Standing Their Ground

Justin McClain (L) listens as his father, Robert talks about the Stonewall Gas Gathering Pipeline
Justin McClain (L) listens as his father, Robert talks about the Stonewall Gas Gathering Pipeline

Local farmers battle with companies building Stonewall Gas Gathering Pipeline over crop damage; West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection issues Notice of Violation to company for violations nearby, continues investigation of incident impacting farm

By Michael M. Barrick

BIG ISAAC, W.Va. – Justin McClain is a farmer. At 35, it is all he has ever done in this small Doddridge County community since before he was a teenager. It is also all he plans to ever do. However, recent damage he says was caused to his crops by the company building the Stonewall Gas Gathering pipeline has him questioning if he will be able to keep his farm going. It also has him and his father, Robert, concerned about the farm’s future if the larger and longer Mountain Valley Pipeline is approved, and has left them both with a bitter taste about the industry as they have tried to get the companies building the 55-mile Stonewall Pipeline Project to compensate them for the loss of Justin’s spring hay crop.

Stonewall Gathering Pipeline construction as seen from a hilltop in Doddridge County, W.Va.
Stonewall Gathering Pipeline construction as seen from a hilltop in Doddridge County, W.Va.

To date, the companies have not admitted responsibility for the damages to his crops. Indeed, they’ve insisted that the McClain’s sign a Release and Waiver that states that the companies are not responsible. In fact, the McClains were given a different version of the Release and Waiver than an attorney in Charleston received – and approved – on their behalf. The two men have also had several conversations on their property with several different corporate representatives, the last ones being told by the elder McClain to leave. “They called Justin a liar. That was enough for me. I told those boys to leave, that they were trespassing.” Justin added, “They took that paper, put it in front of our faces and told us we had to sign it. It was like they were trying to jam it down our throats.”

Meanwhile, Jamie Tallman, an environmental inspector with the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP) has acknowledged he has inspected the damage done to the McClain’s crops and the area upstream where the pipeline construction is occurring. While Tallman said that no Notice of Violation (NOV) has yet been issued to the company building the pipeline – Stonewall Gas Gathering, LLC (SGG) – he added, “We’re still evaluating it.” (However, a NOV has been issued to SGG on the project. Details are below). He spoke with the McClains on July 7. If a NOV is to be issued, it would generally be done within about two business weeks of his investigation. Tallman emphasized, though, that the McClains were not the only people who had contacted WVDEP. “This particular complaint came from many different directions,” he said.

The dispute between the McClains and SGG began after a heavy rain on the evening of June 20th. Just about 2,000 feet upstream from the McClain farm, Precision Pipeline, a subcontractor for SGG, was preparing to lay a 36” pipeline on a steep hillside directly above Meathouse Fork, near Isaac Creek. Meathouse Fork is a tributary of Middle Island Creek, the longest creek in the United States. It empties into the Ohio River near St. Mary’s, W.Va., after meandering for about 77 miles north and then southwest from Doddridge County.

Meathouse Fork on June 22. Note the heavy sediment. Photo courtesy of Pipeline Air Force
Meathouse Fork on June 22. Note the heavy sediment.
Photo courtesy of Pipeline Air Force

Following the rain, a hayfield that would produce approximately 500 bales of hay for Justin’s cattle was flooded. When the waters receded, the McClains found the hay to be unusable. “It’s full of mud,” said Justin. “You can’t use it like that. It’s bad for the cows. It hurts them when they try to eat it, and it is bad for their intestines. It can kill them.” He continued, “It is also bad for the equipment. It clogs it up. And, if you’re the one harvesting it, you get covered with dust. So it is unusable.”

Equally frustrating to the McClains is the treatment they’ve received from the employees of the various companies involved in the project. Robert recalled, “We went up a week before this happened. We talked to a guy from Wisconsin and told him we were concerned about the threat to the valley from runoff.” Robert said the man told him, “If it comes down that valley, if anything happens, we’ll stand good for it. Now go on and don’t worry about it.”

Then the rains came on June 20th, damaging the hay field. Justin explained, “There is just no way to get that mud off that hay. Two or three of them came down. Said they understood and would replace the hay.”

