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Mountain Valley Pipeline's extension opposed by existing Transco pipeline
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Mountain Valley Pipeline's extension opposed by existing Transco pipeline

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There’s new opposition to the Mountain Valley Pipeline, this time from a fellow natural gas pipeline.

When Mountain Valley announced a 75-mile extension into North Carolina three years ago, its plan was to lay part of the buried pipeline next to the Transcontinental Pipeline, which has been in service since the 20th century.

But in court documents filed Monday, attorneys for that pipeline wrote that “MVP’s proposed location is simply irresponsible.”

Also known as Transco, the Oklahoma-based pipeline is fighting an attempt by Mountain Valley to use eminent domain to acquire easements on private property — some of it seized by Transco through the same controversial process years ago.

In other words, Mountain Valley is attempting to take by eminent domain land that was taken by eminent domain.

To build a second pipeline so close to the first “raises significant safety concerns for Transco and the general public,” according to responses to Mountain Valley’s legal actions filed in federal courts in Danville and Greensboro.

Among the concerns cited: Mountain Valley’s extension, called MVP Southgate, could interfere with a cathodic protection system and possibly cause a leak to occur; restrict access needed by Transco to its pipeline; and endanger the older pipeline with heavy equipment and blasting during construction.

Transco is asking federal judges in Virginia and North Carolina to deny Mountain Valley’s requests to acquire space in or along its easements.

Mountain Valley has also filed eminent domain cases against the private owners of land crossed by Transco’s easements, which were acquired either voluntarily or through eminent domain decades ago.

MVP Southgate spokesman Shawn Day said he could not comment in detail on pending litigation.

“The MVP Southgate team has been working with Transco throughout the planning phases of the project, and we will continue a dialogue targeted at ensuring continued safe and effective operations for both companies,” Day wrote in an email.

“We remain hopeful that all parties will reach a mutual agreement.”

A spokesperson for the Williams Co., which owns the Transco pipeline, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

In arguing that Mountain Valley is not entitled to share its pipeline space, Transco relied in court filings on what’s called the prior public use doctrine.

That doctrine “is an important legal principle that restricts a condemnor’s ability to take property that is already occupied by a different condemnor,” said Stephen Clarke, a Norfolk attorney who represents some of the private landowners sued by Mountain Valley.

Eminent domain is the power used by governments — and in some cases, corporations like Mountain Valley — to take private land when it’s needed for the public good.

If a judge were to block the use of part of Transco’s easements, Mountain Valley would likely be forced to reroute its extension, according to Clarke. “That reroute could also significantly impact many of my clients” with existing Transco easements on their land, he said.

Instead of having two easements side by side, a property owner might see Mountain Valley take a strip of land about 30 feet away, which would allow construction outside of Transco’s control. But in the end, that piece of land “would be completely landlocked and virtually useless for the landowners,” Clarke said.

Current plans call for MVP Southgate to run from from Chatham, the terminus of the main pipeline, to a spot near Burlington, North Carolina.

About half of the pipeline would be located along existing utility corridors and rights of way, according to its filing with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Last year, FERC found there was a public need for the extension, but ruled that construction could not start until the main pipeline — a 303-mile stretch that runs from northern West Virginia to Chatham — receives all of its permits.

Work on the main pipeline has been delayed by multiple legal challenges from environmental groups, leading to the suspension of three sets of federal permits. Two have since been reissued, and the joint venture of five energy companies is allowed to resume most construction, except for stream and wetland crossings.

About 25 miles of MVP Southgate would be located within Transco easements, according to the court filing by the latter pipeline, which runs from the Gulf Coast to New York City.

Natural gas from Mountain Valley would flow into the Transco pipeline at a transfer station in Chatham. Some of the gas would be directed into the Southgate extension, where it would be transported to a utility serving homes and businesses in central North Carolina.

In court papers, Transco said that Mountain Valley’s actions are barred by “the express agreement between the parties,” and that the other pipeline failed to negotiate in good faith. Details about the agreement were not available.

Clarke said it is not unusual for pipelines to be “co-located,” as a new project taking the same path as an older one reduces the impact on landowners and the environment. But usually, he said, the two pipelines are owned by the same company.

“In this case, MVP is a competitor to Transco and it seems like Transco doesn’t want to give any benefit to a company like MVP which may take away some of its business,” he said.

For Mountain Valley, opposition from Transco is just the latest in a string of obstacles it has encountered since starting construction on the main pipeline in the winter of 2018.

Environmental regulators in West Virginia and Virginia have repeatedly cited the $6 billion project for violations of erosion and sediment control measures, leading to fines of more than $2 million.

The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality denied a water quality certification for MVP Southgate last summer, saying there were too many questions about the main project to allow the extension to proceed.

In a ruling last week, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the decision because, if found, DEQ did not adequately explain its reasons. Environmental groups involved in the case said they expected the denial to be reissued.

“It’s a false victory for MVP,” said Amy Adams, North Carolina program manager for Appalachian Voices, noting that the 4th Circuit did not rule the decision was fundamentally flawed.

“We do expect the agency to correct this quickly enough.” Adams said in a statement. “And in the meantime, the half-finished MVP mainline remains an over-budget boondoggle mired in legal setbacks.”

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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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