Trenches, Sinkholes and Slippery Slopes

The proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline would traverse this ridge in Highland County.
The proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline would traverse this ridge in Highland County, according to the Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition

Building gas pipelines over steep mountains and sinkhole-prone terrain risks erosion, sedimentation and drinking-water pollution. Are state regulators on top of the situation?

by James A. Bacon

Early this year James Golden and Melanie Davenport, senior managers with Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), were hearing increasingly vocal concerns about the environmental problems posed by the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) and Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP), especially where routes crossed steep terrain riddled with sinkholes and underground rivers. Pipeline foes doubted it was possible to build pipelines in such adverse conditions without putting water quality at risk. Golden and Davenport wanted to see for themselves.

The two DEQ officials got their chance when their West Virginia counterparts arranged a tour of a major construction project, the Ohio Valley Connector, which runs 37 miles through rugged terrain. EQT, a principal partner of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, was managing the project. Golden, DEQ’s director of operations, and Davenport, director of DEQ’s water division, especially wanted to see how the pipeline diggers handled the challenge of steep slope construction.

The tour took them through several phases of construction on the West Virginia side of the border where IQT was clearing trees, digging trenches, and stabilizing the site. Although some mountain slopes in Virginia are steeper, the environmental and topographic conditions are comparable to much of what pipeline companies would experience in the Old Dominion.

“We saw clearing on a slope that was so steep it gave me vertigo,” Davenport told Bacon’s Rebellion. “A backhoe was rocking like it was going to slip down the hill. Sometimes its tracks started slipping. It looked so dangerous, but the driver was nonplussed. I couldn’t take my eyes off it.”

Despite the challenges of laying pipe in steep terrain, says Golden, “We came away with the impression that [construction] can be done that seemed acceptable under the regulations.”

Golden’s reassurances are scarce comfort to Rick Webb, program coordinator of the Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition. “We’re dealing with pipeline construction [in Virginia] on an unprecedented scale,” he says. While ACP and MVP have redrawn routes around the most sensitive environmental habitat, there is no avoiding the steep mountain slopes, which are prone to landslides and erosion, and karst limestone geology, with its easily contaminated caves and underground streams.

Governor Terry McAuliffe, who supports both pipelines, has said he has no authority to deny air or water quality permits. But Webb says that’s a cop-out. He is particularly concerned about the approach taken by DEQ, which plays a key role in regulating storm water runoff and protecting the quality of water in rivers, streams and aquifers. “I have a profound lack of faith in the process,” he says. “It is a fundamentally broken regulatory system. Virginia’s largest construction projects in the last 50 years are basically operating without state oversight.”

Environmental regulation of pipelines is a patchwork of federal and state rules. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) takes the lead role, conducting an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers has a say-so in activities that might impact rivers and streams. And DEQ regulates the erosion and sediment runoff resulting from pipeline construction.

There are two clusters of issues relevant to state oversight of pipeline construction: regulating how pipelines cross rivers and streams, and regulating the length of trenches that construction contractors can dig. In both instances, Webb says, DEQ is taking less forceful action than it could. But Golden and Davenport say there are safeguards are in place to provide ample protection of fragile terrain.

Slippery soil on steep slopes

DEQ maintains the Annual Standards and Specifications, a framework detailing how contractors address erosion & sediment control in major construction projects. The standards cover 19 best management practices such as silt fences, detention basins, and setback requirements. Like anyone else undertaking a big construction project, like the Virginia Department of Transportation, pipeline companies must submit a plan describing how they intend to meet these standards. They must give particular attention given to how they will manage disruption to stream beds they cross. And DEQ must approve the plan.

The problem with a standard framework, says David Sligh, senior regulatory system investigator with the Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition, is that the proposed pipelines cross four separate physiographic provinces, each with different habitats, geologies, soils and species. “To think that you can come up with an overall plan that is appropriate for each of these areas is dreaming.”

Webb says he would like to see plans tailored for each of dozens of streams, river crossings and steep mountainsides.

DEQ contends that it is asking the ACP and MVP to exceed normal regulatory requirements. The pipeline builders must describe how they go about building the pipeline and protecting the environment along every foot of their routes, and they will required to post documentation online for public viewing and comment.

