project proposed by Williams Companies a couple of years ago, showed it traveling a route similar to the Mountain Valley project.
This week, Williams spokesman Chris Stockton said the Appalachian Connector project “is no longer being actively developed” because of an “insufficient level of market commitment” for the natural gas the pipeline would transport.
Shingles said there is concern also that a Designated Utility Corridor through the Jefferson National Forest could lead officials to re-route the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline through the region. The Atlantic Coast project is similar to the Mountain Valley project but currently follows a much different route.
Partners in the Atlantic Coast project, including Dominion, as well as companies involved in the Mountain Valley joint venture, have said separately that co-locating the two pipelines would not be practical.
Overcash said the Atlantic Coast pipeline, which would travel through the George Washington National Forest, would require amendments to the plan for that forest. The amendments could include a Designated Utility Corridor for that forest too, she said.
The 500-foot wide corridor proposed for the Jefferson National Forest has raised issues about the potential effects on adjoining private properties, acknowledged Overcash and Rebecca Robbins, a Forest Service spokeswoman.
Numerous comments filed with FERC have expressed concern about the utility corridor.
Meanwhile, pipeline watchdogs in the region have expressed wariness also about the North American Energy Security and Infrastructure Act of 2015, which passed the House of Representatives in December.
The bill, HR 8, included provisions for designating National Energy Security Corridors through all federally owned lands — including national parks — for construction and operation of natural gas transmission facilities.
An aide to the House Committee on Natural Resources said Tuesday that the provisions for such corridors are not included in the most recent draft of the bill being negotiated between the House and Senate.
Meanwhile, FERC has said the final environmental impact statement for the Mountain Valley project should be available in March. The commission is holding sessions in the region to solicit public comment about a draft environmental impact statement released Sept. 16.
FERC hosts a session Wednesday in Rocky Mount at Franklin County High School and Thursday in Roanoke at the Sheraton Roanoke Hotel and Conference Center. Both sessions begin at 5 p.m.
Ultimately, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, after reviewing the final environmental impact statement for the Mountain Valley project, will decide whether to grant Mountain Valley a right-of-way through the Jefferson National Forest.
The bureau has that authority because the pipeline company’s application for a right-of-way through federal lands falls under the jurisdiction of two or more federal agencies.
The Forest Service will consider whether it concurs with the Bureau of Land Management’s decision, Adams said.
“We will use the final environmental impact statement to make a decision on the proposed plan amendments and to determine whether or not to concur with BLM’s decision on the proposed right-of-way grant,” she said.