MVP Legal Setbacks Give Breathing Space to Opponents

A sign in Monroe County, W.Va.

WESTON, W.Va. – Soon after the construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) was announced in 2014, It became clear very quickly that the natural gas industry had no intention of being honest about fracking and was not interested in answering questions that concerned citizens had about it. It wasn’t long before those all along the 303-mile MVP route learned that the project was another case of exploitation of the region’s natural resources by the fossil fuel industry without regards to property rights, people or the environment.

Now, more than seven years later, those who have been fighting the MVP – which cuts through hills, valleys, streams and forests of the ancient Allegheny and Blue Ridge ranges of Appalachia – have a glimmer of hope that the MVP will suffer the same fate of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which was halted in June 2020. The MVP runs roughly due south from Northcentral West Virginia and then doglegs east towards the Atlantic coast as it crosses into Southwest Virginia.

But it is stopped for now, giving some breathing space to opponents. That is because in the past week the MVP has suffered two legal setbacks, both in the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. In the first, the court ruled that the Forest Service of Land Management’s evaluation of the MVP’s impacts failed to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act. As a result, a 3.5 mile section through the Jefferson National Forest was halted. In another case, the Court found that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service failed to consider the pipeline’s impact on endangered species, including the candy darter.

What is Fracking?

Fracking is a slang word for hydraulic fracturing, the process of injecting a fluid consisting of water, sand and chemicals at high pressure into shale. This fractures the rock, releasing natural gas, which is then extracted. In West Virginia, the Marcellus shale, a layer of rock 3,500 – 8,000 feet below the surface, is the object of fracking. The vertical depth of the formation is about 150 feet. Whether recovered or left behind, the frack fluid presents problems. The wastewater contains not only the chemicals added to the water, but also heaving minerals and radioactive materials recovered as part of the extraction process.

Dead and injured workers (here and here), explosions on fracking pads (here), dead and injured motorists (here and here), destroyed wells and streams (here), dead livestock (here) and sickened residents (here) are just some of the public health and safety risks associated with fracking. Indeed, the list is rather long. Homeowners, too, are impacted. Property values decrease as much as 75 percent, making getting loans for mortgages or upkeep nearly impossible. It also precludes selling one’s land if one wants to get away from fracking operations. Indeed, the negative by-products of fracking are many.

Site Development and Well Pad Activity

The MVP originates in Wetzel County, West Virginia. Bordering both Pennsylvania and Ohio, the county is located in the heart of current Marcellus Shale development. Indeed, a group known as the Wetzel County Action Group was formed in response to the many hazards caused by fracking. One member was the late Bill Hughes, who offered a presentation to about 200 concerned residents at a grass-roots public forum in the Lewis County community of Jackson’s Mill in November, 2014. As Hughes noted, he was an “unwilling expert” from his first-hand experience with the fracking industry.Hughes told residents what many had already begun to discover for themselves. Site preparation involved an invasion of huge earth-moving equipment, all burning diesel fuel. Literally hundreds of trucks hauling stone go back and forth. Others are ever-present, working to prepare the well pad, access roads and holding ponds.

Site development is just the beginning. Well pad activity inundates a community with congestion, as well as noise, air and water pollution. Activity on a completed pad includes the running of drill rig diesel engines, auxiliary pumps, generator sets and other equipment – all day, every day. Once drilling is complete, up to a dozen frack pumps are run daily, each with about 2,000 horsepower. Also, several dozen to a hundred trucks a day deliver sand. Meanwhile, fine silica dust is blown into the air while transferring the sand to holding containers. Flaring, a method of releasing pressure, sometimes brightens the night sky for weeks. But first, as Hughes noted, “Raw gas is released into the air, combined with a witch’s brew of the leftover down-hole chemicals in the well bore used in the drilling and fracking process.”

