A proposal by a coalition of energy corporations to build a 42-inch gas pipeline through northern Pocahontas County is raising concerns that the project would cause irreparable environmental damage. If approved by federal regulators, the pipeline would span approximately 25 miles of national forest in Randolph County, Pocahontas County and Highland County, Virginia.
The coalition includes Duke Energy, Dominion Resources, Piedmont Natural Gas and AGL Resources. Last week, the corporations announced a joint venture to build the 550-mile “Atlantic Coast Pipeline” from Harrison County to Lumberton, North Carolina. If approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), construction would occur in 2017 and 2018 and the pipeline would be placed into service in late 2018.
According to the Energy Information Administration, a 42-inch pipeline is the largest used in the natural gas industry. Construction of a large pipeline typically requires a 150-foot right-of-way during construction, and a permanent clear-cut right-of-way of 100 feet. Access roads for heavy equipment and other vehicles must be built, where necessary, and a trench is excavated in which the pipeline is buried. Blasting is required to excavate the trench in rocky areas, including many streambeds.
Dominion representatives have said the final pipeline route has not been selected, but the company issued a map of the pipeline’s path across Pocahontas County. Several waterways in
the pipeline’s path are not indicated on the map. But, as currently plotted, the pipeline would cross: Shavers Fork – 1.4 miles south of Cheat Bridge; West Fork of the Greenbrier River – two miles north of Durbin; and East Fork of the Greenbrier River – 1.4 miles northeast of Bartow. The pipeline would also cross Mountain Lick Creek, Johns Run, Hawchen Hollow Creek and several other streams.
Just two years ago, the State of West Virginia spent $5 million to restore brook trout habitat on the same reach of Shavers Fork where the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is plotted. A Department of Natural Resources article, published following project completion in October 2012, reads: “Unique in West Virginia, Shavers Fork is a high-elevation, big-river brook trout fishery. For more than a century, the river and its watershed have been impacted by activities such as logging and railroad construction which have reduced brook trout habitat and populations. Recent plans to restore brook trout have prioritized both habitat restoration and removal of fish passage barriers between the main stem and the species’ spawning tributaries.”
Stream sedimentation, a potential adverse effect of pipeline construction, is a major problem for trout survival. Trout are very susceptible to sediment pollution because they build their nests in the stream bottom. Eggs, buried in streambed gravel, rely on a steady flow of clean, cold water to deliver oxygen and remove waste products. FERC requires builders to follow sediment control procedures, but one mishap or miscalculation could have a significant impact on trout populations.
Last Thursday, the Greenbrier River Watershed Association issued a press release.
“Conservation groups across West Virginia are deeply concerned about Dominion’s proposed 42-inch high pressure gas pipeline through the heart of the Monongahela and George Washington National Forests,” the press release reads. “It would cut through our highest mountains (over 4,000 feet), through caves, native trout streams, tourism railroads, endangered species habitat and historic Civil War battlefields.”
The pipeline path crosses through the same steep, rugged terrain that General Robert E. Lee’s troops struggled through during their attack on Cheat Summit Fort in 1861.
A visit to the area where the pipeline is plotted across Shavers Fork shows it passing through private property – an area that includes the Cheat Mountain Club lodge and private homes.
In the September issue of The Highlands Voice, the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy reported: “Landowners may see a decrease in property values due to the restricted use of land on the easement as well as the visual impacts of a 75 to 125 foot wide clear cut. Some other results from the proximity of a gas pipeline may be: inability to sell, inability to get a mortgage, potential calling in of the mortgage because the owner allowed industrial development and the dangers of fire and explosion.”
From Shavers Fork, the path climbs eastward along Fish Hatchery Run into Forest Service land and crests Back Allegheny Mountain in a saddle. As it enters Pocahontas County, the pipeline would plunge more than 1,000 feet in eight-tenths of a mile down the steep eastern face of Back Allegheny Mountain.
Dominion is the corporate partner in charge of construction. The Highlands Voice article continues: “Dominion has never constructed a 42-inch pipeline, and there appears to be no precedent for a pipeline of this size across steep forested terrain like the Alleghenies. It would go straight up and down mountainsides which range from 3,400 feet to 4,700 feet in West Virginia and from 3,000 feet to 4,200 feet in Virginia.
After the steep drop from Back Allegheny Mountain, the pipeline path crosses Route 250 two miles north of Durbin and traverses another mountain before plunging down to the West Fork.
The pipeline would cross the West Fork at a bend in the river two miles north of Durbin. The West Fork, like Shavers Fork, is a popular trout fishing location. The 22-mile West Fork Trail follows a former rail grade along the east bank of the river. The website TrailLink describes the area: “Meandering through the mountains, the trail and the river make sweeping 180-degree turns through a tight valley surrounded by steep hillsides. The West Fork River is a popular fishing spot, and you are bound to see a number of anglers along the way.”
Fishing and other recreational activity on the West Fork would be impacted, if not abated, during pipeline construction. A permanent, 100-foot, clear-cut right-of-way would span the forested slopes overlooking the river.
The Highlands Voice states: “The pipeline would cross both the Monongahela National Forest and the George Washington National Forest in areas where there are ongoing restoration projects for trout and red spruce. A 100-foot clearcut across the Alleghenies will divide and fragment forest and wildlife habitat for numerous threatened and endangered species and create favorable conditions for invasive species.”
Dominion has scheduled a series of open houses to share information and receive public input regarding the pipeline project. Two open houses are scheduled in the local area: Tuesday, September 16, at The Highland Center in Monterey, Virginia; and Wednesday, September 24, at the Durbin Volunteer Fire Department. Times for the open houses are 5 to 6:30 p.m. for affected landowners and 6:30 to 8 p.m. for landowners and the general public.
See next week’s edition of The Pocahontas Times for more information on the pipeline project, including position statements from state elected officials.