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'It's taken the heart out of the community': Mountain Valley Pipeline cuts through tiny village of Newport

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Drone footage shows the Mountain Valley Pipeline under construction in downtown Newport. By Heather Rousseau

NEWPORT — A shuttered general store, a stately hotel converted to apartments, historic homes, two covered bridges and three churches still stand here — a testament to the village settled more than 250 years ago in the shadow of Sinking Creek Mountain.

Some of the buildings are crumbling now. Local businesses have fallen victim to super-sized stores. But among the residents who stayed, there was hope that Newport was on the cusp of a comeback.

Then came the Mountain Valley Pipeline.

On a recent August afternoon, Donna Pitt of Preserve Giles County looked up at the natural gas pipeline that descends steep mountain walls on both sides of Blue Grass Trail, the main street of Newport.

“It’s taken the heart out of the community, is what it’s done,” Pitt said.

The buried pipeline avoids cities and towns for much of its 303 miles through West Virginia and the New River and Roanoke valleys, taking a more rural path through forests and fields and finding a way around houses.

Small as it is, Newport is the most densely populated community in Southwest Virginia to be impacted by construction.

At first, residents opposed to the project believed that it could be stopped, even after 125-foot-wide strips for its right of way were cut out of the wooded slopes around them.

“When it was just trees that were cut down, people would say, ‘We can always plant new trees,’” Pitt said.

“But when that giant trench came down on top of the town, and in two days they had the pipe buried, people looked up and said, ‘It’s over.’”

“That’s reality,” she said of a 42-inch pipe that stops just short of Greenbrier Branch on both sides, waiting as the nearly completed Mountain Valley Pipeline seeks a final set of permits to cross water bodies.

“That’s like, ‘Oh, my God.’”

A village changed

As the unofficial historian of Newport, Doug Martin remembers what the village was once like.

“The old-timers would wake up to church bells and cow bells, but now you get the incessant beeping of trucks backing up” in the pipeline construction zone, he said.

Newport was the home of two famed Major League Baseball pitchers. Bob Porterfield threw for the New York Yankees and the Chicago Cubs and Mike Williams was a relief pitcher for the Philadelphia Phillies and the Kansas City Royals. Several high school players have made the All-Timesland list.

“The sports legacy here has deep roots,” Martin, 79, said.

Talks of revitalizing the village have focused in part on promoting that history, with plans to draw more out-of-towners to the ballfield in Newport Park.

But as the Dirt Devils girls softball team finished a practice recently, they had to wait for a procession of Mountain Valley construction trucks to pass before they could leave.

“It was a short-term inconvenience,” recalled the team’s assistant coach, Perry Martin, who is Doug Martin’s son and a member of the Giles County Board of Supervisors.

“But why is a pipeline that close to a ballfield in the first place?”

The way the younger Martin sees it, Mountain Valley officials have little knowledge of or regard for the village and how it’s being changed.

“You’ve got millionaires sitting in an office somewhere with their noses so high in the air that they don’t see the community,” he said. “That’s what’s so frustrating.”

Last month, a Fourth of July parade through town had to compete with the sights and sounds of pipeline construction that continued nearby. “It was surreal,” Martin said.

When the pipeline was still in the planning stages, Giles County’s government — which took a formal stand against the project in 2016 — asked that it be rerouted to avoid Newport.

Mountain Valley spokeswoman Natalie Cox said numerous adjustments were made to the pipeline’s route based on feedback from the community.

The final plan approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission “represents a collaborative effort among various stakeholders to develop a route that minimizes impacts and best satisfies the many criteria that must be considered in routing linear infrastructure,” she said in an email.

Even when the pipeline is finished and covered with dirt and grass, it will still be too close to home for Martin.

“As a community, you don’t want to be known for a pipeline. But the tough part of it is that it has become a part of the conversation,” he said. “At the same time we are trying to improve space in the community we are dealing with the reality of the pipeline.”

The blast zone

Motorists driving through Newport are greeted by signs that warn: “Entering Pipeline Blast Zone.”

The signs were erected by pipeline opponents. Mountain Valley used a less ominous term — potential impact radius — in documents filed with FERC.

Based on the pipeline’s size and the pressure of the natural gas that will run through it, federal regulations put the potential impact radius at 1,115 feet. Were there to be an explosion, it could have “a significant impact on people or property” within that range.

That includes the Newport-Mt. Olivet United Methodist Church, a parsonage across the street, at least three other homes, a recreation center and the town’s rescue squad.

“It’s terrifying,” said Pastor Morris Fleischer, who estimated the Methodist church is about 150 feet away, or “a long field goal.”

“I can’t look out the window without thinking about the threat and the potential harm it could do,” he said.

Although explosions of natural gas pipelines nearly always make the news, the industry has a “strong safety record” when viewed in context, according to the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

Nationwide over the past 20 years, there have been 695 serious incidents, which the agency defines as involving either fatalities or serious injuries that require inpatient hospitalization. Annually, that works out to an average of 13 fatalities and 57 injuries a year since 2001, according to the agency.

There are about 2.5 million miles of pipelines in the United States — enough to circle the world 100 times. The accident rate with other methods of shipping gas, such as by truck or train, is much higher, according to PHMSA.

Cox noted that natural gas pipelines are buried under New York City’s Central Park, through the suburbs of Chicago and even beneath the Spring Hollow Reservoir in Roanoke County.

