SINKING CREEK — With a mountain meadow as his launching pad, Jason Shelton sent a drone up into the air and steered it toward a spot where construction of a natural gas pipeline is underway.

“I want to go see what they’re doing,” said Shelton, who is part of a citizen group monitoring work on the Mountain Valley Pipeline.

As the drone hovered about 300 feet above the work site, Shelton watched the screen of a hand-held remote control that displayed what was being captured by a camera aboard the tiny helicopter.

“That’s a little concerning,” he said of a partially completed bridge on a construction access road that crosses Sinking Creek in Craig County.

Steven Hodges, a Virginia Tech professor of managed ecosystems and soil science, peered over Shelton’s shoulder and confirmed his suspicions: A silt fence designed to guard against erosion was missing from the south side of the creek.

Shelton navigated the drone back to the meadow, where he logged the time, the date and the location’s latitude and longitude. He and Hodges decided to file the information in a computer database, in case a more clear-cut violation of environmental rules shows up later.

If that happens, a report will be sent to state regulators, courtesy of Mountain Valley Watch.

The group of environmental watchdogs — concerned citizens, technical experts and landowners in the pipeline’s path — has been patrolling the pipeline’s linear construction zone through six Southwest Virginia counties since work began earlier this year.

More than 300 miles long and 42 inches in diameter, the buried steel pipe will cross mountainsides, rivers and streams as it follows a temporary construction right-of-way as wide as 10 interstate highway lanes.

Checking its potential damage to pristine land, water and air — combined with that of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a similar project that will pass through Central Virginia — represents the largest such challenge to ever face the state’s Department of Environmental Quality.

“DEQ has told us in meetings that they will not have the ability to be everywhere,” said Shelton, who as co-owner of New River Geographics brings his drone-flying and online-mapping expertise to Mountain Valley Watch.

“This is our backyard,” he said. “This is the environment we care about. All we want to do is watch and get the information to DEQ so our regulators can get to the spots we care about in a timely manner.”

Spotting potential problems

Since Mountain Valley Watch was formed in March, more than 65 volunteers have joined the group.

At training sessions in Blacksburg, Newport and Bent Mountain, instructors schooled the volunteers on the proper techniques of controlling erosion and sediment at pipeline construction sites and how to spot potential flaws.

Engineer Kirk Bowers, pipelines campaign manager for the Sierra Club’s Virginia chapter, taught the sessions and is helping to review the photographs, videos and written reports submitted by observers in the field.

What they have found so far is not pretty, he said.

“As a professional engineer who has designed and built hundreds of projects that are very similar, I’ve never seen such poor practices and inadequate designs as I’ve seen on these construction sites,” he said.

State regulators confirm that in some areas, muddy and sediment-laden water has been allowed to flow past silt fences and other barriers meant to stop runoff.

Mountain Valley Watch has submitted about 25 reports of possible violations of erosion and sediment control regulations to DEQ. Other cases are being monitored, and the group is also creating a photographic record of pre-construction areas along the pipeline’s route to provide a benchmark for future inspections.

It’s unclear how many total complaints have been made to DEQ.

Ann Regn, a spokeswoman for DEQ, provided a log that showed 17 site visits by the agency’s Office of Water Compliance from March 16 to May 22.

Inspections found erosion control devices overwhelmed by recent heavy rains along Cahas Mountain Road, Teel’s Creek and Grassy Hill in Franklin County and Catawba Mountain in Montgomery County, Regn said.

“It is too early to determine if there are any non-compliance issues,” she wrote in an email.

Mountain Valley spokeswoman Natalie Cox said the pipeline, a joint venture of six energy companies, is working closely with state and federal regulators.

“The rigorous erosion and sediment control measures being used for construction of the underground Mountain Valley pipeline are specifically designed to ensure minimal short-term impacts and no long-term impacts to areas surrounding the ROW [right of way], including waterbodies,” Cox wrote in an email.

“While we respect the position taken by project opponents, it is important to remember that other linear infrastructure projects have been built successfully, and continue to operate, in this region without the kind of scrutiny applied to the MVP project,” the email stated.

“We remain committed to working with local, state and federal authorities to ensure the safe and responsible construction and operation of this project to meet the demand for affordable, reliable domestic natural gas in the region.”

Giles County’s ‘air force’

May 25 was a rare sunny day in the midst of a prolonged wet spell, and a contingent from Mountain Valley Watch took advantage of the weather to get a bird’s-eye view of the pipeline route through parts of Craig and Giles counties.

“This is the air force of Giles County,” said Rick Shingles, whose job that day was to scan the sky with binoculars to make sure the drone would not interfere with any passing aircraft. Before each drone flight, Shelton obtains permission from landowners. He also steers clear of any active construction zones.

Shingles, a retired Tech professor who lives not far from the pipeline’s route, didn’t spot any planes. Nor did he see any DEQ inspectors — on that day or any other when he’s been watching pipeline activity.

From what he’s seen and heard, “there are no boots on the ground,” Shingles said. “Where the hell are they? That’s the frustration.”

