— Panhandle Pipeline resistance grows even as development plans move forward.
The Eastern Panhandle Expansion Project (EPEP) is a gas pipeline undertaking that took root a few years ago, when Region 9 Planning decided that the Eastern Panhandle needed natural gas to increase business in the region. Oddly enough, the rest of the state is inundated with natural gas pipelines, yet the Eastern Panhandle remains the fastest-growing economic region in the state.
The initiative progressed when Woody Thrasher, owner of engineering firm Thrasher Group, and now West Virginia Secretary of Commerce, was paid $80,000 dollars by the Jefferson County Commission, Berkeley County Council, IGS Mountaineer Gas Company, and the West Virginia Development Office to conduct a feasibility study to decide the best route.
Many have stated there could be a conflict of interest here, given Thrasher’s desire to expand this pipeline and his control over other infrastructure approvals. When the study was finalized, neither the east, north, or south option was utilized; instead, they were shelved for a west option—which was not in the study. To date, the economic development boards and public service commission have not provided a list of businesses they say would come here, if access to gas was available. They have also failed to provide documentation of claims that businesses have not built here, due to lack of natural gas.
Mountaineer Gas Company (MGC), a subsidiary of IGS (of Tulsa Oklahoma), began acquiring land in Morgan County (WV) for the pipeline in the spring of 2016. The pipeline is set to run a total of 57 miles. TransCanada is the company hoping to connect to the Columbia Gas transmission line starting west of Hancock (MD), in Pennsylvania. The pipeline would carry “fracked” gas through Maryland, under the Potomac River, the C&O Canal National Park, and into Morgan County.
The TransCanada pipeline plans to connect to the Mountaineer Gas pipeline, once in the Mountain State. This pipeline is being built by two companies, but remains one pipeline. The TransCanada section is four miles long, and will be an eight-inch distribution line. They intend to start construction in March 2018 and conclude in November 2018. The MGC pipeline is said to be a 10-inch low-pressure distribution line. However, according to the Public Service Commission (PSC), low-pressure gas lines run under 60 psi, and landowners have been told the gas will run between 360-400 psi in this pipeline. The PSC recently confirmed that the gas will run at these pressures in Berkeley and Morgan Counties.
MGC is laying the pipeline in three segments throughout the Eastern Panhandle. They intend to start the first phase in 2018. Segment one includes 29 miles from Morgan County to Martinsburg. Segment two will span from Martinsburg to Kearneysville, then to Charles Town and Middleway—with 24.5 miles of pipeline. Segment three is the remaining four miles of pipeline to service outside of Shepherdstown.
The general route runs parallel to Rt. 9, I-81, Rt. 45 to Shepherdstown, part of Rt. 480, and Rt. 51. From Middleway, the pipeline would connect to an existing Washington Gas pipeline coming north from Virginia into Jefferson County. This southern connection shows that the pipeline is not a closed loop system, and would have the ability in the future to export natural gas, if desired.
Price Tags and Paper Pushing
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) regulates all pipelines that cross state lines. TransCanada has started their FERC process for their portion of pipeline. The FERC process will require an Environmental Assessment or a more in-depth Environmental Impact Statement. A Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity under Section 7 of the Natural Gas Act, essentially a “needs” assessment, is also required. With all the guidelines involved with FERC, one may be surprised to find their approval rate for pipelines at 99 percent.
The National Park Service must also approve a Right-of-Entry permit. TransCanada will need state permits as well. A 401 certification is required through the Maryland Department of the Environment, and the Army Corps of Engineers. This regulates any activity that would cause a discharge to U.S. waters. State storm water permits will be needed as well—for sediment and erosion control. The Army Corps of Engineers will also have to permit a 404 certification that regulates dredge and fill for U.S. waters.
Mountaineer Gas will need to file for a 401 through the WV Department of Environmental Protection and Army Corps of Engineers, and a section 404 dredge-and-fill permit from the Army Corps of Engineers. Both certifications will also be open to public comment and a public hearing, once requested.
Both pipelines will be buried three to four feet underground, and up to one hundred feet, when crossing under the Potomac River. The TransCanada line will impact 19 streams and 10 wetlands, and the MGC pipeline will impact 100 streams throughout the Eastern Panhandle.
Mountaineer Gas has stated they will also use horizontal directional drilling (HDD) under several streams—however, there is no clear plan in place.
The three MGC segments combined are estimated to cost $45 million. Mountaineer Gas will be able to recoup most of their infrastructure cost through the West Virginia PSC. Senate Bill 390 passed in 2015, allowing the cost of natural-gas infrastructure projects to be recouped by the gas company through increasing the rates of existing customers. The TransCanada pipeline will cost more than $100 million.
Some Numbers are Hard to Look Away From
The environmental concerns of the pipeline are magnified in this region due to the predominant karst geology. Karst is made up of limestone, gypsum, marble, salt, or dolomite, and is incredibly porous. Experts warn of the risk associated with pipelines in this environment during construction and long-term integral support. Karst forms as water dissolves bedrock, creating underground caverns and sinkholes. The instability of karst can create pockets of earth that dissolves beneath the pipeline, causing a pipeline to rupture, causing leaks, or possible explosions.
