The state agency responsible for protecting caves, sinkholes and other features of karst terrain, as well as the rare creatures often dwelling within these sensitive habitats, wants Mountain Valley Pipeline to shift a portion of a pipeline route through Montgomery County.

Specifically, the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation recommends that Mountain Valley reroute the 42-inch-diameter natural gas transmission pipeline to avoid the Slussers Chapel Conservation Site and tributaries to a sinking creek that enters the Slussers Chapel Cave and Mill Creek.

In a letter to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission dated Sept. 9, the department suggested a route that would follow the ridgeline of Brush Mountain just outside the boundary of the Brush Mountain Wilderness Area in the Jefferson National Forest before descending toward Catawba Road and Lafayette.

The U.S. Forest Service has said the pipeline would travel through a total of about 3.4 miles in the Jefferson National Forest. The Department of Conservation and Recreation’s suggested alternative likely would add slightly to that total.

The controversial Mountain Valley project, as a proposed interstate natural gas pipeline, needs FERC’s approval to proceed.

The department’s letter alerted FERC that both the current pipeline route proposed by Mountain Valley and an alternative suggested in April by the company “have the potential to seriously impact the Slussers Chapel Conservation Site.”

The department says the site “has high global biodiversity significance,” supporting populations of rare invertebrate species, including the state endangered Ellett Valley Cave millipede.

“Several of the rare invertebrate species in the cave live either in the cave stream, drip pools or underground riparian areas, so protection of water quality is essential to the long-term survival of these species,” the department’s letter reported.

It added that erosion during and after pipeline construction along either the proposed route or the alternative suggested by Mountain Valley could impact the tributaries to the sinking stream that enters Slussers Chapel Cave.

Mountain Valley wants to build and bury the pipeline along a 301-mile route to transport natural gas from Wetzel County, West Virginia to another transmission pipeline in Pittsylvania County. The proposed route of the $3.5 billion project would take it through the Virginia counties of Giles, Montgomery, Craig, Roanoke and Franklin en route to the pipeline near Chatham.

Bob Jones, a civil engineer and retired professor of engineering at Virginia Tech, has lived in the Mount Tabor area of Montgomery County for 33 years. Jones submitted a detailed filing to FERC opposing Mountain Valley’s Mount Tabor alternative, which would impact Jones’ property and that of about 10 neighbors, he said.

A Sept. 7 filing by Jones noted that no pipeline route through the Mount Tabor area would be acceptable for a host of reasons, including that the karst-dominated area features “an aquifer that hundreds of residents depend on as their sole source of water.”

The term karst refers to a landscape principally formed by the dissolving of bedrock, including limestone and dolomite. Karst terrain often features sinkholes, sinking streams, springs, caves and complex underground aquifers vulnerable to pollution.

Jones declined this week to comment on the alternative proposed by the Department of Conservation and Recreation. He explained that shifting the pipeline route might keep it off his property but would still impact the property of others and, in his view, endanger the aquifer for all of Mount Tabor.

“I am against any MVP route through the Mount Tabor area for all the reasons I expressed in my 9 September 16 filing to FERC,” Jones wrote in an email Thursday.

Pat Tracy is a resident of nearby subdivision Preston Forest and a member of Preserve Montgomery County, an anti-pipeline group. After residents of Preston Forest objected strenuously to an early pipeline route, Mountain Valley moved the route to avoid the subdivision but did not avoid the area’s karst topography.

“Putting the route away from the middle of the watershed is a good idea, but putting it at the top of a hill where the same watershed starts is not a very good solution, since I’ve heard that water runs downhill, and so would liquids from the pipeline if there is a leak,” Tracy said.

The Mountain Valley Pipeline would transport natural gas at high pressure, but liquids sometimes accumulate in pipelines.

NaturalGas.org, a site maintained by the Natural Gas Supply Association, reports that “although natural gas in pipelines is considered ‘dry’ gas, it is not uncommon for a certain amount of water and hydrocarbons to condense out of the gas stream while in transit.” Liquids are often separated at compressor stations along pipeline routes. Mountain Valley continues to say there will not be a compressor station in Virginia if the project moves forward.

Ultimately, Tracy said, given the karst topography in the region, “there is no safe place for this pipeline anywhere in this part of the state.”

Pipeline foes hired a geologist considered an authority on karst terrain to review the Mountain Valley project and its potential impacts. In a 60-page study released July 7, Ernst Kastning concluded that the pipeline could not be safely built and operated in sections of Monroe County, West Virginia, and in portions of the counties of Giles, Montgomery and Roanoke “characterized by karst terrain and steep slopes.”

At the time, Natalie Cox, a spokeswoman for Mountain Valley, noted that karst terrain is prevalent in the United States, especially east of the Mississippi River, “where several thousand miles of pipeline have been constructed and continue to operate safely.”

Cox said then that the pipeline’s current route avoids karst areas “to the greatest extent possible.” She said Mountain Valley is working with karst specialists and state and federal officials “to develop construction and operation plans that are designed specifically for karst areas along the MVP route.”

This week, Cox said Mountain Valley is reviewing the route suggested by the state’s Department of Conservation and Recreation and said the company appreciates the department’s feedback “as we work to identify the best possible route for this important project.”

Jennifer Adams, a special project coordinator for the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests, said the Forest Service is reviewing the department’s alternative route, noting, “We have not yet completed our review.” The Forest Service is participating in the preparation of a draft environmental impact statement for the pipeline project.

Shannon Johnson, a spokeswoman for the Department of Conservation and Recreation, said the department has been told its proposed alternative route will be considered within the draft environmental impact statement FERC has said will be released this month.

FERC recently confirmed it will double the comment period that follows the release of the draft statement to 90 days to accommodate the needs of the Forest Service and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, another federal agency involved in preparation of the draft environmental impact statement.

FERC also will host public meetings to solicit comment on the draft but has not yet announced what format the meetings will follow. If the commission ultimately approves the project, Mountain Valley will be able to use eminent domain to acquire easements across private property if negotiations fail to yield a price acceptable to the landowner.

Proponents of the Mountain Valley Pipeline emphasize a belief that the project will enhance economic development, help move away from coal as a fuel for power generation and support the nation’s energy independence.

Pipeline foes suggest the project will do significant and lasting environmental harm, impact property rights and values, create a safety hazard and continue the nation’s dependence on fossil fuels.

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