Workers had begun laying portions of the Mountain Valley Pipeline in Roanoke County near the Blue Ridge Parkway in 2018. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury - July 26, 2018)

By Jonathan Sokolow

Mountain Valley Pipeline is a $6.2 billion corporate boondoggle that a Pittsburgh-based fracked gas company, EQT Corporation, is trying to ram down the throat of West Virginia and Virginia.  

Boondoggle is exactly the right word for this climate-busting project, which was first conceived in 2014 and has yet to be completed.  

As originally proposed, MVP carried an estimated price tag of roughly $3.5 billion.  When the price shot up to $4.6 billion, it was assessed to be the most expensive proposed pipeline in the United States on a cost per mile basis. MVP more recently has used an estimate of $5.7 billion, but that was before it announced that it was going to spend up to an additional $500 million to increase the pressure in the pipes to further condense the explosive methane gas and thus increase production.  So that brings the estimated cost to $6.2 billion – for now.

Here’s another number that could haunt MVP  $104 million. That is what one of its contractors says it is owed in a pair of lawsuits that were just filed in Pennsylvania and in West Virginia. The contractor is demanding that the pipeline be sold at auction to pay off the debt.

So yeah, MVP apparently is not very good with numbers.  

It turns out that MVP is no better at telling the truth than it is at math.  Consider the following:

• MVP convinced Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality and the State Water Control Board that construction of this 303-mile pipeline – one third of it in Virginia – could be done safely, without harming water or land resources.  That turned out to be a lie, as evidenced by the fact that Virginia assessed more than $2 million in fines for over 300 violations of Virginia law, and recently levied additional fines for violations that occurred while construction was largely stopped.

• MVP said construction along the steep slopes of Southwest Virginia and across the border in West Virginia could be done safely, without harming its own workers. Then, photos emerged of excavators toppling over, a root ball rolling down a hill, almost killing people, and landslides threatening homes in the direct path of the pipeline.  In fact, one prime contractor for MVP, a Wisconsin company named Precision Pipeline, has a poor environmental record as well as a well-documented history of killing its own workers.

• MVP said its boondoggle would be fine from a climate change perspective.  That also was a lie, as an analysis showed that MVP would produce the equivalent of 89 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually, as much as 26 coal plants or 19 million passenger vehicles.

• And MVP said it would practice social distancing and mask wearing for its workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.  That lie was exposed by, well, photos of its workers not wearing masks and not social distancing.  In fact, MVP’s failure to abide by COVID-19 protocols and the danger posed by thousands of workers preparing to come to Virginia to ramp up construction, just led 22 Virginia legislators to call for a complete halt to all construction during the pandemic.

The Mountain Valley Pipeline route. (via Roanoke County government)

Which brings us to Mark Twain, who famously wrote: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”  

For the last six years, MVP has tried to create the impression, for investors and opponents alike, that its pipeline is inevitable, a “done deal.”   In fact, MVP is now claiming that the project is almost done. And to demonstrate that “fact,” MVP has deployed a statistic, namely, that  “we have completed 92 percent of total project work.”  That claim has been so effective that most news outlets have repeated it – often by saying that the company “says the project is 90% complete” – without asking for something anyone who has taken a math class knows is required: proof. 

More recently, MVP has tried to justify renewed construction, which has been blocked by its loss of several key permits, because it “only” needs to complete “the roughly 8 percent remaining.”  

MVP has not explained precisely how it came up with those numbers.  And apparently no one has asked them.

It turns out that MVP’s “92 percent complete” statistic is not just a lie.  It is, as Mark Twain might say, a damned lie, especially in Virginia.

And the truth is a matter of public record.

As shown on this map, the MVP path is divided into 9 “spreads,” labeled A through I. The first six spreads, A-F, are in West Virginia. The last three, G, H and I, are in Virginia.  

But all spreads are not created equal. The most difficult terrain in Virginia, the areas that are along the steepest slopes, are in Spread G, which includes the Jefferson National Forest, and in Spread H.

So how much of MVP’s pipeline is actually complete?  

First of all, you need to define what “complete” means. In simple terms, complete means trees have been cleared, a trench has been dug, pipe has been put in the trench and welded, a thorough inspection and X-raying of all welds has been completed, the trench backfilled and the ground above it restored.