Hughes also shared, “Once wells are put into production, emissions from well sites will continue for decades. Emissions are from fugitive emissions from all the pipe fittings, separators, heater-treaters, condensate storage tanks, combustion burners and small flash gas compressor engines.” The consequence, said Hughes, is “Both intentional and accidental releases will also put raw methane into the atmosphere.” Of course, the gas has to be transported, so the gathering pipelines present their own set of challenges. Reported Hughes, “Valves, gauges, test ports, pig launchers, flanges and all fittings will have some uncontrolled fugitive emissions. Blow-downs and pigging of the pipelines will release large quantities of raw methane into the air.”

Additionally, there are the compressor stations. Hughes explained, “Most gathering pipelines will be connected to larger pipes which will go to a compressor station. There will be dehydrating equipment, condensate storage tanks, truck loading racks and very large quantities of regulated pollutants.” He pointed out that these are noisy locations, citing a location in Wetzel County with over 30,000 horsepower of compressor engines. Some people living close to them have characterized the sound as a never-ending jet engine sitting on a runway next to their home. Finally, methane leaks from wellheads, and numerous points along the pipeline and compressor stations. Methane is a greenhouse gas dozens of times more potent than carbon dioxide.

A convoy of gas trucks rumble through downtown Weston, W.Va. at lunchtime.

Traffic Congestion

The problems with traffic congestion are many, including: damaged, dusty and muddy roads; broken electrical and phone lines; blocked roads and delays; dangerous big trucks; escorts and trucks driving left of center; signs and bridges damaged; large truck caravans; permanent loss of pasture, timber and farmland; and, increased demand on and delay of emergency services.

Water Use and Contamination

According to industry officials, each well requires at least five million gallons of water to mix with the sand and chemicals used in the fracking process. That water comes from public sources – streams, creeks, rivers and even reservoirs. First, there is a fairness issue to consider, as private companies operating for profit are essentially hijacking the most precious of earth’s resources. Additionally, the potential of drought should cause us to have a conservationist approach to water use; instead, we act as if there is an unlimited supply. There is not, as people all over the nation and planet are learning. Furthermore, reduced stream and river volumes adversely impact aquatic life. Also, according to FrackCheckWV, “The loss of fresh(er) water from streams feeding our rivers means that some of the beneficial effect of dilution is lost. Pollutants from other industries (coal, power, etc.) are therefore more concentrated at our public water intakes on rivers. Public treatment plants do not remove most pollutants such as salts, chemicals and heavy metals. Thus the pollutants pass through the system and out our taps.” Impacts include muddy streams from gas operations runoff; spilled drill brine fluids; streams, springs and rivers contaminated by drill waste; erosion and sedimentation of streams; spilled and dumped drill mud or cuttings; and, disposal problems.

Air Pollution & Public Health

The silica dust which pours out of fracking sites in large clouds through the processing of sand are clear health hazards. These silica dust clouds have been associated with tuberculosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, kidney disease and autoimmune disease. The fracking process releases carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, and benzene, among other pollutants.

Waste Disposal

Of the five million gallons of water that is used at a fracking site, as much as three million or so is left over for disposal. Presently, the industry has few regulations to guide their disposal and because of a decision by Congress to exempt the industry from the Clean Water Act, the exact content and composition of the fracking fluid is considered proprietary. This means that local emergency response, public health, and environmental protection workers cannot develop appropriate and complete emergency response plans. In addition, once the wastewater is disposed of, whether on site or at an undisclosed location, it then mixes with the earth’s hidden threats, such as arsenic, mercury, heavy metals and radioactive materials. All of this can then leach into ground and surface water supplies.