Additionally, the risk to the environment and waterways of the region are not just connected with possible failures in the pipeline, but within the construction process itself. During HDD beneath waterways, the process includes several million gallons of lubricant drilling mud—mostly bentonite clay or polymers. During this process, “blowouts” can occur, releasing drilling “mud” into the waterways and underground aquifers. Blowouts can happen with relative ease, and would risk the contamination of up to 100,000 resident water supplies due to the proximity of public water intakes.
The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality recommends no HDD in karst regions—listing additional reasons, like the existence of wells that are near pipelines, and the potential for gas vapors to reach into cave systems or vent into residential basements. Along the Potomac River alone, up to 10,000 residential wells could be affected from a gas leak in the pipeline.
This past April, the Energy Transfer Partners’ Rover Pipeline spilled two million gallons of bentonite-based drilling mud and toxic chemicals into the wetlands near the Tuscarawas River (Ohio) during the HDD process. The very next day, 50,000 gallons of mud was released from a blowout, into the wetlands. FERC has ordered a complete stop on all HDD work by Energy Transfer Partners, until a third-party review is conducted. This past July, Sunoco’s Mariner 2 East Pipeline was ordered to halt construction by the Pennsylvania State Environmental Quality Board due to 90 “inadvertent returns”—or blowouts—from horizontal drilling, which has polluted more than a dozen private wells.
Important to note: All pipelines leak! According to federal data from the Pipeline Hazardous Materials and Safety Administration, there have been 11,626 pipeline incidents in the U.S. in the past 20 years—equating to over seven billion dollars in repair costs, 325 fatalities, and 1,340 injuries. That’s over 1.5 incidents per day from a pipeline in this country. The past three-year average has also been the highest in incidents, fatalities, and injuries, showing that in a 20-year period, the dangers have only increased.
Many studies have shown that, on average, 85 percent of accidental release of gas and oil is due to faulty seam welds and metal fatigue from corrosion. Federal and state inspectors are required to oversee pipeline safety. The number of inspectors, however, are very limited. There are currently 139 federal pipeline inspectors, tasked with the oversight of a total of 2.6 million miles of pipeline—nearly 18,000 miles of pipeline per inspector. The state of West Virginia has seven pipeline inspectors—responsible for 14,000 miles of state pipeline.
Company vs. Community
When landowners were first approached by Mountaineer Gas, they were relentlessly bullied and told they had no choice about selling their land. MGC would get the easements with or without their approval. The easements require a path 50 feet wide, and also utilize another 25 feet during the construction phase. Many have questioned the PSC’s lack of support for landowners in exchange for satisfying the needs of private companies. Residents have also questioned the integrity of local elected officials, who have shown no concern or respect for the constituents they represent.
The contracts MGC has given property owners state that the companies secure the right to relocate the pipeline, change the size of the pipeline, add another pipeline, include other forms of petroleum products in the pipeline, and add compressor stations. The property owner is also liable for accidents that occur on their land from the pipeline. Recently, a Morgan County judgment against two landowners stated that MGC has the right to use eminent domain to take a 50-foot-wide easement through their land. This has sparked outrage in the Morgan County community, as one of the landowners being threatened with the pipeline comprises a local farming family, with 80 years in the county. The Keseckers’ farm could find itself split in half, with no way to run farm equipment over the path where the pipeline is buried (the issue attracted national attention).
Building a Resistance
After MGC began inquiring about parcels of land in Morgan and Berkeley Counties, the resistance grew. The first community meeting was held in the fall of 2016, with 68 people in attendance from across the Panhandle. From that first meeting, a groundswell of support—from community members and regional organizations—has helped to grow opposition to the pipeline.
The PSC approval came with much support from Panhandle county commissioners and their economic development boards, while zero community input was gathered. The newly formed community group, Eastern Panhandle Protectors, were quick to spread the word to write letters to the PSC regarding their concerns, and help to send funds for experts to provide witness testimony about the dangers to the waterways.
Residents of the Panhandle have come together in various ways to organize, educate, and raise awareness about the pipeline. With the state of Maryland just passing a ban on fracking, many regional organizers have supported the fight to stop the pipeline as well.
Maryland organizers have been calling on Governor Larry Hogan to reject the “Potomac Pipeline” by denying the 401 certification, stating that risks could affect the drinking water of millions.
The Jefferson County Women’s March WV group has also played a vital role in getting involved to stop the pipeline. The group helped put together a special session with the Shepherdstown Town Council, canvassed the town, and supported the local summer encampments along the C&O Canal. The weekend summer encampments were organized by several regional environmental and climate organizations, and helped to bring attention to trailgoers about the threat of the pipeline to the Potomac River.
This was just the beginning of the “No Potomac Pipeline Campaign”—which ultimately aims to build awareness within the Eastern Panhandle, emphasizing the collective opportunity at hand to lead the way in clean and safe economic growth, while protecting precious waterways in the process.
ARTICLE SUBMITTED BY: Eastern Panhandle Protectors
— Editor’s Note: the views and information expressed here do not represent an Observer position for or against the pipeline, but rather an equal opportunity for all sides to have a voice in the ongoing conversation concerning its future.