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Property owners puzzled by Mountain Valley Pipeline route mapping decisions

Property owners puzzled by Mountain Valley Pipeline route mapping decisions

Landowners say the proposed routes seem haphazard.

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The irony rings clear for David Seriff.

Seriff’s opposition to the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline emerged even before the revelation last fall that the route of the buried natural gas pipeline might directly impact residents of Preston Forest, a wooded subdivision of attractive homes in Montgomery County.

At the time, the proposed route of the 42-inch diameter interstate pipeline was roughly a mile from the Preston Forest home of Seriff and his wife, Bridget Simmerman, a holistic psychotherapist with a practice in nearby Blacksburg. Seriff, 57, is a senior training manager for AT&T.

Even though the couple’s property on Brush Mountain was well outside the “potential impact radius” of the high-pressure natural gas pipeline, Seriff vigorously joined the fight against the 300-mile, $3.2 billion project.

The irony surfaced months later.

On Feb. 18, Mountain Valley identified alternative routes for the pipeline that were designed, in part, to lessen the project’s potential impact on Preston Forest.

Alternative 93 looped north of the previously identified route and alternative 87 looped south. Other alternatives avoided Preston Forest altogether by routing instead through Craig County.

As it turned out, a map of alternative 93 that was detailed enough to identify individual land parcels showed the pipeline coming right through the house that Seriff and Simmerman have called home for more than five years.

Seriff was alarmed and angry. But also flabbergasted. The route of alternative 93 seemed to make no sense, he said during a recent interview.

“I honestly think someone just grabbed a pencil and drew an alternative route without ever walking the route on the ground,” Seriff said.

Turns out Seriff’s observation is essentially accurate, according to an April 22 email from Natalie Cox, a spokeswoman for the Mountain Valley Pipeline.

“At this point, alternative 93 has only been reviewed and sketched on the desktop, the method in which all routes typically begin their initial shape,” Cox said.

“It is very difficult to determine the characteristics of any route until the team gets on the ground — because with desktop surveys, foliage or other obstacles can hide structures, including homes,” Cox added.

Seriff and others contend that desktop analysis alone can suggest alternatives that are not feasible, creating needless stress for property owners who, like Seriff and Simmerman, discover that a route could burrow through their property.

“Seems totally irresponsible to me,” Seriff said. “But that’s just coming from someone who probably couldn’t sell his house right now if he lost his job or got transferred — due to their ‘sketching.’ Would you buy my house at market value with it sitting in their crosshairs?”

Pat Tracy, another homeowner in Preston Forest, offered a similar observation. Tracy’s home is adjacent to the original route proposed for the Mountain Valley Pipeline and she has been an outspoken critic of the project.

“The pipeline people draw their lines on maps in what seems to be total ignorance of the conditions on the ground — that could be learned from a few minutes on Google maps even before they do actual boots-on-the-ground surveying,” she said.

Tracy said she has repeatedly told representatives from Mountain Valley that “they are doing a huge amount of damage to the community by spreading the anxiety among people who, realistically, are not going to have to ‘host’ the pipeline, if it’s built.”

Seriff said that even a cursory ground-level inspection of alternative 93 would likely lead to the rejection of this route.

He pointed out that the ridge along this section of Brush Mountain is both narrow and rocky. Seriff said that the mountain’s forested western slope drops off sharply from the ridge to Craig Creek, conditions that might necessitate side slope trenching to bury the pipeline if its path avoided the narrow ridge and Jefferson Forest Lane, a subdivision road that parallels the ridge.

The Constitution Pipeline, a 124-mile, 30-inch diameter interstate natural gas transmission pipeline that has received approval from FERC, references such construction in its website’s frequently asked questions section: “Side slope construction introduces more hazardous working and operating conditions, as well as the potential for severe erosion and landslide potential. It also increases the amount of required work space.”

The Constitution Pipeline will extend from Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania, to Schoharie County, New York.

Mountain Valley Pipeline has said pipeline construction will require a temporary easement of about 125 feet, a width that could increase under some construction circumstances. A report filed by Mountain Valley with FERC noted that special construction techniques that might be indicated for steep side slopes “will require expanded workspace areas.”

In an April 14 filing with FERC, Mountain Valley presented more details about alternative routes that were first described in mid-February.

The company reported that the construction work space for the previously proposed route through Preston Forest would come within about 50 feet of seven residences. In comparison, alternative 93’s construction work space would not come within 50 feet of a single residence, the company reported.

Seriff reacted.

“How does one say bulls- — politely?” he said.

Seriff said alternative 93 has the potential to impact about a dozen homes in Preston Forest, especially during construction.

Cox said Mountain Valley Pipeline understands landowners’ concerns about how routes are initially identified and announced.

“We are doing our best to follow the process and adhere to requirements, while also being deliberate and as open and transparent as we can be with the information we provide to communities,” she said.

Meanwhile, on April 20, the Virginia Cave Board filed comments with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission about karst landscapes and the potential impacts of a buried pipeline traveling through regions with a significant presence of karst features — sinkholes, caves, large springs and groundwater — especially vulnerable to contamination.

Wil Orndorff is the karst protection coordinator for the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation. Orndorff’s observations about the Mountain Valley Pipeline and karst terrain were attached to the Virginia Cave Board’s assessment.

Orndorff’s assessment suggested that the originally proposed route through Giles and Montgomery counties and incorporating alternative 93 “would be the worst alternative in respect to karst.”

Mountain Valley has hired Draper Aden Associates to be its geological survey and karst analysis contractor in West Virginia and Virginia.

Seriff said he remains mystified about why Mountain Valley would announce “random, poorly conceived alternatives” that have the potential to provoke unnecessary anxiety.

“I can’t quite fathom it,” he said.

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