CALLAWAY — On the back side of Bent Mountain, a 125-foot-wide strip of reddish-brown earth cuts a downhill gash through the forest.
From the valley below, Bobby Amerson focuses his binoculars on a construction crew that is building the Mountain Valley Pipeline. They are on a mountainside so steep that heavy equipment must be tethered together with cables.
“We’re looking at five bulldozers, hooked to two trackhoes,” Amerson, who lives nearby, says. “It looks like they’re clearing out the timber that was cut and making way for the pipe to come in. I’ve never seen equipment on a steep slope as they are now.”
As work on the natural gas pipeline resumes this spring, Mountain Valley faces some of its toughest topography.
About 67% of the terrain along the pipeline’s 303-mile route is susceptible to landslides, according to an environmental impact statement conducted in 2017 by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
Jacob Hileman, an environmental scientist and hydrologist at Uppsala University in Sweden, has conducted an analysis that puts that figure at 74% — which he says is more than any other major pipeline approved by FERC since 1997.
“When the project was first announced, I was scratching my head and saying, ‘You can’t be serious,’” said Hileman, who is from the Roanoke area and has examined the pipeline on numerous trips back home.
“If I had to say one thing about the wisdom, it would be that I don’t see any.”
Mountain Valley spokeswoman Natalie Cox, however, says it’s not an uncommon practice to string multiple pieces of equipment together on a hill or mountain, a process known as winch-hill construction.
“This practice is standard for pipeline construction through sloped terrain and MVP has routinely employed it across the entire project since 2018, without incident,” Cox wrote in an email last week.
Each winch has a cable that is about 200 feet long. On longer slopes, such as the one above Amerson’s home on Dillons Mill Road, construction crews daisy-chain winches from one piece of equipment to another, Cox said.
Safety procedures generally require equipment to be secured to an uphill piece of equipment on slopes having more than a 30% grade. According to Hileman’s research, the steepest grade on the pipeline’s route is 89%, on a short stretch in Montgomery County.
The Bent Mountain operation, which involves clearing and grading the right of way for erosion control measures, is nearly finished, the email from Cox stated.
“MVP remains focused on completing the project in a safe and environmentally responsible manner,” Cox wrote.
A pipeline of protests
In the seven years since it was first proposed, the Mountain Valley Pipeline has unleashed a gusher of opposition:
A corporate venture would unfairly wield its power of eminent domain to take private property for the project. Digging trenches along steep slopes would loosen dirt that would be swept away by rainwater, polluting streams. Construction would mar the scenic landscape of Southwest Virginia and endanger its wildlife. The huge natural gas infrastructure would contribute to climate change.
Winch-hill construction raises several concerns.
Stripping trees from mountainsides and burying the 42-inch pipe in unstable soil will increase the risk of landslides, opponents say, which could trigger an explosion once natural gas is running through the pipeline at high pressure.
A more immediate fear is that cleared rights of way will channel muddy water into the streams below — which Mountain Valley still lacks a permit to cross.
“Since 2018, MVP has muddied and choked the most fragile and pristine of our streams and wetlands throughout the Virginias,” read a statement from Protect Our Water, Heritage, Rights, an anti-pipeline coalition.
Despite numerous permit revocations, POWHR said, “MVP marches forward, with battalions of earthmovers tethered to nearly vertical slopes, threatening to choke out entire mountain biomes with the next drenching rain.”
The joint venture of five energy companies building the pipeline has been cited hundreds of times for violating erosion and sediment control rules. Environmental regulators in Virginia and West Virginia have imposed fines that total about $2.7 million against the $6.2 billion project.
“Mountain Valley acknowledges that the project incurred too many non-compliance events in 2018 and 2019 due to significant weather and the failure to address erosion control measures within stated guidelines,” a company attorney, Todd Normane, wrote in a May 20 letter to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.
But in a yearlong period that ended March 31, 2021, there was just one violation in Virginia, which involved the release of sediment into an ephemeral stream channel, Normane wrote. That led to a $6,500 fine.
Improvements to erosion and sediment control measures show that Mountain Valley has learned from its past mistakes and is committed to do better, Normane’s letter stated.
The attorney wrote to Melanie Davenport, DEQ’s director of water permitting, saying he wanted to correct some of the “chronic misinformation and false statements” made by pipeline opponents.
FERC and appellate courts have found there is a public need for the 2 billion cubic feet per day of natural gas the pipeline will provide, and Mountain Valley contends that a “vocal faction” is delaying completion of the project.
Work stalls as permits are suspended
For nearly a year, work on the pipeline ground to a halt. FERC issued a stop-work order on Oct. 15, 2019, after Mountain Valley lost three key sets of permits to legal challenges from environmental groups.
