We gathered along an empty country road to gaze at the wounded hillside. It now has an orange stripe of bare earth instead of a green canopy. The sight reminded me of how skin contracts from the path of a surgeon’s knife, leaving a trail of blood seeping from underlying layers of fat and muscle.
After the dozers finished the cut, huge trucks and cranes laid sections of 42-inch pipes in a line for welders to join together. This was an advance section of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Our group of 30 observers were mostly from environmental organizations in West Virginia, along with a few locals and this correspondent.
A web of pipelines across the continent conveys natural gas and oil to ports and power stations. The ACP connects the fracking shale fields in the north-western region of the state to North Carolina over 600 miles away. It passes through private and public property, up and down mountains, and under hundreds of streams. The Mountain Valley Pipeline is another gargantuan project an hour’s drive west. Both have paused while the courts decide if they meet legal standards for crossing streams.
Before they snaked across our landscape, numerous homeowners posted NO PIPELINE signs in their front yards and petitioned lawmakers and federal organizations to rigorously examine the alternatives and risks, but permits were approved anyway. A few large landowners benefited from leasing the rights of way, but most rural folk objected to eminent domain that overrules their property rights, the disruption of quiet lives and despoliation of scenery, as well as pollution. Their interests were easily trampled over by corporations that want the shortest route (even if more hazardous) to save money and trouble from more argumentative folk nearer urban centers. Piping energy is a big business ($Bns) and offers rich dividends for investors.
Plans were published last year for an underground mine safety research facility close by. The site is adjacent to one of our friends, an ex-coal miner who lost a relative in a mining disaster. Safety must not be neglected while coal is still mined, but why plant a facility in this valley that will send shock waves like earthquakes through rock and underground rivers? I recall the prospectus calmly noted about 2.5 miles between the testing site and the pipeline, but I measured under 2 miles on a topographical map. We await news after I raised an alarm.
This is the worst terrain for safety and the environment, and engineers have rarely struggled with it. Not only is it mountainous, but the geology is karst. Limestone is riddled with caves, sinkholes and underground waterways that are poorly mapped. Heavy rain causes landslides, more so after erasing the ground of forest cover and other vegetation. We worry that hydraulic fluid and oils will leak into groundwater to spoil drinking water in wells and springs. They threaten aquatic life, not only protected species but trout that attract fishermen from out of state to pristine streams that helps the fragile local economy.
I admit a personal interest. We have a home nearby and it is not comforting to be told we are just outside the two-mile blast zone should a spark ignite gas from a leaking pipe. Nothing engineered is 100% safe. A smaller pipeline in Beaver County, PA, blew up in 2018. A family had a narrow escape when their home was destroyed a quarter-mile away, and several high voltage pylons were toppled.
I won’t condemn pipelines out of hand. They are better than dispatching combustible fuels on trucks and trains (remember the explosion that killed almost 50 people in Quebec in 2013?). But I don’t have confidence in how decisions are made and executed. Corporate interests easily ride over country people, native Americans, Canadians, and other minority communities. Politicians should represent their constituents first, but too many seem closer to corporate executives with deep pockets. That leaves the courts as guardians of laws to protect public drinking water and protected species.
Some questions about other controversial pipelines now encircle the ACP and MVP projects. Why build them when we should cut back on fossil fuels and put the investment in renewable solar and wind power? Was there a full accounting of ALL the costs: economic, social and environmental? Is the industrial euphoria another gold rush for the few to profit and leave the environment degraded like 19th century California? It is awful to imagine how people will suffer if the coronavirus pandemic triggers an economic depression, but it may halt the pipeline craze. I know people who would be glad if pipes lie redundant in the ground, but they will sigh at the scars left on their beloved hills and mountains.
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