However, pipeline opponents argue that the risk is higher with Mountain Valley for several reasons: The largest natural gas pipeline ever to be built in Virginia traverses steep slopes. Nearly two-thirds of the terrain is susceptible to landslides. And Mountain Valley has violated erosion and sedimentation regulations hundreds of times, they say, which increases the chances of the pipe shifting underground, rupturing and blowing up.

Local artist Robert Tuckwiller was recently driving through Newport when he was struck by the pipeline’s planned route, which will take it under Blue Grass Trail, Greenbrier Branch and an adjacent wetland.

When he got back home, he started a painting of what he believes the crossing will look like, assuming that Mountain Valley eventually gets its stream-crossing permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The rendering shows what Tuckwiller calls an “engineering nightmare,” with cranes towering above the steeple of the Methodist church in a construction area sullied with muddy water.

More than 250 years of history

Newport is often called a village, and in 1993 it was officially declared one by the General Assembly.

Much earlier — in 1799 — it was incorporated and became the first chartered town in Giles County, according to a joint resolution passed by the House of Delegates and the Senate. A fire wiped out the town in 1902, and its residents did not establish a new charter.

The resolution cites the “distinct character and heritage” of Newport, noting at the time that it had three of the nine covered bridges in Virginia. Strong winds in 2017 destroyed one of the structures, a wooden bridge with a tin roof that spanned Sinking Creek.

Newport has no mayor or town hall — cities, counties and towns are the only kinds of local government in Virginia — and lacks a definitive boundary line.

But it is part of the Greater Newport Rural Historic District, an area that includes 33 square miles of rural land and remnants from the farmsteads of European settlers who arrived before the American Revolution.

In 2017, Preservation Virginia named it as one of the state’s most endangered historic places.

Although the history of Newport was enough to require Mountain Valley to develop a treatment plan that was filed with FERC, it couldn’t keep the pipeline away.

“What good does it do to be designated a historic district when someone can come in and put a 42-inch diameter pipeline down?” said Fleischer of the Methodist church.

‘Everybody’s tired’

About five miles as the crow flies from Newport is Doe Creek Farm.

The 400-acre spread features rolling hills with open space for cattle and apple orchards. The landscape is dotted with several homes, barns, an outdoor wedding venue and an upscale restaurant called The Bad Apple.

It also offers a close-up view of a pipeline being built through its center.

“From 6 in the morning until 5 in the afternoon, they’re pounding rock right next to me,” said Georgia Haverty, the owner of the estate.

When people call to book a wedding, Haverty has to tell them about the nearby bulldozers, bare earth, dust, and noise that could be part of the ceremony.

“The pipeline took half of our wedding business until COVID hit, and it took the other half,” Haverty said.

The 71-year-old gets around the farm in a Gator utility task vehicle, often taking along a 22-caliber rifle and a handgun in case she comes across snakes, groundhogs or other pests.

More recently, she said, she’s had problems with pipeline workers in big trucks using her driveway to turn around, park and, in one case, take a nap behind the wheel.

When a worker approached her on her property in what she described as an intimidating way, Haverty said she fired one shot into the ground to get his attention.

Haverty was charged in May with brandishing a firearm, a misdemeanor offense that she didn’t seem very concerned about during a recent tour of the farm. She was both amused and bemused that Mountain Valley officials had called law enforcement on a different occasion just to report that she had a gun on her own property.

“If I had been a man in a pickup truck, with a gun rack, do you think they would be calling the police?” she said. “I don’t think so.”

Haverty moved back to her family farm after a career in aviation security that included leadership roles in the Federal Aviation Administration and as assistant director for international affairs for the Transportation Security Administration.

Elsewhere in Giles County, people are growing weary of a pipeline that’s been under construction now for more than three years. “Everybody’s tired right now,” Perry Martin said.

He’s noticed more “No Trespassing” signs at homes in Newport. That’s a rarity for a place where Martin joked that motorists don’t bother to use signal lights because everyone knows where everyone lives.

“It’s not in our nature to be putting up those kinds of walls,” he said. “But it’s also not normal to have so many people who aren’t from here. I’d like to be more hospitable, but they’re not here as tourists.”

Standing like gun barrels

Mountain Valley says it is putting more than just a pipeline in Newport.

A recent $200,000 grant will go to a community park, using money from $27.5 million the company paid to Virginia to compensate for forest fragmentation and water pollution in the six counties — Giles, Craig, Montgomery, Roanoke, Franklin and Pittsylvania — the pipeline will pass through.

In total, the company has contributed nearly $500,000 for improvements in Giles County’s water services, education and public safety systems, Cox said.

Those are just “scraps” compared to the what pipeline will generate for out-of-state companies and investors, Perry Martin said, and doesn’t begin to make up for Newport’s loss.

A joint venture of five energy companies building the pipeline would have spent about $6.2 billion by the time it is expected to go into service a year from now. When FERC approved the project in 2017, it allowed a return on equity of up to 14%.

The project is nearly three years behind schedule, hampered by bad weather and legal challenges from environmental groups that led to a series of its permits being revoked.

Lawyers for pipeline opponents have argued that the company is working as fast as it can in areas approved for construction to create “bureaucratic momentum,” which would push the federal government to grant the remaining permits it needs.

Under such a practice, “completed segments would stand like gun barrels pointing into the heartland,” as the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in an unrelated case.

That 1982 lawsuit involved a highway that had been built right up to the edges of a state park in Maryland, which placed improper influence on federal agencies that had yet to allow the road to pass through the park, the Fourth Circuit ruled.

Attorneys and local residents see similarities in what’s happened in Newport, which has gun barrels on each side of its heart.

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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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