Appalachian pipelines face new setbacks amid renewed national scrutiny

Two fracked natural gas pipelines are caught in limbo.

There are many hand painted signs along the roads near Bent Mountain, Virginia to protest against the Mountain Valley Pipeline Project.
CREDIT: Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images
There are many hand painted signs along the roads near Bent Mountain, Virginia to protest against the Mountain Valley Pipeline Project. CREDIT: Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Two controversial pipeline projects in the South and Appalachia have hit new stumbling blocks regarding safety concerns and legal challenges that could further delay construction.

Both the Atlantic Coast pipeline (ACP) and the Mountain Valley pipeline (MVP) have faced numerous setbacks and ongoing opposition from locals, even as developers have pushed ahead. But the latest complications come amid a resurgence of anti-pipeline sentiment, as some Democratic presidential contenders take aim at fossil fuel infrastructure more generally and national concern over climate change mounts.

This week it was revealed that a “warning letter” was sent by federal inspectors last month to Dominion Energy, the lead company behind the ACP, warning that the pipeline’s work sites in parts of West Virginia are unsafe. As E&E reported Thursday, the four-page document says that during a December inspection, they found workers laying parts of the pipeline in rock-lined ditches, posing a safety hazard.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) sternly rebuked Dominion, stating that the pipeline’s positioning could leave it “susceptible to potential stresses and/or damage” in the case of movement, as is common during hydrostatic testing (done to examine potential leaks and structural integrity). Moreover, the pipe was found to be in close proximity to unsupported boulders, which could impact the pipeline should they shift.


“The identified conditions also have the potential to be exacerbated in the event of heavy rains and/or washouts,” wrote PHMSA’s Eastern Region Director Robert Burrough.

Dominion argued that the inspection had coincided with a court-ordered halt in construction, when work on the pipeline was minimal, and asserted that the problems identified have since been fixed. But the ACP has struggled with repeated setbacks.

Set to run from West Virginia into Virginia and North Carolina, the 600-mile pipeline is intended to transport fracked natural gas through the region. Recurring legal challenges have halted the project however, amid concerns ranging from endangered species protections to a rushed permitting process.

The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled earlier this year that the Forest Service improperly authorized the ACP, allowing it to cross the Appalachian Trail. Both Dominion and the Trump administration have appealed to the Supreme Court, but if the higher court doesn’t take up the case, the pipeline’s construction could stay paused.

Environmental groups see the ACP’s faltering as a success and are attempting a similar trajectory with the MVP. On Monday, opponents of the MVP filed suit, arguing that the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has proceeded with the project despite threats to endangered species.


“Regulators can’t keep shrugging off the environmental harms of pipeline projects. We need to stop destroying habitats and waterways for fossil fuels that are driving the climate catastrophe,” said Jared Margolis, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the organizations involved in the suit.

The MVP is set to be a 300 mile fracked natural gas pipeline that, like the ACP, runs from West Virginia into Virginia, with plans to serve markets in both the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic regions.

And like its counterpart, the MVP has faced ongoing pushback, not only from organizations concerned about the environment and public health, but also from landowners. This fall, the Supreme Court will decide whether to take up a case from residents along the pipeline’s path who vehemently oppose its construction for reasons that range from environmental issues to private property rights.

2020 candidates against pipelines

As those fights play out, pipeline disputes are resurfacing in national politics. This week, three Democratic presidential contenders — Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and Gov. Jay Inslee (D-WA) — pledged to reject multiple controversial pipeline projects should they be elected.

At the top of that list is the Keystone XL pipeline, an oil project originating in Alberta, Canada, along with the Dakota Access oil pipeline. But the “NoKXL pledge” backed by Bold Nebraska and other anti-pipeline group refers to other projects as well, including Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline and both the MVP and ACP.


Public support among Americans for fossil fuels more broadly is ebbing as awareness of climate change grows and alternative energy sources like wind and solar power become cheaper and more popular.

In a push to accelerate action to tackle climate change, many Democratic presidential candidates have expressed support for the Green New Deal, a plan to rapidly mobilize the country within 10 years to achieve net-zero emissions — a proposal that would mean completely halting oil and gas pipelines.

UPDATE: On Thursday afternoon, the MVP’s developers announced that they would suspend construction in habitats populated by endangered species. The Sierra Club, a leading opponent of the pipeline, welcomed the news in a statement but indicated that the organization would continue to oppose the project despite the capitulation.

“There’s no way to build this dirty, dangerous project in any manner that wouldn’t directly threaten endangered species or our clean air and water,” said Joan Walker, a senior campaign representative with the group.