WIRTZ — Little Creek ran chocolate-milkshake brown, surging with flood water as it splashed over its banks just feet from where lengths of the Mountain Valley Pipeline lay mounted on wooden blocks and submerged in ditches.
Two dozen people trudged through the mud and muck, surveying what was once a key pasture for Four Corners Farm, now gashed and treeless in anticipation of the pipeline.
“We’re walking along an open trench with a huge pipe that’s been sitting in it for about 10 months that is eroding away slowly as the trench is getting deeper and wider,” said Carolyn Reilly, one of the owners of the farm, during a tour last weekend. “This was the lowest and flattest part of our 58-acre farm, and right now a quarter mile of it has been trenched and plowed through by the MVP.”
Carolyn and her husband, Ian, along with David and Betty Werner, moved to the Franklin County farm from Florida in 2010. They began raising chickens, cattle and pigs with restorative practices — rotational grazing and no pesticides or fertilizer, among other techniques.
Three years later came the announcement: A 303-mile transmission pipeline project was planned to move natural gas from Marcellus and Utica shale formations of northern West Virginia across the Appalachian mountains to Pittsylvania County. After a few adjustments, the final route crossed Four Corners Farm. The pipeline, owned by EQM Midstream Partners and a consortium of natural gas transportation companies, was given the green light for construction by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in 2017.
MVP did not respond to request for comment and a list of questions emailed to its spokesperson this week.
Fighting the MVP in court and on the land
Four Corners Farm is emblematic of the struggles of landowners along the pipeline route.
First, the Reillys and Werners fought the pipeline in court, but were among the owners of some 300 properties who saw portions of their land awarded to MVP using a version of eminent domain in which the land is condemned and transferred before a price is set. The family’s lawyer, Joe Sherman of Norfolk, said a jury will decide how much money the family will receive in a case currently scheduled for May of 2020.
Second, the family confronted pipeline workers on their land. Ian Reilly described holding his ground, standing on a fence line while a pipeline surveyor walked right up to the edge of the land and asked him to back up. The family didn’t go up into trees like Theresa “Red” Terry and Minor Terry, a mother and daughter who sat took to perches above the ground for days on end in the MVP right of way across their land in Bent Mountain, but they did allow others to do so. Carolyn used Facebook Live videos to capture confrontations with pipeline crews, and MVP later showed a video in court of Ian standing near crews cutting trees. The Reillys were fined $1,000 each for supporting the civil disobedience.
Third, the pipeline disrupted the family’s life and business. In interviews, the Reillys and Werners described the loss of a landscape closely tied to their personal and family histories. They carry memories tied to this stretch of former pasture. Ian Reilly gestured to the remnants of a wooded peninsula near the convergence of Teels and Little creeks and the pipeline right of way, where his children had built a fort that became one of their favorite spots to play. The earth-moving that came with the pipeline, as well as the erosion and flooding that followed, have nearly eradicated the site, but not the memories.
A set of hoop houses were visible above the right of way, but the livestock now are gone, too. The Four Corners Farm owners had been considering obtaining organic certification by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but the pipeline’s decimation of its best pasture, along with MVP’s use of chemical pipe coatings and fertilizer, destroyed those plans. The Reillys relocated to another county, while the Werners remain up the road, regularly monitoring pipeline construction activity and watching for regulatory violations.
“After the invasion last year of starting construction so abruptly, we had to make a really difficult decision. We decided to cease our farming operations, out of a lot of different concerns,” Carolyn Reilly said. “We all need water to drink and live, and for raising animals, and we were worried about contamination to our aquifer.
“Another concern was the influx of so much noise and construction, and the effect that that has on the hormone and stress systems of animals. And it affected us. So once we were finished with our farming season last year, we left because (of) the stress and the noise, and because our livelihood was gone.”
Flooding and erosion
Four Corners is downstream from the pipeline’s steep descent from the Blue Ridge Plateau, which has compounded erosion and sediment runoff. The Mountain Valley Pipeline has struggled with erosion and sediment issues throughout its construction over the past year and a half.
According to a lawsuit filed by Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and a state contractor recorded more than 300 violations of erosion, sediment control and stormwater regulations on the MVP between June and November of 2018. Herring spokesman Michael Kelly deferred questions about MVP and Four Corners Farm to the DEQ.
On the day the Reillys and Werners invited friends, supporters, and the media to visit their former farm, western Franklin County was placed under a flood warning and I had to find another route to their land after turning around on Callaway Road because it was flooded.
The flooding came a little more than a year after runoff from pipeline construction resulted in a mudslide on Cahas Mountain Road, located up the Blue Ridge Plateau from Four Corners Farm. That incident resulted in the only pipeline work stoppage to date, which was informally agreed to by MVP and DEQ and which lasted a little more than a week. The DEQ has not used the expansion of its stop work authority it was granted by the General Assembly in 2019.
Next week, the State Water Control Board is scheduled to convene an advisory board meeting to merge the state’s erosion and sediment control program with its stormwater management program.