Meathouse Fork with heavy sediment after a rain in June
Meathouse Fork with heavy sediment after a rain in June

Yet, they’re still waiting. Robert said that after the first visits by company officials, they were being told a different story. “They called back and said they wouldn’t buy the hay. It was an act of God, that it could happen anywhere. He said they had rain gauges all along the line and that it had rained three-and-a-half inches in 15 minutes. I told him we were out there and it could not possibly have rained that much in that amount of time.” It was then, he said, that he began to not trust them. Robert, who has lived on the land since the late 1940s, added, “That would have been the most rain we have ever seen in this valley.”

Conflicting Release and Waiver documents
The most recent exchange, after several visits over three weeks by various company officials, included two versions of the same Release and Waiver. The attorney in Charleston that the McClains contacted received a faxed version with a cover sheet without a letterhead. The attorney told the McClains they could sign it, as it was more to their liking than an earlier version because it was limited to the 2015 June hay crop. However, it also reads, “It is understood and agreed by the Owner (the McClains) and SGG that this settlement is a compromise of disputed claims, and payment by SGG is not an admission of liability, and that SGG expressly denies any liability.” The previous version required the McClains to abandon all rights to future claims, denied them the right to talk to any third parties about the matter, and threatened them with an injunction if they violated any of those stipulations.

“I wasn’t going to sign that,” said Robert. “I told them, this is a free country. I’ll talk to who I want. If I want to tell my neighbors up and down the valley, I will.”

That is when the company presented the second document. However, while the attorney was receiving his copy, company representatives presented the McClains with a different version. Justin said, “They kept calling over here wanting to know if the attorney had seen it yet. Once we did get it, they sent someone over right away. But that was a different document than the one they sent the attorney. I asked them what they were trying to pull. The man told me it was a mistake, that he had grabbed the wrong document at the office.” It still contained the provisions that the McClains could make no future claims against the company, and required them to not talk to third parties.

Pipeline construction passes within 100 feet of this home
Pipeline construction passes within 100 feet of this home

None of the three documents contained company letterhead.

Justin recalled, “I told them I’d be a fool to sign that. I told them I just couldn’t trust them. That’s when they called me a liar and put that paper right in front of us and told us we had to sign it. They were following dad around the property demanding that he sign it.” He continued, “I told them I didn’t want money. I just wanted them to get some hay and deliver it. I don’t know why they won’t make it right. It would be so simple.”

Robert added, “That’s the kind of people we’re dealing with. They do not care about the land or water. I don’t think anyone in West Virginia can do anything because they own the politicians. Who’s going to go behind them to fix their destruction?”

Justin added, “All they care about is money. They don’t care about people or land.”

Yet, Justin concluded, “Dad has always told me, ‘Stand your ground.’ That’s what we’re going to do.” Robert simply nodded his head in agreement.

Calls to several company officials were not returned.

Notice of Violation
While the investigation by the WVDEP continues regarding the complaints about the event that impacted the McClain’s farm, SGG was issued a Notice of Violation by WVDEP on June 16th for violations about two miles north of that community. The streams impacted there are Buffalo Calf Fork and Buckeye Creek. Buckeye Creek joins with Meathouse Fork to form Middle Island Creek, so both are tributaries of the nation’s longest creek, with a watershed of more than 550 square miles.

According to Tallman’s report, sediment and erosion control requirements for stream crossings, perimeter controls, and access roads were found to be unsatisfactory. He wrote, “The stream crossing and perimeter controls in Buffalo Calf Fork were observed to be in noncompliance. …” He continued, “Access roads, or stabilized construction entrances to project areas, were observed to lack the required seventy (70) feet of stone as required by the project and E&S plans.”

Water quality was also impacted according to the report. “Sediment associated with pipeline construction was observed to have left the project site through a compromised section of super silt fence and entered into Buffalo Calf Fork, resulting in Conditions Not Allowable in State Waters.”

