Appalachian Pipeline: A Public Health Perspective
When you envision the Blue Ridge Mountains or the scenic views of the Appalachian Trail, you might imagine an untampered and rustic portrait of a national landmark that continues to stand the test of time. Now, picture the construction of a pipeline carving through the hills and valleys, with naked stretches of mud exposed on the surface of the mountain sides that are large enough to be seen from an overlook at the peak of a hiking trail not too far away. Today, this dismal portrait has yet to be constructed, but the possibility of a 42-inch wide, underground natural gas pipeline spanning 300 miles from the northwestern tip of West Virginia to the most southern part of Virginia has become a likelihood since its first request for approval in October 2014 (1). Modern portraits and iconic views from hiking trails and national treasures abundant in Appalachia are certain to be disturbed by the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP), but the less discussed socioeconomic and environmental ramifications also pose major concerns from a public health perspective.
The creators of the MVP project, which is a collective venture between a multitude of independent energy corporations, argue that the economic benefits of constructing and operating the natural gas pipeline will contribute an incredible amount of revenue to local communities and each state involved (1). They specifically highlight five areas of economic advantage: 1) direct spending in West Virginia and Virginia with an estimated capital expense of $3.5 billion, 2) formation of nearly 9,000 jobs at peak employment, 3) labor income for West Virginia and Virginia employees that will be higher than the per capita personal income for each state and the national average, 4) millions of dollars generated in state and local tax revenues, and 5) continued ad valorem taxes to be received by the counties alongside the pipeline (1, 3-5). While the aim of economic growth and a subsequently higher quality of life for the community members involved seems to be the driving motive of the MVP, are these possible outcomes enough to justify such a massive project? Should the lucrative incentives for the MVP project override public health determinants, which include a vast collection of socioeconomic, public safety, and environmental factors contributing to a community’s health and well-being?
In order for the pipeline to commence construction, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) requires any onshore pipeline in the U.S. to go through three important checkpoints as a result of the U.S. Natural Gas Act of 1938: a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity, as well as both a Draft and Final Statement of Environmental Impact (1). In other words, even if the economic benefits and public desire for a pipeline were found appropriate and fitting for a particular span of communities, the cost-benefit analysis of environmental consequences is of equal weight. Since its initial request for approval, the MVP project completed the Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity in November 2015 along with the Draft Environmental Impact Statement in September 2016, but it currently waits for review and approval of the Final Environmental Impact Statement by FERC to start making actual headway as early as November 2018 (1). Alongside its quick progress, the MVP project boasts that the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) state that “natural gas pipelines have the best safety record of any energy delivery system in the United States;” yet, in all reality, the best is dangerously close to the worst (2, 3).
From the West to East Coast, the oil and natural gas industries have been one of the leading forces in silent, yet deadly, patterns of public safety concerns for millions of individuals and communities nationwide. According to the same NTSB that the MVP project used to find its safety information for the energy delivery of natural gas pipelines, accident investigations and incident reports have tracked the extensive explosion and fire damage caused by faulty installation and maintenance for pipelines transporting gas since the late 1960s all the way to the 2010s (2). The latest report on the NTSB website lists a “Natural Gas-Fueled Building Explosion and Resulting Fire” that occurred on March 12, 2014 in New York City and resulted in eight deaths, injuries to 50 people, 100 families displaced from their homes, and overall costs for repair and compensation that exceeded $1.9 million. That’s one incident report out of 123 currently listed. In fact, ongoing data from the USDOT’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration shows a steadily increasing rate of onshore pipeline accidents since 1996, including 360 fatalities and 1,376 injuries, that have reached all-time highs in the 2010s (3). The total costs of pipeline accidents between 1996-2016 has further amassed to $7,104,789,991 for both public property damage and expenses to the gas industry (3). In response, the MVP project assures that it will “utilize sophisticated technology to monitor the pipeline, in real time, 24-hours-a-day and 7-days-a-week” (1). This response is no different from any other safety precaution statement released by pipeline operators between 1996-2016 (6).
Tony Iallonardo, Senior Communications Manager of the National Wildlife Federation, remarks, “It's inevitable that as pipelines age, as they are exposed to the elements, eventually they are going to spill. They’re ticking time bombs” (6). Although pipelines are generally regarded as far better choices than on-road methods of transportation for natural gas and oil alike, hundreds of leaks and serious accidents continue to occur every year due to the lack of uniform safety protocols from the pipeline operators themselves and low regulations from the government (6). The creators of the MVP may claim that “safety is a core value and number one priority,” yet the long history of incident reports proves that a sense of security with pipelines is never a certainty for public safety (1).
