PETERS MOUNTAIN — The winds blew cold Thursday across the Symms Gap Meadow where the Appalachian Trail traverses the crest of Peters Mountain near Pearisburg.
And chilly was the response among 13 visitors to the site Thursday to the idea of the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline crossing near this spot along the iconic trail.
As currently envisioned, the buried 42-inch-diameter natural gas pipeline would climb Peters Mountain from Monroe County, West Virginia, cross the Appalachian Trail in a section managed by the Jefferson National Forest, and descend the mountain in Giles County before continuing east.
To date, no one, aside from Mountain Valley Pipeline, seems satisfied with the project’s current plans to cross the trail. And there are related fears about the impacts to substantial surface waters and groundwater resources on Peters Mountain from trenching, blasting and erosion.
The pipeline would be buried in a trench while ascending and descending Peters Mountain. But it might cross beneath the Appalachian Trail through a borehole drilled during construction to reduce the sorts of visual and natural impacts associated with a trench several feet deep.
The nonprofit Appalachian Trail Conservancy has noted that “the proposed pipeline crossing location is an area of unbroken wild landscape consisting of forest, rocky outcropping and grassy bald” that is free of other signs of human development.
The conservancy has said Mountain Valley has turned a deaf ear to many of the organization’s concerns about the proposed crossing. The Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club has concurred.
Andrew Downs, a regional director for the conservancy, was part of the crowd visiting Peters Mountain on Thursday. It was his third visit to the site.
He said Mountain Valley has rejected alternatives without adequate analysis that would route the pipeline across the trail in places where the corridor is already impacted by development — including roads and highways, such as U.S. 460, or other utility rights-of-way.
“I would much rather champion a good idea than oppose a bad idea,” Downs said. “This is not a bunch of granola-crunchers opposing development.”
He said Mountain Valley has failed, among other things, to complete a key analysis of the pipeline route’s visual impacts to regional users of the Appalachian Trail, which he said has a broad and loyal constituency. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy says it has about 43,000 members in 50 states and 15 other countries, and it estimates about 3 million people visit the trail each year.
The Appalachian Trail, completed in 1937, stretches roughly 2,190 miles through 14 states from Katahdin, Maine, to Springer Mountain, Georgia. Its presence in the region is frequently cited by economic development organizations as an important lifestyle amenity.
The conservancy encouraged people concerned about the pipeline’s impacts on the trail to share those fears with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which will decide whether the 303-mile pipeline project should proceed.
Downs said he estimates that at least 1,000 such letters have been filed with FERC.
Separately, in a letter dated Thursday, FERC directed Mountain Valley Pipeline to “provide updated visual impact analyses of the [Appalachian Trail], using both ‘leaf-on’ and ‘leaf-off’ simulation of the pipeline at the crossing location.”
FERC also requested visual impact analyses from “key observation points” at highly visited locations along the trail, including Angels Rest, Dragons Tooth and Kelly Knob.
Natalie Cox, a spokeswoman for Mountain Valley, said in an email Friday that “the MVP project team had to wait for leaves to fall prior to conducting a comprehensive analysis.” She said analysis occurred in December and will be submitted when complete.
In September, FERC had directed Mountain Valley to coordinate the visual impact analyses with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, the National Park Service and other stakeholders, something Downs said has not happened.
The trail is a unit of the National Park Service but the section that crosses Peters Mountain is managed by the Forest Service.
Cox responded, “Through coordination directly with the U.S. Forest Service, the Mountain Valley project team has been working to identify key observation points and conduct the necessary ‘leaf-off’ visual analysis in order to address the concerns of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and National Park Service regarding visual impacts to the Appalachian National Scenic Trail.”
Cox said the “leaf-on” analysis is complete.
The pipeline’s construction right-of-way through the region would be about 125 feet wide and require the clearing of trees and other vegetation. The permanent, treeless right-of-way would be about 50 feet wide.
The corridor through the Jefferson National Forest could be even wider, up to about 500 feet, if the Forest Service amends its land and resource management plan to create a “designated utility corridor” through the forest to allow the pipeline’s crossing.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management will be involved in the decision about whether to allow the pipeline to cross a total of about 3.4 miles of the Jefferson National Forest because the related right-of-way would impact more than one federal agency.
Downs said about 58 pipelines already cross the Appalachian Trail and said the conservancy has worked with businesses to reduce the impact of crossings.
He said the separate but similar Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which would also cross the Appalachian Trail — with the pipeline passing from Augusta County into Nelson County — has been more responsive to the conservancy’s concerns than Mountain Valley.
That does not mean the organization has endorsed the Atlantic Coast project, Downs added.
As currently envisioned, the Mountain Valley pipeline would pass beneath the Appalachian Trail through a borehole drilled during construction. According to one plan, the entry and exit points would be 300 feet on either side of the trail to theoretically maintain a “forested buffer” so that trail users would not see the points where the pipeline trenching ends and begins again.
Yet the project’s draft environmental impact statement, released by FERC in September, does not rule out cutting a trench across the trail, even though such trenching would likely yield “permanent effects to the landscape during operations.”
Open-cut trenching could be an option, according to the draft statement, if the bore alternative fails. The Forest Service said Friday that it is “waiting for a contingency plan for the currently proposed bore under the AT.”
FERC’s draft environmental impact statement for the Mountain Valley project has been widely panned as inadequate and, not infrequently, inaccurate. The Forest Service and others have noted, for example, that one map in the draft statement depicts an outdated route for the Appalachian Trail.
Giles County describes itself as “Virginia’s Mountain Playground,” and the county has said its local economy “is dependent on recreational tourism.” The county includes about 52 miles of the Appalachian Trail.
Giles County’s comments about the draft environmental impact statement echoed similar comments by boards of supervisors in Craig, Montgomery and Roanoke counties that the document was insufficient.
Many who have commented on the draft statement have called on FERC to issue a revised or supplemental document. FERC has said it plans to issue, as planned, a final environmental impact statement in March.
Yet the 31-page letter Thursday from FERC to Mountain Valley requesting additional information suggested FERC might establish a revised schedule for the final statement.
Meanwhile, the pipeline’s current route would pass close to the boundary of the Peters Mountain Wilderness area and also near the Brush Mountain Wilderness farther east.
Participants in Thursday’s visit to Peters Mountain included Hugh Irwin, Brent Martin and Mike Reinemer of the Wilderness Society, as well as Mark Miller, executive director of the Lexington-based Virginia Wilderness Committee.
Irwin said the route threatens profound impacts to what he described as “wilderness values,” including nature unsullied by development and the sources of clean water sheltered by wilderness areas.
“They’d have been hard pressed to find a worse route for conservation values,” Irwin said.
Others who visited the proposed crossing site Thursday included pipeline opponents from Monroe, Giles and Montgomery counties.
Russell Chisholm of Giles County said he accompanied the excursion to help remind himself what pipeline foes are fighting for instead of what they’re fighting against.
“The Appalachian Trail is very dear to me,” Chisholm said.