An explosion of a natural gas pipeline in West Virginia was triggered by the same conditions — steep slopes prone to landslides — that exist along the route of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a conservation group is warning.
Work on the Mountain Valley project, which is cutting a swath through the mountains of Southwest Virginia, should be suspended pending a review of the potential danger of a similar explosion, the Indian Creek Watershed Association wrote in a request filed Tuesday with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
On June 7, the newly constructed Leach Xpress pipeline in Marshall County, West Virginia, ruptured and exploded into a ball of flames that could be seen for miles.
A preliminary investigation by federal officials found that dirt and rocks from a landslide exerted pressure on the 36-inch diameter buried pipe, causing a weld to give way, according to a filing from the West Virginia-based watershed association.
“The similarities of terrain — particularly the prevalence of steep slopes and landslide-prone areas along MVP’s 300-mile route through West Virginia and Virginia — make the Leach XPress explosion yet another wake-up call about the dangers of MVP’s selected route,” the request stated.
Although pipeline opponents have been raising environmental concerns about erosion from construction sites in recent months, they say it’s time to address issues of public safety before the project begins to ship natural gas at high pressure by year’s end.
“It’s an accident waiting to happen,” said Howdy Henritz, president of the Indian Creek Watershed Association.
Work should be suspended while Mountain Valley reconsiders its route and construction plans with an eye toward reducing landslide risks, the 54-page document states.
A spokeswoman for the Pittsburgh-based company said it has already taken care to select a route with the least impact to landowners, their homes, historical resources and the environment.
“The plans for this important infrastructure line were subject to an exhaustive review for more than three years — and the MVP project has satisfied every requirement and has been authorized for construction by federal and state agencies,” Natalie Cox wrote in an email.
A spokeswoman for FERC, the lead agency overseeing construction of the pipeline, declined to comment on the request for a stop to construction that began in February.
No one was injured in the Leach XPress explosion, which occurred in a remote location where the nearest homes were more than a mile away.
“That is not the case where the larger MVP crosses some of the most hazardous portions of its route, carrying high-pressure gas of up to 1,480 pounds per square inch through farms and communities in West Virginia and Virginia,” the watershed association’s request stated.
The Mountain Valley Pipeline will be 42 inches in diameter, larger than any natural gas pipeline currently operating in the state.
About 67 percent of the pipeline’s route through Virginia would cross areas susceptible to landslides, according to a study completed by FERC last year.
The study also found that the largest known landslides in eastern North America occurred on the south side of Sinking Creek Mountain, where the pipeline will make its way through the Jefferson National Forest.
When the Leach XPress pipeline blew up outside of Moundsville, West Virginia, the site of the break was traced to the bottom of a steep hill.
“The preliminary investigation suggests that the failure was the result of land subsidence causing stress on a girth weld,” according to a report from the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.
A spokeswoman for TransCanada, which owns the pipeline operated by Columbia Gas Transmission, said it was placed back into service Sunday following repairs overseen by federal officials.
“Although the investigation is ongoing and will stretch into the coming months, we have already taken steps to ensure the integrity of our Leach pipeline system,” Lindsey Fought wrote in an email.
That includes work on six other areas along the pipeline’s 160-mile route that were identified as areas of concern for possible landslides, she said.
Meanwhile, Mountain Valley officials say they are taking steps to correct problems with erosion and sediment control measures identified by state regulators along the pipeline’s path from northern West Virginia to Pittsylvania County.
The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection has issued four notices of violation against the company, marking the first step of possible enforcement actions. More recently, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality notified Mountain Valley of similar problems in the counties of Craig, Franklin, Giles, Montgomery, Pittsylvania and Roanoke.
A temporary suspension of work announced June 29 is being lifted incrementally as DEQ reviews problem areas. As of Wednesday, the agency listed on its website 34 segments where work has been allowed to resume and two that remain under consideration.