Federal regulators have sent a proposed safety order to the developers of the contentious and highly politicized Mountain Valley Pipeline citing concerns over potential pipe corrosion and land movement in the steep mountain terrain the pipeline will cross in West Virginia and Virginia.
In the proposed order, issued Aug. 11, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) noted that conditions may exist along the Mountain Valley Pipeline that “pose a pipeline integrity risk to public safety, property, or the environment” and “may present immediate risk if the pipeline is commissioned without remediation.”
The safety notice states that the regulator’s concerns “require a comprehensive evaluation to identify and remediate integrity issues, mitigate the risk, and protect public safety, property, and the environment.”
The notice is a proposal rather than a final order and its impact on completion of the pipeline project remains unclear. The pipeline’s primary owner, Equitrans Midstream Corporation, has 30 days to submit an initial response to PHMSA’s notice and can challenge the agency’s findings.
“I think this proposed safety order, if it’s made final, would take some really solid concrete steps towards making the pipeline safer,” said Bill Caram, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, an independent watchdog group. “Our two main areas of concern have been corrosion and land movement and PHMSA has really taken some good, prescriptive, sound mitigation measures and orders in order to address those two concerns.”
Caram noted that PHMSA stopped short of issuing a “corrective action order,” a stronger measure that would have required immediate remediation from Equitrans.
Natalie Cox, a spokeswoman for Equitrans, said the company welcomed PHMSA’s oversight though it disputed the agency’s assessment.
“We are committed to meeting or exceeding all applicable regulations to ensure the safety of our employees, contractors, assets, and communities,” Cox said in an email. “We expect federal and state regulators will continue to audit our construction practices during the next few months, and we welcome their expertise and oversight.”
“While the proposed preliminary findings do not present an accurate view of the extraordinary efforts we have taken to ensure the safety and integrity of the pipeline, which has faced unprecedented delays due to circumstances beyond our control, Mountain Valley remains committed to working with PHMSA and other regulators as the project enters the final phase of construction,” she added.
Cox said Equitrans has requested “informal consultation” with PHMSA over the safety notice and looks forward to an expeditious resolution. “Project construction remains targeted for completion by the end of this year,” she added.
If the safety notice is finalized as is, the pipeline project could still proceed with little to no delay.
PHMSA issued its proposed safety order after the pipeline—delayed for years by multiple lawsuits and challenges to state and federal permits—was the subject of unprecedented Congressional action exempting its permits from judicial review.
The exemption was part of a rider included in the Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2023—an agreement between Democrats and Republicans to temporarily suspend the debt ceiling—that approved all federal permits for the pipeline and declared that “no court shall have jurisdiction” to review federal or state permit approvals for the project.
The pipeline’s completion has been a top priority of Senator Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia), whose vote Democrats needed to pass the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, which is widely viewed as the largest investment in climate action and clean energy in history.
Manchin voted for the legislation as part of a deal with the Biden administration to fast-track construction of the pipeline, which runs through his state. Manchin is also strongly supported by donors from the pipeline industry.
In signing the debt ceiling bill in June with the unprecedented rider exempting the pipeline from judicial review, administration negotiators said President Joe Biden was making good on the deal he had made to win Manchin’s vote for his climate legislation a year earlier.
PHMSA’s Office of Pipeline Safety is responsible for regulating nearly 3,000 companies that operate 3 million miles of pipelines and other natural gas and hazardous liquid facilities. The office has only issued 41 other safety notices since 2010.
The proposed safety notice issued Aug. 11 states that construction delays on the project, which has been under construction since 2018, resulted in some sections of steel pipe being exposed to the elements for extended periods of time, uncovered and stacked in piles above ground, before being buried underground. The polymer coating that protects the pipe from corrosion is prone to degradation from exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun.
The National Association of Pipe Coating Applicators, an industry group, states that “above-ground storage of coated pipe in excess of six months without additional ultraviolet protection is not recommended.”
Federal regulators also noted that other sections of pipe have lain buried underground for years without cathodic protection. Cathodic protection protects against pipe corrosion by applying a low-voltage electric current to the pipe, which changes the chemistry of the interaction between the pipe and surrounding soil.
Inspectors can detect pipe coating deterioration from the surface without having to excavate buried pipe, Richard Kuprewicz, a pipeline safety expert and independent consultant said. If pipe coating is significantly deteriorated the company may be able to expand its cathodic protection system instead of replacing the pipe, he said.
In a separate safety issue unrelated to pipe corrosion, the notice also states that the pipeline “traverses mountainous topography, making the pipeline environment susceptible to land movement.”
A landslide caused a carbon dioxide pipeline in Satartia, Mississippi to rupture in February, 2020.
If the Mountain Valley pipeline experienced a similar rupture, the high-pressure natural gas pipeline could explode. If the pipeline exploded, its impact radius, or “incineration zone,” where death or serious injury is likely, would be 1,115 feet according to a 2015 report by the pipeline’s developers.
Kuprewicz, who has advised PHMSA on pipeline safety, said he felt the safety notice addressed a number of key concerns with the pipeline including the slow-motion creep of land along the pipeline route. However, Kuprewicz said the safety order failed to address sudden landslides.
“I get it, to try to deal with land creep, but I don’t think that’s your primary threat given the elevation changes I have seen with this pipeline,” he said. “It’s not only the steep slopes, but steep slopes where they get water and it liquifies the soil.”
“The industry has kind of danced around this and it’s about time someone started calling them on it,” Kuprewicz added. “ Because no pipeline can be designed to safely handle a massive breakaway landslide.”
Maury Johnson of Greenville, West Virginia, lives less than 800 feet from a section of the pipeline that runs through his property and has raised concerns about degraded pipe coating and potential rupture from landslides for years.
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“They should have done this at least two years ago,” Johnson said of PHMSA’s recent safety notice. “It’s a good start. But I’m just wondering if they’re going to really enforce anything.”
On August 11, the same day PHMSA issued its safety order, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit dismissed three lawsuits that challenged permits for the Mountain Valley Pipeline.
In a court opinion written by Judge Roger Gregory, the judge wrote that section 324 of the Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2023–the Mountain Valley Pipeline rider added to the recent debt ceiling extension bill–left the court with no other option.
“I fear Congress has employed this Court’s constitutionally directed deference to legislative prerogatives to undermine the Constitution and in the process, it has made the Court an accessory to its deeds,” Judge Gregory wrote. “If that is so, I wonder if Section 324 is a harbinger of erosion not just to the environment, but to our republic.”
“It’s kind of sad,” Johnson said of the court opinion.“I share Judge Gregory’s real concern for our environment and our democracy.”
“They basically have given MVP [Mountain Valley Pipeline] the right to do anything they want to,” he said.