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Bowers, Christopulos and Smusz: COVID-19 and an army of pipeline workers don't mix

Bowers, Christopulos and Smusz: COVID-19 and an army of pipeline workers don't mix

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By Kirk Bowers, Diana Christopulos and Tina Smusz

Bowers is pipelines campaign adviser for the Sierra Club Virginia chapter. He is from Charlottesville. Christopulos is the retired owner of an international management consulting business. She lives in Salem. Smusz is retired from 27 years of medical practice in Emergency Medicine and Palliative Care. She lives in Catawba.

We all have grave concerns about COVID-19. Restaurants, public facilities and churches have closed. Everyone is asked to stay home and gather in groups smaller than ten.

But out-of-state natural gas corporations either don’t pay attention to current news, or maybe they just don’t care about the consequences of their actions. Mountain Valley Pipeline’s owners are preparing to unleash thousands of pipeline workers in six Virginia counties (Giles, Craig, Montgomery, Roanoke, Franklin and Pittsylvania), most of them non-local. Each of these workers is a potential virus carrier.

While the nation is shutting down public and private events and facilities, MVP developer EQT told investors in February that “we are planning to get back to construction at the end of April. . . . So construction will start ramping up.” They are pushing hard to complete construction in 2020 and have announced no significant changes.

Are we prepared for an army of pipeliners? MVP’s own plans show that they would be sending more than 2,000 construction workers to rural Virginia counties, more than 1,600 of them non-local. They would increase contamination risks to the general public and compete with local residents for food, health care — and toilet paper. Many would be housed in Roanoke and Blacksburg. There is no way they could maintain social distancing while working, eating, shopping, etc. Housing for workers includes trailer parks, motels, and apartment complexes, all dense living settings which facilitate spread of communicable disease. Elders, who are most vulnerable to COVID 19, constitute a larger proportion (20%-30%) of the population in the rural areas traversed by the pipeline and inhabited by these itinerant construction workers .

MVP’s owners have seriously overstated the completion status of the project, apparently to reassure jittery investors. The MVP project web page says it is 90% finished, but weekly status reports that MVP files to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission show that the section in Giles County is less than 20% complete and a section including Montgomery and Roanoke counties is less than 50% done. The math does not support the claim.

In addition, MVP has lost numerous vital permits from federal courts: from the U.S. Corps of Engineers to cross rivers and streams, from the U.S. Forest Service for crossing Jefferson National Forest, from the Bureau of Land Management for crossing the Appalachian Trail and from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service for inadequate protection of endangered species.

Investors and potential investors are rightly concerned about the viability of MVP and its owners, who are desperate to maintain the image of profitability. The reality is that EQT may be on the verge of bankruptcy. Reviewing the top-ten 2016-2019 natural gas producers and their respective stock price performances, EQT Corp ranked worst in overall losses with a staggering stock price decline of 66.4% . ETRN, another MVP owner, recently ranked worst among stocks in the S&P 1500 Composite for long-term debt to equity — money owed versus stock value.

It would take an army of construction workers from out-of-state working 24/7 to finish building the pipeline on time. Drilling through Peters Mountain to cross under the Appalachian Trail takes months to complete, provided MVP is permitted to cross the AT. There are more than 50 miles of river and stream crossings and Forest Service lands to cross before construction is complete.

The owners of MVP do not care about the health of people in our community, nor do they care about the health of pipeline workers themselves, who are just doing a job and are highly at risk for catching COVID-19 if anyone on the job has it.

This is not the time to bring in an army of out-of-state workers with the threat of COVID-19 contamination to local residents, requiring food and health care that are already in short supply. MVP construction should be suspended indefinitely.

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