In February, when DEQ said it would be conducting the most vigilant compliance program for any pipeline in Virginia history, the agency said it would be hiring extra inspectors from a private company to assist its staffers.

Yet it was not until last week that officials with MBP, a Fairfax-based consulting firm, joined DEQ inspectors in the field.

Construction of the 303-mile pipeline from northern West Virginia to Pittsylvania County will proceed simultaneously along nine segments, or spreads, each one about 33 miles long. The plan is to have two representatives from MBP assigned to each spread in Virginia.

The contractors will be augmented by DEQ employees, including two new compliance managers and a data coordinator, Regn said. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the lead agency overseeing the project’s construction, has assigned one monitor for each of the three spreads in Virginia.

Counties through which the pipeline will pass — Giles, Craig, Montgomery, Roanoke, Franklin and Pittsylvania — have been given the option of assigning local inspectors to join the monitoring. Only Franklin County has agreed to do so.

‘Overwhelmed’ erosion controls

So far, the only official enforcement action against Mountain Valley has been taken by West Virginia regulators.

In a notice of violation issued April 25, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection said it found sediment-laden water that had flowed beyond the perimeters of a work site in Wetzel County, where the pipeline will originate.

Out-of-control runoff from a hill on a second site caused part of the slope to give way, according to documents filed with FERC.

Mountain Valley’s environmental coordinator wrote in a May 10 letter to the department that new and improved erosion controls had been implemented and the company believes the issues have been “fully addressed and resolved.”

The company has made similar statements about flooding May 18 in Franklin County, where severe erosion during heavy rains left about 8 inches of mud covering Cahas Mountain Road.

“We are disappointed that some of the erosion controls were overwhelmed, but we are encouraged at this initial stage with MVP’s rapid response,” DEQ director David Paylor said in a statement the following week.

The lead contractor hired by Mountain Valley for much of the work in Virginia is Precision Pipeline, a Wisconsin company that has been involved in at least three other pipeline projects that have been cited for failing to prevent muddy water and sediment dislodged by bulldozers and other earth-moving equipment from contaminating nearby streams.

Although regulators in Pennsylvania and West Virginia cited the pipeline developers and not their contractor, Precision Pipeline was linked to the projects through inspection reports, notices of violations, lawsuits and other public records.

The company is also named in the most recent inspection reports from West Virginia.

Asked last week if Mountain Valley remains satisfied with the work of Precision Pipeline, Cox said it does.

“Everyone on the team is focused on doing this the right way,” she wrote in an email.

Legal challenges continue

Keeping close tabs on construction is just one of several fronts on which pipeline opponents are waging their battle against Mountain Valley.

At least 10 protesters have occupied tree stands or other elevated positions along the pipeline’s route in an effort to block construction, and more than a dozen of their supporters have been charged with offenses that include obstructing roads, resisting arrest and interfering with the rights of the pipeline company.

About a half-dozen legal challenges of the project are also pending in three courts.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond heard oral arguments in early May in three cases: one that seeks the reversal of a water quality certification by Virginia regulators, a second that challenges a decision allowing the pipeline to pass through the Jefferson National Forest, and a third that questions FERC’s ability to give a private company the power to take land through eminent domain.

Decisions in those cases are expected in the coming weeks.

At the same time, the 4th Circuit is considering a motion to stay a key permit for the pipeline that was issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The Sierra Club and four other conservation groups contend that the Corps approved four pipeline river crossings in West Virginia knowing that Mountain Valley could not complete them within the 72 hours required by state regulators.

Shortly after the challenge was filed May 22, the Corps temporarily suspended work on the four river crossings. Even before the court filing, construction was not expected to start until late summer.

If the appeals court were to invalidate the permits for work on the Elk, Gauley, Greenbrier and Meadow rivers, that could lead to a delay of the whole project.

Yet construction continues at a pace that Mountain Valley says will have the pipeline in operation by late this year.

Opponents say the greatest environmental risks will come this summer, when construction crews begin to blast through bedrock and dig trenches as deep as 10 feet along steep mountain slopes.

Muddy water running off construction sites and into private wells and public water supplies is just one concern, they say.

About 35 miles of the pipeline’s route through Virginia will pass through karst terrain, meaning that contaminants could travel more than five miles through underground caves before surfacing in unexpected areas, according to a report released last week by the Natural Resources Defense Council.

For now, the most obvious changes are the 125-foot swaths where Mountain Valley has cut trees and cleared land to make room for construction.

After the pipe is in the ground, the company will maintain 50-foot rights of way to operate the project, which will transport natural gas at high pressure to markets in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast regions.

One of the bare strips runs up the side of Sinking Creek Mountain, not far from where members of Mountain Valley Watch were conducting their surveillance last month in a scenic valley below.

In between drone flights, Shingles remarked to fellow member Mannin Dodd on the beauty of their surroundings.

“Yeah,” Dodd replied. “Beautiful with a big gash right through it.”

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.

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