The Appalachian Trail Conservancy isn’t against all pipelines; they recognize the human need for energy. The problem with the Mountain Valley Pipeline, they say, is that no one will talk to them about it.
The proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline would run about 300 miles from West Virginia to Southern Virginia. Along the way, its predicted to run along the Appalachian Trail for almost 100 miles, according to the ATC website
The MVP wouldn't be the first pipeline to cross America's most famous path. Currently, some 58 pipelines cross the trail at one point or another. “The reality is that the AT is between energy resources and people,” says Andrew Downs, the non-profit’s central and southwest Virginia regional director. “In this situation, we haven’t had the opportunity to work with these companies to avoid negative impacts.”
The agency charged with supervising the pipeline’s builders is the Energy Regulatory Commission. In theory, FERC requires pipeline companies to coordinate with the ATC in order to minimize impacts to the area. But Downs hasn’t heard from anyone from EQT Corporation and Mountain Valley Pipeline LLC, the companies behind the pipeline in over 8 months.
“We had a number of meetings with them and a number of phone calls, even a field visit. As the project got more into the details, they stopped reaching out,” said Downs.
How would a pipeline change the Appalachian Trail?
West Virginia and Virginia’s governments don’t seem to care, instead trumpeting the $3.5 billion project not only as a source of potential jobs, but also a way to promote “low-cost energy sources.”
“In order to compete globally to attract businesses and create jobs, Virginia must have world-class energy infrastructure that provides abundant access to low-cost energy sources,” said Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe in a statement. “New natural gas pipelines, like the Mountain Valley Pipeline, will diversify our energy mix, reduce our Commonwealth’s carbon emissions, and help build a new Virginia economy.”
West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin echoed McAuliffe is his own report.
While construction is slated to begin in mid-2017, Mountain Valley Pipeline still requires approval from FERC and reviews from other federal and state agencies. Last September, FERC released its overview on the situation, citing that the pipeline “might cross federal lands” and could have “some adverse environmental impacts.”
For its part, Mountain Valley Pipeline says it has made adjustments, including steps “to avoid environmentally sensitive areas to the greatest extent possible” and to “minimize the project’s impact on the environment, landowners, and communities.”
But when it comes to that Appalachian Trail, Downs says the lack of communication has forced the ATC to stand against the pipeline.
“During the critical time when positive changes could have been made to the plan, we were not consulted. As a result, we are so far down the line, we have to oppose the plan, rather than walk side-by-side with it,” said Downs.
FERC seems to share some of the ATC’s reservations. On January 26, the agency presented a 28-page letter postponing the release of a final environmental evaluation of the pipeline. Translation: Mountain Valley Pipeline didn’t do enough environmental research on the project, and would have to go back to the drawing board. (Neither FERC nor EQT corporation responded to a request for comment.)
Last month, Mountain Valley Pipeline responded with 2,300 pages of analysis. The catch: There’s no public comment period for this second report, despite the fact that it contains hundreds of pages on potential visual impacts from the pipeline. The ball is now solidly in the government’s court.
The ATC says health and economic problems and potentially “irreversible damage to local ecosystems” are among the potential consequences of the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline. The pipeline would require clear-cutting thousands of acres of forest for a “utility corridor” alongside it, and would be visible from iconic lookouts like Angels Rest, Dragons Tooth, and McAfeee Knob. To make matters worse, says the ATC, the pipeline crosses dozens of water sources, and is located in a designated seismic zone—meaning that the risk of leaks is “extremely high.”
Most concerning of all is the pipeline’s long-term impact on forest management along the Appalachian Trail. The Jefferson National Forest Management Plan establishes a federally regulated standard for projects’ acceptable impact on “water quality, visual impacts, the removal of old-growth forest, and the number of simultaneous projects passing through the border of federally protected land,” according to the ATC website. Building the Mountain Valley Pipeline would require amending the plan to lower those standards, setting a precedent for other trails.
The ATC could have a tough fight ahead of it: According to a survey commissioned by Mountain Valley Pipeline, 62 percent of Virginians support the project. Those polled in the Roanoke and Southwest Virginia region demonstrated the strongest support, with a whopping 74 percent of Roanoke respondents showing approval.
Nevertheless, the ATC isn’t changing course. The future of the trail could depend on it.
“To do work right the first time is a better way to get something done,” said Downs, “We can all equally get behind a good idea.”