Then there are additional steps, including pressure testing using millions of gallons of water and interior inspection of the pipes, all of which would be required before the pipeline could actually go into service. And all of that assumes that there has not been damage to the pipes or their protective coating in the years many of them have been laying around in the sun or sitting in water in open trenches.  

“Complete” also assumes there has been no shifting of ground in slips or landslides that threaten the integrity of the welds – something that already has occurred at multiple locations along the route, including one location where a landslide threatened to destroy homes. In fact, the contractor that has sued MVP for $104 million says that MVP spent more than $3 million to repair slips in just one spread along the route.

Finally, “complete’ also means that MVP receives all permits required for construction and operation, something it presently does not have.  In fact, as a result of multiple federal court cases,  MVP is currently prohibited from crossing more than 1,000 waterways it hoped to cross under the Nationwide Permit 12 program, and it may be forced to seek individual permits or variances to drill under all those rivers, streams and wetlands.

But leaving aside all those testing and permit issues, how much of the MVP physical construction is actually “complete?”  We know exactly how much MVP says it has completed because MVP files regular progress reports with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The Allegheny-Blue Ridge Alliance has analyzed MVP’s filings and produced this chart.  And the facts are revealing.

While substantial work appears to have been done in West Virginia, according to MVP’s own numbers they barely have gotten started in Virginia.

The truth is that in Virginia MVP is less than 15 percent complete.  That’s 15.75 miles complete in Virginia out of a total of 108 miles.

And in Spread G, the most difficult terrain on the route, the pipeline is less than 13 percent complete.

In fact, in Spread G less than 20 percent of the pipe has even been trenched, much less welded.

If we are talking about the 303-mile route as a whole, barely 50 percent of construction (51.32 percent to be precise) is complete.  

And all of that assumes that MVP is telling the truth about the work it has done.  

In addition, there are other common-sense reasons to doubt MVP’s “we are almost done” story.  

Just ask Red Terry.  

In the spring of 2018, Red Terry and her daughter Minor Terry took to the trees on their own land on Bent Mountain, near Roanoke, to block MVP and prevent it from cutting a 125-foot-wide path across their property. They spent 34 days in the trees, while state and local officials tried to starve them out. Meanwhile MVP told a federal court that it was urgent that the Terrys be removed from their trees because tree cutting had to be completed to move the project forward. The judge obliged and agreed to hold the Terry’s in contempt if they did not come down, which they did. MVP cut the trees down the same day.

Two years later, the trees on the Terry’s property are laying right where they fell. MVP has not even removed the timber, much less cleared the land, trenched or laid pipe. It turns out there was no reason to rush to cut down those trees in 2018.

Another good indication that MVP’s “almost done” narrative is fiction is its recent announcement that it intends to bring more than 4,000 out of state workers to Virginia to work on the pipeline. MVP seems intent on doing this despite the fact that we are in the middle of a pandemic and COVID-19 numbers are spiking right across the border in West Virginia.  Why would you need to bring in more than 4,000 workers in the middle of a public health emergency for a project that is “92 percent complete?”

It turns out MVP is, to be generous, manipulating numbers to create a false impression.  It would be like a contractor telling you your new house is “almost complete” because “most” of the wood framing is “done” even though you have no electricity, no water, no roof, no walls, no floors – and the contractor is missing multiple permits to do that work because they got sued in federal court – and lost.

So the next time you hear MVP say “this thing is almost done,” or you read that “MVP says…” or you hear a politician tell you not to bother fighting, remember that statistics are a funny thing.  But actual numbers don’t lie.

And remember that we’ve been here before.

Because Dominion Energy, which recently canceled its $8 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline, also claimed its project was inevitable. They did so for six years, even while they were preparing to cancel it. We were told the ACP was a “done deal.” 

Now it is a dead deal. And some are calling it the Atlantic Ghost Pipeline.

Jonathan Sokolow is an attorney, writer and activist living in Fairfax County.  He has written extensively on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, the Mountain Valley Pipeline and environmental justice issues in Virginia.  His work can be found in the Huffington Post, Blue Virginia, the Virginia Mercury and Medium.com.