MVP’s violations show ‘complete absence of any and all meaningful regulation’

July 15, 2019 10:01 pm

Opponents of the Mountain Valley Pipeline project led a tour of the denuded, muddy construction site in June 2019 at Four Corners Farm in Franklin County. (Mason Adams/ For the Virginia Mercury)

Ever since Mountain Valley Pipeline first proposed to gouge a 303-mile long, 125-foot wide scar across the heart of the Appalachian Mountains, countless experts have warned of the uncontrollable erosion the project would provoke.

These warnings have since proven to be well founded: We have witnessed sediment-laden water flowing off the right-of-way and into adjacent streams, roads buried in up to a foot of mud, and even one erosion event so extreme that two segments of steel pipe – each weighing just over 13,000 pounds – skidded hundreds of feet from a worksite and onto private property.

In spite of the fact that MVP has been sued by both Virginia and West Virginia for hundreds of violations related to failed sediment and erosion control measures, MVP has insisted these are isolated events and largely “the result of unprecedented rainfall through the spring and summer of 2018.” However, new revelations from filings MVP has made with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission confirm erosion is pervasive year-round, and occurring on a project-wide basis.

The non-profit Protect Our Water, Heritage, Rights coalition maintains a regularly updated and publicly available database of all “variance” requests MVP has filed with FERC. A variance represents a deviation from the work plan, and MVP must file a variance request any time it wishes to undertake an activity not contained within its original work plan. As such, variances can provide an indication of the problems MVP encounters during construction.

Since March 18, 2018, FERC has approved 125 variance requests filed by MVP. Analysis of these variances reveals the extent of MVP’s existential erosion crisis:

  • One-third (34%) of the total variance requests MVP has made relate to “slip remediation,” or efforts to correct erosion events.
  • From October 18, 2018 to April 5, 2019, MVP requested 23 variances related to slip remediation in just one 10-mile stretch of the project.
  • From March 11 to May 16, 2019, every single variance – 27 in a row – that MVP requested was related to slip remediation. This amounts to an average of three slip-related variance requests per week during this two-month period.
  • MVP has filed multiple variance requests related to the same slip, including one site along the pipeline route where MVP states that previous slips “have grown considerably from the time of the original variance requests.”
  • The 43 slip-related variances amount to an additional 62 acres of land impacted by MVP, or an average of 1.4 acres per variance. However, one variance alone totaled almost 8 acres, which highlights the scale – not just the quantity – of the erosion events MVP is incurring. And most, if not all, of these additional impacts are being borne by private landowners.

These variances prove that MVP is not only having to make substantial adjustments to its work plan in order to address widespread erosion problems, but that erosion events are actually responsible for a large fraction of all such adjustments MVP has made.

The variances also suggest MVP may be portraying erosion differently, depending on whether it is addressing state agencies or FERC. Lastly, and perhaps most alarmingly, these variances are just the tip of the iceberg; they represent only those erosion events that required MVP to deviate from its work plan in order to address.

It is important to remember that uncontrollable erosion is not just harmful to the environment that we depend on for our health and livelihoods, erosion jeopardizes the integrity of the pipeline itself.

In fact, in response to a spate of recent erosion-related pipeline explosions – primarily in the Eastern U.S. – the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) took the rare step of issuing an “advisory bulletin.” Specifically, PHMSA did so “to remind owners and operators of gas and hazardous liquid pipelines of the potential for damage to pipeline facilities caused by earth movement from both landslides and subsidence in variable, steep, and rugged terrain.”

The slip-related variance requests MVP has made are more than enough evidence to justify a project-wide Stop Work Order. And the order must remain in place until MVP can demonstrate it is able to control erosion sufficiently along the 224 miles of the pipeline it routed through areas of “moderately high” to “high” landslide risk.

That these erosion-related variances are also being approved by a federal “regulatory” commission at the same time as key permits remain suspended – partly due to MVP’s exceedingly optimistic estimates of the effectiveness of its proposed erosion control measures – needs to be recognized for what it is: the complete absence of any and all meaningful regulation.

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Jacob Hileman
Jacob Hileman

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.