Two approvals — one for the pipeline to pass through the Jefferson National Forest and a second one that found endangered species would not be jeopardized — were reissued, and some work resumed last fall.
But Mountain Valley still lacks authorization to cross about half of the nearly 1,000 streams and wetlands in the pipeline’s path. The other half were completed in 2018 and 2019.
After running into legal trouble for a second time with a blanket permit issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the company in February announced a new plan.
It said it would seek individual permits, which involve a stream-by-stream analysis by the Army Corps, for 145 water body crossings in Virginia. Those “open-cut” crossings would entail temporarily damming streams, digging a trench along the exposed bottom, burying the pipe and then restoring the water flow.
For the remaining crossings, Mountain Valley will ask FERC to allow it to bore under streams and wetlands at 120 locations, 83 of them in Virginia.
After new applications were filed, a slow process became even slower.
Virginia’s DEQ told the Army Corps in March that it could take up to a year to review the applications for open-cut crossings, which must be approved by the State Water Control Board before final action is taken by the federal government.
The current deadline is July 2. Army Corps spokeswoman Breeana Harris said last week that the agency is considering Virginia’s request for more time.
Roanoke County supports the delay, saying more study is needed on the impacts to ground and surface water atop Bent Mountain. “The Mountain Valley Pipeline has been one of the most controversial projects ever proposed in this and in neighboring communities,” Assistant County Administrator Richard Caywood wrote last week in an email to the Army Corps.
Meanwhile, FERC has inquired whether Virginia wants to be involved in the bore permitting process. DEQ was asked to respond by June 14.
Boring involves digging pits on either side of a waterway to allow workers to conduct an underground crossing. The pits may fill with sediment-laden water that would have to be discharged into streams, and chemicals used during drilling could leak into waterways, 13 environmental organizations wrote in a May 20 letter that urged the state to get involved.
Uncertainty was raised to a new level last Thursday, when the Environmental Protection Agency announced that it will rewrite regulations involving the Clean Water Act in a way that could give states more power over pipelines.
Realizing that it could not complete the stream crossings in time to finish the project by the end of this year, Mountain Valley announced another delay earlier this month, saying the pipeline would not be in service until summer 2022.
It won’t come soon enough for some property owners, who say that erosion on their land will continue until the pipeline is buried and the land above it is fully restored.
Frances Meadows of Craigsville, West Virginia, implored FERC in a recent letter to “please approve the necessary permits so this project can be finished up and reclamation can be completed and we can get on with our lives.”
Work restarts amid legal attacks
Perhaps the biggest problem for Mountain Valley has been the mountain of legal documents from environmental groups.
Three sets of federal permits — allowing the pipeline to pass through the Jefferson National Forest and under streams and wetlands, and to be constructed in a way that does not jeopardize endangered species — were suspended or vacated after legal challenges during the first two years of construction.
All of the permits were reissued between September 2020 and January 2021, followed by a second round of lawsuits. But so far, the Sierra Club and other environmental litigants have not seen as much success.
The authorizations were made under the administration of former President Donald Trump, and pipeline opponents were hopeful that a Justice Department led by President Joe Biden would choose not to defend the permits.
In recent filings, both the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stuck to their decisions that favored the pipeline. A lawsuit seeking review of a third permit, issued by the Army Corps for water body crossings, was dropped after Mountain Valley restarted the process under different rules.
Final decisions by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals are months away. Oral arguments in the first case, a challenge of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s opinion that endangered species would not be jeopardized by the pipeline, might not be scheduled until September.
By then, Mountain Valley said in a recent conference call with financial analysts, it hopes to have construction done, except for stream crossings that would likely begin in spring of 2022.
Too close for comfort
A 60-acre tract of mostly wooded land near Callaway has been in Marilyn Amerson’s family for three generations.
She and her husband, Bobby, were relieved to learn years ago that the pipeline would not cross their property. But the sounds and sights of construction are too close for comfort.
A short drive by all-terrain vehicle last Thursday morning took Bobby Amerson to the base of the mountain where bulldozers were strung together like beads on a chain.
“We’ve been against it since day one,” he said. “It’s not on our property, but we didn’t like what they were doing to the land.”
The Amersons worry that blasting, which will occur when construction crews hit bedrock, will contaminate their well water. And that sediment will seep into the North Fork of the Blackwater River as it flows past their house.
Not far from their home, Dillons Mill Road dead-ends at a spot surrounded by mountain walls. “If there was to be an explosion, we have no way out,” Marilyn Amerson said. “We’re kind of in a bowl.”
The ridge that towers above the Amersons’ home might be tough going for construction workers. But they can’t help but wonder if the route was chosen because Mountain Valley figured it would be easier to overcome opposition from rural landowners.
“We’re here because it’s where we want to be,” Marilyn Amerson said. “But they act like that doesn’t matter.”