Related Pipeline Development

Pipeline construction is as damaging as fracking itself. The destruction that the construction of a 42” pipeline causes to mountains, streams, drinking water, endangered species and property values is extensive. Indeed, it is pipeline development that has resulted in the lawsuits referenced above. That is because the Appalachian mountains are not conducive to laying pipelines. Before abandoning the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a Dominion Energy official wrote, “The mountain ridges in this area … consist of a jumbled mass of peaks and ridge tops. Trying to cross this terrain with a 42-inch pipeline results in a combination of steep side slope traverses and up and down approaches to ridgetops, requiring heavy equipment winching on both sides of the ridge from a narrow staging area on top. … Slope restoration and stabilization would … be difficult to achieve…”

A few years ago, the Monroe County, W.Va. Board of Health, writing the Forest Service in opposition to the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP), asserted it “…is firmly opposed to the construction and installation of the Mountain Valley Pipeline through any route in Monroe County.” The primary concern expressed by the board was due to the karst topography of the region. Writing for the board, Dr. J. Travis Hansbarger, argued, “Chemical, fuel and oil spills during construction will go unfiltered into caves, underground streams and drinking water.” He added, “Groundwater in karst areas can travel as quickly as a few thousand feet to over a mile a day.” Noting that the route for the MVP passes within a few hundred yards of a creek’s headwaters, he observed that the drinking water of roughly 4,000 people – including those in a nursing home, an assisted living facility, two medical clinics, several day care centers and three public schools – would be threatened. He also cited the industry’s history of explosions, arguing, “Serious questions have been raised about the possibility of evacuation routes for these public facilities should an explosion occur.”

Meathouse Fork in Doddridge County in the summer pf 2015 with heavy sediment resulting from pipeline construction. This was for a different project than the MVP. This involved a 36″ diameter pipe; MVP pipe is 42″ in diameter.

Misuse of Eminent Domain

From the beginning, say landowners, the energy companies have bullied their way onto people’s land, generally through threatening the use of eminent domain. This is true for both fracking operations and pipeline development. In West Virginia and Virginia, landowners sued to prevent this misuse of eminent domain. They have been generally unsuccessful and have watched their trees felled, streams polluted, and wildlife habitats destroyed. Some of them had to abandon their homes. Homesteads and forests have been permanently ruined, whether the MVP becomes operational or not.

Poor Disaster Readiness

While federal law requires that each community have what is known as a Local Emergency Preparedness Committee (LEPC), many do not. Additionally, of those that do, many are merely shells of what they should be. The LEPC is charged with identifying hazard materials in its community and conducting a Hazard Vulnerability Analysis (HVA). That is to serve as the basis for the development of an Emergency Operations Plan. So, residents should be asking several questions. Have risk assessments for fracking been conducted by the various LEPCs in those counties where fracking or pipeline construction is occurring or planned? If so, what conclusions were reached? If not, how could emergency response officials, let alone residents, possibly know what risks the county faces because of fracking?

Conclusion

The MVP should never have been allowed to turn the first bulldozer loose. Instead, the Precautionary Principle should have been first considered. According to the Science & Environmental Health Network, the Precautionary Principle asserts, “When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically. In this context the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof.”

That’s as it should be. The MVP has run roughshod over the people and land of the Virginias. But the 4th Circuit’s recent rulings have given opponents some breathing room. The evidence is in. The MVP violates every standard of the Precautionary Principles. The opposition can always use more help. They’ve held the line for seven years. Now, we know what they’ve known all along. Fracking is bad for all living things. That’s a fact that we simply do not have the luxury to ignore.

© Michael M. Barrick, 2015-2022. Barrick is a reporter, educator and holds a post-graduate certificate in Community Preparedness and Disaster Management from the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. He works from Western North Carolina and Lewis and Monroe counties in his native West Virginia.

One comment

  1. Superb comprehensive survey of the multitudinous reasons why these massive Appalachian pipelines are wrong. When I have been asked why I oppose these pipelines, I give a similar litany including the terrible consequences of fracking. I only also add greenhouse gas leakage, mostly methane-related, which is much more potent than CO2, although climate was factored in one of the court decisions.

    By the way, I think a third court ruling against the MVP a day or two ago.

    Michael, you write so well. Thank you!!!

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