The pipelines have not yet submitted their plans, but ACP officials say they aspire to exceed all state and federal standards during the pipeline construction. MVP did not respond to Bacon’s Rebellion requests to describe how it expects to deal with clean water issues.

Dominion Transmission, ACP’s managing partner, is putting into place a “best-in-class” program that is meant to go “above and beyond the regulatory floor,” says Robert Hare, senior environmental engineer for the project.

ACP hired geotech consultants specializing in slope stability. Having identified about 900 individual slopes on 35 miles of the pipeline route in Virginia and West Virginia, the consultants took samples to determine if soil along the route is prone to slipping. Hare acknowledges that some slopes have fragile soils that are vulnerable slippage and landslides, and that a “one-size-fits-all” approach will not work.

ACP has devised a flexible approach to address the unique conditions in the field. Construction and engineering teams will be able to draw from six “buckets” of approved practices that best fit the conditions they encounter. “It’s a very structured program with steps and milestones and decision-making points along the way.”

“As with anything, there’s a learning curve,” says Hare. “But we feel we  have a product that’s better than anything we’ve had before.”

Webb with the anti-pipeline coalition questions whether the will have an opportunity for meaningful review before construction commences. But based on his conversations with DEQ officials, says Hare, he expects MVP and ACP will be required to make the plans available to the public and says that DEQ will entertain input on how the plans can be improved.

Variances for open trenches

Digging open trenches is an unavoidable feature of building pipelines, and that’s an issue on steep slopes where water running down the mountainside can erode the soil and pick up sediment. Builders are required to obtain waivers from DEQ whenever the trenches exceed 500 feet in length. The department has granted such waivers to pipelines in the past and has indicated it will for ACP and MVP.

“DEQ granted variances in every case,” says Sligh with the anti-pipeline coalition. “One variance permitted a 15-mile open segment. That’s absurd — it negates the idea of having the rules in the first place.”

For its part, DEQ contends that proper controls can be put into place for lengths greater than 500 feet. As a practical matter, enforcing the rule rigidly would make pipeline construction impossible.

“If you can only open 500 feet, and you pay your welders to weld one segment, then sit around until [the trench] is backfilled and another segment is opened up, that probably adds a lot of cost,” says Golden. He has asked around the department, and nobody knows what’s “magic” about the 500-foot standard. “We can’t find anyone who can tell us where the 500 feet comes from.”

When granting variances, he says, DEQ takes into account the steepness of the slopes, the distance of the trenches from surface waters, and palliative measures the construction crews will use.

Karst and sinkholes

A related environmental concern is the eccentricity of the limestone-based karst terrain found in the Appalachian mountains. Karst is riddled with caves, sinkholes, and underground rivers not visible to the naked eye.

DEQ granted a variance in 2014 to Columbia Gas to build an open trench over a mountain in Giles County, says Webb. “The DEQ never looked at the erosion and sentiment control plans, never conducted any inspections.” When water drained into a sinkhole at the bottom of the mountain, disrupting the water supply of Peterstown, W.Va., DEQ didn’t know about the problem until water customers began complaining, he says. “You could smell diesel fuel coming out of the tap water!”

The pipeline companies insist that they have extensive experience building pipelines on steep slopes and in karst terrain. “Thousands of miles of highway and pipeline have been built on karst,” says ACP spokesman Aaron Ruby. “The key is to identify the sensitive formations ahead of time.”

“We avoid known caves and sinkholes” when mapping the pipeline routes, says Leslie Hartz, vice president of pipeline construction for Dominion Transmission, managing partner of ACP. “We’ve walked the route with karst experts and made adjustments as needed. We’ve conducted electrical resistivity testing looking for voids underground.” The surveys have identified voids, sinking rivers, springs and water recharge areas to avoid.

Once the pipeline is under construction, the company plans to conduct aerial patrols along the route. If the fliers spot anything suspicious, they send out foot patrols. “If a sinkhole appears, we’d spot it quickly.”

“Dominion Transmission has built 400 miles in rugged terrain in West Virginia and Pennsylvania. We have lots of experience,” says Hartz. Likewise, she adds, the construction contractor and sub-contractors selected for the ACP construction are all experienced.

Webb is not impressed by Dominion’s record. The  company’s G-150 pipeline in West Virginia was cited by West Virginia authorities for 18 violations, he says. Multiple cases of slope failure and landslides into the stream caused extensive water quality problems. The company paid a $55,000 fine.

