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FERC study finds no risk from protective coating of Mountain Valley Pipeline

FERC study finds no risk from protective coating of Mountain Valley Pipeline

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Segments of steel pipe stockpiled along the path of a natural gas pipeline, exposed to the elements for two years while lawsuits delayed construction, pose no risk to the surrounding air, soil or water, a federal agency has concluded.

In a report released Thursday, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission addressed concerns that have been raised about the Mountain Valley Pipeline.

An epoxy coating applied to protect the pipe from corrosion may have released toxins in two ways, the theory goes: into the air after it degenerates from sitting too long in the sun, and into groundwater after the 42-inch diameter pipe is assembled and buried.

But after more than a year of study, FERC found no basis for the fears about Mountain Valley or the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a similar project that collapsed in July under the weight of multiple legal challenges.

The report cites the conclusion of ToxStrategies, a consulting firm hired by Atlantic Coast, that there should be “no impact on human health or the environment from the chalky residue” that forms on the pipes after prolonged exposure to sunlight.

After getting the report last year, FERC requested more information, including an assessment of pipeline storage yards. A revised study dated Aug. 27 reached the same conclusion as the first.

In a letter Thursday to Virginia Health Commissioner Norman Oliver, FERC said it also considered citizen comments, information from the two pipelines and the coating’s manufacturer, and input from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

Oliver and David Paylor, director of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, requested last year that FERC provide additional information on the possible risks of the coating, citing citizen concerns.

Those concerns still exist.

The report “provides no reassurance for the public based on these inadequate assessments,” said Tina Smusz, a retired physician and assistant professor of medicine from Montgomery County who has been following the issue.

For example, she said, the CDC’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry said the environmental samplings taken by ToxStrategies were not sufficient “to fully evaluate the public health concerns associated with the gas pipe/storage area.”

Soil samples collected from an Atlantic Coast storage yard in West Virginia found chemicals in small enough concentrations not to pose a risk to people who regularly came into contact with the soil.

However, the CDC agency for toxic substances said it was unclear if the chemicals had entered nearby public water supplies , or whether people would be exposed to airborne hazardous materials released from the pipes.

Dominion Energy, one of the lead partners in the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, requested the study last year, well before it announced in July that the project was being canceled. However, concerns remain about pipes that have yet to be removed from construction sites or storage areas.

Mountain Valley has already buried the pipe along 238 miles of its 303-mile route, the study stated, “so the novel circumstance of pipe exposed for multiple years is not as prevalent.”

Smusz and others — including the Natural Resources Defense Council — have called for more investigation of the risks posed by the pipeline coating, 3M Scotchkote Fusion-Bonded Epoxy 6233.

Once chalking occurs, they say, carcinogens can be released into the air or, after the pile is buried, they can leach through soil and into groundwater, possibly contaminating private wells or public water supplies.

But the substance is “thousands of an inch in thickness,” and any leaching that occurs does not release chemicals in amounts large enough to present a public danger, the ToxStrategies report stated.

The maker of the coating, 3M Manufacturing Co., told The Roanoke Times last year that the coating is safe if applied properly and allowed to fully cure. “We are not aware of any evidence to suggest that chalking is harmful to human health,” it said in an email.

Mountain Valley has also said that it is unaware of any evidence of risks posed by the coating, which has been in use since the 1960s on many projects, including drinking water systems.

Concerns about the fusion-bonded epoxy coating are just one of many raised by pipeline opponents. The $5.7 billion project is overbudget and behind schedule, in large part due to legal challenges over erosion on steep mountain slopes during construction.

Opponents say the pipeline has blemished scenic views, clogged streams with sediment and endangered protected wildlife.

The Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League announced Thursday that Roanoke County has forwarded to DEQ its request that Mountain Valley be required to amend its stormwater management plans.

FERC is currently considering two requests from Mountain Valley. One is to lift a stop work order, now that two key permits have been restored. The other is to extend by two years an overarching approval that will otherwise expire Oct. 13.

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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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