Middle Island Creek Watershed Art courtesy of Tim Kiser
Middle Island Creek Watershed
Art courtesy of Tim Kiser

Tallman included five warnings for SGG at the end of his report:
1. It is to operate systems and facilities “ … to achieve compliance with the permit.”
2. Entrance signs are to be posted at the project’s site entrance.
3. “Each side shall have a stone access entrance and exit and parking areas to reduce the tracking of sediment onto public or private roads.”
4. “No sediment-laden water shall be allowed to leave the site without going through an appropriate best management practice.”
5. Ensure compliance with the project’s General Permit, Stormwater Pollution Prevention Plan, and Groundwater Protection Plan.

The NOV number is W-NW-JGT-061615-001. Attempts to reach SGG officials for comment were unsuccessful.

About the Stonewall Pipeline Project
Stonewall Gas Gathering, LLC was incorporated in Delaware on June 4, 2014. According to a spokesperson with the Delaware Secretary of State’s office, principals of companies need not be listed. SGG is a subsidiary of Momentum (officially M3Midstream). Momentum is based in Texas and Colorado. The Stonewall Gathering line is part of Momentum’s Appalachian Gathering System (AGS).

The Stonewall Gathering pipeline will connect to the AGS in Harrison County and terminate in Braxton County, where it will connect to the Columbia pipeline.

The company laying the pipeline is Wisconsin-based Precision Pipeline, LLC. Calls to Precision regarding the McClain’s concerns were not returned, but according to the company’s website, “The required qualifications of today’s pipeline contractor are much different. Today’s contractor must not only be cost efficient, but must do so while making a significant priority of the project’s safety needs and the needs of the landowner and the environment. Because of these fundamental changes within the industry, contractors have changed the way they operate by re-training their management, estimators, superintendents, and general workforce. Over the past 20 years, existing contractors have been forced to make this transition to remain on the bid lists of their prospective clients.

“Precision Pipeline is the first pipeline contractor uniquely designed to successfully and efficiently work within today’s more stringent pipeline construction parameters. When considering pipeline contractors to bid on your next pipeline project, remember Precision Pipeline. Our business is built around your needs and the needs of today’s pipeline client. We have the experience and expertise to safely complete any project while maintaining total environmental compliance with minimal impact to landowners. Precision Pipeline is not a new contractor; we are the next generation pipeline contractor.”

SGG secured a loan of $350 million to fund operations, including the Stonewall Gathering pipeline. The loan is due in 2022. Moody’s Investors Service reports, about the pipeline project, “The proceeds of the term loan will be used to fund a portion of the $460 million construction cost. While the term loan is non-recourse, Stonewall benefits from long term, minimum volume commitments from Antero Resources Corporation (Antero, Ba3 stable) and Mountaineer Keystone (unrated) for roughly 83% of the start-up capacity of 1.4 Bcf per day. Stuart Miller, Moody’s Vice President, said, “Stonewall’s (rating) reflects the project risks associated with constructing a gathering and transportation system on a non-turn-key basis, its small scale and weak business profile, the counterparty risk of its major customers, and the lack of revenue and cash flow until the first quarter of 2016.”

WVDEP Oversight
Unlike the proposed Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley interstate pipelines, the Stonewall Gathering pipeline is not subject to federal oversight because it is entirely within the state’s boundaries. According to Tallman with WVDEP, intrastate pipelines were exempted from federal oversite by Congress in 2005. In response, said Kelley Gillenwater, the WVDEP communications director, the WVDEP recommended to the legislature that the agency be allowed some oversight. The result was legislation that took effect in June 2013 that does allow the WVDEP some oversight of projects, but she added, “It is limited to stormwater construction permits.”

According to Gillenwater, WVDEP has oversight of the project because, “This would be a non-residential construction project that disturbs more than three acres, which requires a Construction Stormwater Permit and a Site Registration Application.” She noted that the application bundles the Stormwater Pollution Prevention Plan and Groundwater Protection Plan.

The permit for the plan was issued on Jan. 29, 2015. The permit number is WVR310402 under General Permit number WV0116815.

Asked if notices were issued for public comment or if comments were made, she answered, “Site Registration Applications require public comment if they exceed 100 acres. As this project does, it should have gone to public comment.” She said that the legal add was advertised in the West Union Herald Record from Dec. 16, 2014 through Jan. 15, 2015. She said that no comments were received.

Our research of the Stonewall Gas Gathering pipeline is ongoing. Check back for additional coverage.

© Michael M. Barrick, 2015


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