“The pipelines brag about their high environmental stewardship standards,” he says. “The people who write that stuff don’t know what’s going on in the ground. There’s a disconnect between the PR and what actually happens.”

How good are the inspectors?

One reason the public should be reassured, say DEQ officials, is the multiple layers of inspectors checking the pipeline construction. “There’s a lot of redundancy,” says the DEQ’s Golden. “FERC will inspect the construction. The pipelines will inspect. We’ll inspect, too. That’s three entities involved in oversight and inspection.”

Webb questions the effectiveness of the inspection regime. FERC inspections are conducted by hired industry-connected consulting firms. DEQ has little experience with pipeline inspections. ACP says it will inspect its own performance, he says, but can anyone trust them not to put its own bottom line first? “There is no real independent oversight.”

Whatever the validity of Webb’s criticisms of past DEQ performance, this time it’s different, Golden insists. DEQ will require the pipelines to cover any costs the agency incurs to monitor the pipeline construction. He can’t predict what those costs will be, he says, but “whatever we deem necessary, the state will be reimbursed.”

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3 responses to “Trenches, Sinkholes and Slippery Slopes”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    re: ” The two DEQ officials got their chance when their West Virginia counterparts arranged a tour of a major construction project, ”

    This is hilarious given WVA’s truly horrible environmental record in general. Most of their rivers are polluted from deep mining and mountaintop removal. Some are so acidic from mine runoff that the river has almost no life in it.. and the rocks are orange…

    so these folks are going to show Va DEQ folks how to do pipelines “right”?

    good lord…

  2. Rick Webb Avatar

    So Virginia DEQ has gained perspective on the ACP and MVP through an “arranged” tour of a much smaller pipeline project in an area where the mountains are half as high, there is no karst, and there are no native brook trout streams. We have repeatedly challenged Dominion to provide examples of large pipeline projects built across steep forest-covered mountains with complex karst systems and high-quality streams in the valleys between the mountains. We are still waiting.

    Rick Webb, Program Coordinator
    Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    I’d just point out that just like with roads – the only option for pipelines is NOT steep slopes.

    Most roads go up gradually on lateral inclines and switchbacks – rather than straight up and down.

    it’s more expensive – yes – but that’s what you do to provide safety and such laterals do not stand out visually like straight up and down swaths do.

    I think this issue – once again – points out that you have multiple competing ventures pursuing multiple routes to move gas that likely will need only one route – likely only financially viable for one route.

    Yet each one of them is proceeding as if they’re the only route and they are the ones that are justified in using eminent domain because they are meeting a “public need”.

    Now we have West Virginia regulation held up as a model to emulate in “helping” Virginia’s DEQ determine how steep is acceptable and FERC treating all proposals that will use different routes – each with their own steep slopes – as “needed” and deserving of using Eminent Domain.

    In BR , we get Dominion’s version of their proposal more than a balanced perspective that points out that there are multiple proposals , each with their own impacts but that add up cumulatively to far bigger impacts than one pipeline route.

    To me – that’s a far more important issue than having Dominion surrogates regale us with stories of West Virginia regulators telling Va DEQ how to do steep slopes …

    WHO is making sure that we only build what is actually needed and that we only build on steep slopes when there is no alternative as opposed to a free-for-all process where profit is determining whether or not steep slopes are the only way?

    This is a totally FUBAR process.. multiple regulators and multiple ventures – and no one seems to be in charge… nor willing to step in and protect the public and property owners and ratepayers from the worst of capitalism…

    We should have a process where one route is selected from options and the selected route has a minimum of steep slopes and only where there are no real alternatives – rather than cost driving us to do what is not in anyone’s best interests including those that would have to maintain the pipeline and fix issues later on.

    That process would then invite proposals from individual companies and consortiums to build the pipeline , operate it and maintain it – to serve the public – not corporate interests if it is going to use eminent domain to acquire property.

    This is a totally fouled up and wrong process.. that should be opposed – and stopped – until or unless it is gotten under control and the abuses pushed back.

    Remember – I am IN FAVOR of moving the gas to where it is needed. I am NOT opposing this on “environmental” grounds but because it is a corrupt disservice to the public and an affront to legitimate commerce that should be fairly balanced between actual public need and private for-profit wants.

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