The quarter mile of right of way through Four Corners Farm isn’t nearly as steep as stretches higher in the mountains, but it sits amid two waterways, Teels Creek and Little Creek, with smaller wetland areas along the way. The crossing of Teels Creek is another snag: the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ 404 permit approvals are currently suspended due to problems related to conditions on crossings in West Virginia.
Exposed pipe, dead grass
The Reillys and Werners pointed to what they say are other construction lapses. Even in June, with the surrounding countryside a bright green, the grass cover on the pipeline right of way coming down a slope onto the farm property looked dark brown.
“That grass is just dead,” Carolyn Reilly said. “It can’t even grow because the soil is so compacted. That’s their seed.”
DEQ spokeswoman Ann Regn wrote that it might be nurse grass, a temporary species used to transition the site to a required native mix.
Carolyn’s mother, Betty Werner, used a walking stick to indicate a piece of pipeline that had been chipped, exposing an inner layer. After initially spotting it, she alerted regulators, and the workers installing it had subsequently drawn a black circle around it.
Lengths of pipe — some welded together and others not — sat exposed to the rain and sun, some for many months, Betty Werner said. Others lay immersed in brown water in flooded trenches.
Timber mats stretched across parts of the right of way, but were inundated with mud and water. A bridge stretched across Little Creek, but the swollen waterway was touching it. Werner indicated a spot downstream where pieces of a previous bridge had washed downstream the year before, during flooding by Hurricane Michael.
Werner pointed her stick toward a spot where last year she noted the right of way was located 36 feet from the creek — closer than the 50 feet required by DEQ. That distance has diminished with erosion to just 29 feet, she said. Werner said she complained to DEQ, which required MVP to better stabilize the area.
“It was rutted, deep trenches, and no grass,” Werner said. The company dropped pellets for replanting grass, “but very little of them came up, except in clumps.” She said workers were back on site hand-planting grass and laying straw a few days ahead of the Reillys media event.
Regn, the DEQ spokeswoman, said “DEQ’s certified erosion and sediment control inspectors have been, and will continue to be, on site (two inspectors per spread, 8-10 hours per day) to ensure appropriate control measures are in place, installed properly and maintained.”
A letter from MVP to DEQ Director David Paylor listed concerns at Four Corners Farm and the Dale Angle Farm, also in Franklin County, including some of those observed in the right of way: standing water in trenches, streambank scour, perimeter controls overtopping during high flow and stabilization measures. MVP committed to return the areas “to pre-construction contours and conditions,” to install additional controls, and to implement more soil stabilization measures.
“Mountain Valley takes these concerns very seriously and is committed to completing the project in a manner that protects the land and natural resources crossed by and adjacent to the project,” reads the letter, which was signed by Robert Cooper of Equitrans Midstream Corporation.
‘It’s all about money’
On the bridge over Little Creek stood Theresa “Red” Terry and her husband, Coles, who have been fighting MVP on their Bent Mountain property. Although trees have been cut on the Terrys’ property, pipeline crews haven’t yet cleared the land in the right of way. Their family has lived on that land for six generations. Coles didn’t grow up in the house he now lives in, but his father and grandfather both did.
“The people, the agencies and the organizations that are supposed to be out there to protect us don’t really care about us,” Coles said. “They care about corporations. Corporations have more rights than individual people do. And it’s all about the bottom line. It’s all about money.”
I asked Red Terry about seeing the pipeline cut at Four Corners Farm after her own experience in the trees.
“It makes me feel suicidal,” she responded.
“I look at what they’re gonna do to my land (what) they did to this beautiful land. When they took down my trees while I was up in the tree, it was probably the worst day of my life. It feels like they’ve taken one of my children and they’re raping them and beating them and mutilating them while I’m watching, because the land up there is like our child. We have watched over that land for his family. Six generations. I just feel like all the people that have been put in place for our protection have been bought off.”
When your land is being taken against your will for a pipeline that runs within a few hundred feet of your house, how do you live with it, I asked. How do you sit in a tree for 34 days but still keep going a year after you’ve come down?
“I don’t,” Terry said. “I don’t. I wake up in the middle of the night in sweats. Just my heart pounding. I have been to the doctor about it, and he’s told me it’s panic and anxiety attacks.”
She described her biggest fear: that the pipeline explodes when she’s away, killing the rest of her family and leaving her alone. While comparatively rare, explosions happen. A newly installed gas line in West Virginia exploded last June after a landslide. A few months later, the same happened in western Pennsylvania. When Terry described that scenario, her face started to crack and she held back tears.
During the tour, children played among the group of families and activists, running through mud puddles, climbing piles of dirt, shouting through lengths of pipe and laughing at the echos. Amid the flurry of youthful activity, Carolyn Reilly couldn’t help but laugh.
“Of course, children find a way to find beauty in everything,” Reilly said. “Despite all this, we have found new ways of experiencing joy through how the children can be amid such devastation. That teaches us as adults and parents that there still is joy to be had and experienced in life, even with something like this.”