Additional research shows that the U.S. already has an overabundance of 2.5 million miles of pipelines that are more than capable of transporting the natural gas that consumers presently demand in the MVP target regions of the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast (1, 7). The proclaimed environmental stewardship of the MVP project forgets to mention the overwhelming contribution to air pollution and climate change. In order to access the target supply of natural gas within the Marcellus and Utica shale regions, fracking techniques would be utilized, which cause the methane in natural gas to quite naturally leak into the atmosphere (7). Accumulation of methane in the ozone directly speeds up climate change because of its global warming effect, which exceeded that of other global warming gases like carbon dioxide by a factor of 86 in only a period of two decades (7). Additionally, three compressor stations will be required by the MVP in order to keep the natural gas highly pressurized for mobility along the entire route of the pipeline; however, it is already predicted by FERC that one of the stations in West Virginia will violate the local community’s air quality standards and will therefore require an additional state permit for approval (1, 7, 8). With clear and unavoidable contributions to climate change, the water quality of three major aquifers, two public water supplies, 377 perennial waterbodies, and a likely large amount of private drinking wells will be crossed and in very close contact to the proposed pipeline route (7). And if contribution to climate change and possible contamination of drinking water isn’t enough to warrant environmental concern, the FERC even confirms that damage to thousands of acres of forest and local, threatened and endangered wildlife is undeniable (7).
It’s clear that the public safety concerns are valid and imminent, especially for communities at the epicenter of possible pipeline malfunctions and life-threatening accidents. Despite the reported data, the socioeconomic and environmental factors at work with the MVP project have many Appalachian residents divided on the issue. Yet, as societies across the world continue to transition from nonrenewable to renewable forms of energy, why not invest now in the inevitable future of a clean energy economy? Why spend more time, labor, and energy (literally) on a depleting source of fuel, rather than allocate such resources to safer and more sustainable forms of energy? The MVP is not only a misuse of potential resources – it’s a barrier for progress forward in the clean energy sector as a nation.
In the end, the dynamic between people and pipelines is extremely fragile, and should be handled with great caution and care; caution to avoid public safety dangers and contribution to climate change, and care to adopt a comprehensive public health perspective should be mandatory for the protection of all people in direct contact with a proposed oil or natural gas pipeline. The MVP project is one of the few proposed pipelines that we as members of a local and global society have the opportunity to avoid building before it hits the ground. Instead of adding another vein to the network of pipelines that pump nonrenewable energy across the U.S., let’s decide to lead the way with clean energy infrastructure and a plan to protect lives and the environment our lives depend on.
Mountain Valley Pipeline Project. (2016). Overview, Maps. Retrieved from https://www.mountainvalleypipeline.info/project-schedule
National Transportation Safety Board. (2016). Pipeline Accident Reports. Retrieved from http://www.ntsb.gov/investigations/AccidentReports/Pages/ pipeline.aspx
U.S. Department of Transportation, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. (2016). Pipeline Incident 20 Year Trends. Retrieved from http://www.phmsa.dot.gov/pipeline/library/data-stats/pipelineincidenttrends
Council on Virginia’s Future. (2016, Dec. 21). Virginia Performs, Personal Income. Retreived from http://vaperforms.virginia.gov/indicators/economy/ personalIncome.php
U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Economic Analysis. (2016, Sep. 28). Per Capita Personal Income. Retrieved from https://www.bea.gov/regional/ bearfacts/ pdf.cfm?fips=54000&areatype=STATE&geotype=3
Groeger, L. (2016, Dec. 6). Pipelines Explained: How Safe are America’s 2.5 Million Miles of Pipelines? ProPublica. Retrieved from https://www.propublica.org/article/ pipelines-explained-how-safe-are-americas-2.5-million-miles-of-pipelines
Anderson, P. (2016, Nov. 1). Why Stop the Mountain Valley Pipeline? Appalachian Voices. Retrieved from http://appvoices.org/2016/11/01/ why-stop-the-mountain-valley-pipeline/
STI Group. (2014, Jan. 21). Compressor Stations: What They Do, How They Work, and Why They Are Important. Retrieved from http://setxind.com/ midstream/ compressor-stations-what-how-why/