On March 28, 2021, an op-ed was published in the Roanoke Times (“Pipeline water crossings should not be controversial”) that sought to defend the permitting system for U.S. fossil fuel pipelines, and advocate for the quick reissuance of key water crossing permits to Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP).
The op-ed entirely misses the mark.
Not surprisingly, the organization that employs the author of the op-ed, the Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure, advocates for a number of policy positions with a decidedly pro-pipeline bent.
Indeed, the founder and former member of the board of directors for the Alliance is chief executive of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System.
Another board member served as chief of staff of the Environmental Protection Agency under Andrew Wheeler, where, according to her bio, she “set and implemented environmental policy priorities for the Trump-Pence Administration.”
To the author’s credit, the op-ed in question is chock-full of interesting and well-researched statistics. It’s just that none of it has any bearing on the MVP.
The truth is that pipelines present a myriad of social and environmental risks, especially in Appalachia, and it is vitally important to provide the context and project-specific focus missing from the March 28 op-ed.
Perhaps the biggest problem with Alliance’s defense of the MVP is that it relies on national-level statistics, which are calculated across hundreds or thousands of individual pipelines throughout the U.S. Such a broad brushstroke conveniently paints the rosiest possible picture of pipeline compliance and safety, while directing attention away from the particular pipeline at issue.
Focusing on a hypothetical, average pipeline is dangerously misleading when dealing with a pipeline as anomalous as the MVP.
After spending months poring over the Final Environmental Impact Statements (FEIS) from other interstate natural gas transmission pipelines, I can definitively say that the MVP lies far outside the bounds of a “normal” pipeline project.
According to its FEIS, the MVP is slated to cross 389 perennial streams. This is far more than other large-diameter natural gas pipeline projects – even pipelines hundreds of miles longer than the MVP – with the notable exception of the now-cancelled Atlantic Coast Pipeline.5
Counting wetlands and both intermittent and ephemeral streams, the total number of waterbodies crossed by the MVP swells to more than 1,000.
While Alliance asserts that MVP waterbody crossings “are sure to be even environmentally safer” due to advances in pipeline technology, no mention is made of the fact that the project has already received over $2.7 million in fines due to violations of state water quality laws and related environmental regulations.
These fines represent only MVP’s construction activities to date. MVP has stated that around half of the 1,000+ waterbody crossings remain outstanding.
Comprehensive review of the FEIS documentation from other pipelines also reveals that the MVP is routed across far more steep slopes (75 miles) and areas of high landslide risk (225 miles) than any other large-diameter interstate gas transmission pipeline built to date. ,
Landslides resulted in five natural gas pipeline explosions in Appalachia over 2018-2019, and prompted the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to issue an advisory bulletin on pipeline safety and geological hazards. One of these pipelines, the Leach XPress, was even approved the same year as the MVP.
This rash of gas pipeline explosions calls into serious question the safety record of natural gas pipelines in Appalachia, as well as MVP’s selection of the pipeline route.
Perhaps most telling, not one day after Alliance’s op-ed was published in the Roanoke Times, news dropped that the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) would likely need a full year to reissue the water crossing permits to MVP. That state regulators partly based their decision on “the complexity of this project” is proof that over the past four years MVP has not demonstrated it can adequately minimize impacts and safely cross waterbodies in Virginia.
It also bears mentioning that for DEQ to issue water crossing permits to projects – pipelines or otherwise – the Department must have “reasonable assurance” that project activities will not violate state water quality laws. MVP’s litany of violations shatters any illusion it is capable of meeting this standard.
Recent court rulings in North Carolina related to the MVP Southgate Extension project confirm, in no uncertain terms, that states are well within their legal right to deny water quality certification to federally approved pipeline projects.
When it comes to the MVP, a focus on the numbers makes it impossible to defend such an unnecessary, disastrously routed, and environmentally destructive project.
DEQ would be wise to reject MVP’s application for water crossing permits in Virginia.
Jacob Hileman is an environmental hydrologist with a doctorate from the University of California, Davis. He was raised in the Catawba Valley of Virginia, and is presently a researcher with the Centre of Natural Hazards and Disaster Science at Uppsala University.