Natural gas leak caused by corrosion feared by Mountain Valley Pipeline foes
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Natural gas leak caused by corrosion feared by Mountain Valley Pipeline foes

Aug 10, 2023

Since construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline resumed earlier this summer, the company has been inspecting sections of pipe that have been exposed to the elements and, where necessary, reapplying a coating designed to protect the pipe from corrosion once it’s buried. Pictured here last week are sections of pipe that have been stored above ground along the pipeline’s right-of-way near Elliston.

A major leak at a Pennsylvania natural gas storage facility operated by the same company that is leading construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline was caused by corrosion of a well joint.

Equitrans Midstream Corp. detailed its investigation of the November 2022 incident, which spewed about 1 billion cubic feet of a greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, in a report to federal safety regulators.

Water and oxygen weakened the well’s underground top joint, causing more damage than what testing in 2016 had revealed. When the data was reprocessed using updated technology, it was determined that the earlier tests were inaccurate, Equitrans said in a news release Thursday.

With construction of Mountain Valley resuming this summer, there are concerns that sections of pipe stored above the ground for years have been over-exposed to sunlight, which can break down a protective coating meant to guard against corrosion.

“We are distressed to hear confirmation of Equitrans’ failing pipes in Pennsylvania as we fear similar disasters will occur along the MVP route,” said Denali Nalamalapu of Protect Our Water, Heritage, Rights, an anti-pipeline coalition.

“Many of us can’t fall asleep at night for fear of MVP pipes exploding and killing our loved ones,” Nalamalapu said in a statement issued by POWHR Friday. “MVP is an unnecessary, beleaguered project that must be stopped immediately.”

A Mountain Valley spokeswoman said it was “no surprise” that pipeline opponents are attempting to link the incident in Pennsylvania to pipeline construction.

“Vertical storage wells are vastly different from natural gas transmission lines, including in construction, operations, and materials, such as coatings,” Natalie Cox wrote in an email.

“Mountain Valley has worked with federal and state regulators for years to ensure the construction and integrity management practices of the project and will continue to do so,” she said.

The U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration has called for additional inspections of the steel pipe before it is buried, although there has been no final action on a proposed safety order issued Aug. 11.

Degraded coating and other conditions may “pose a pipeline integrity risk to public safety, property or the environment,” the agency said in its proposed order, which mentions explosions of other pipelines in mountainous terrain that can be susceptible to landslides.

Mountain Valley has requested an informal consultation with PHMSA, saying it welcomes oversight from state and federal agencies.

But critics worry that while negotiations continue, sections of the 42-inch diameter pipe – which may have been compromised by exposure to the elements since 2017 – are being placed in the ground as the company rushes to complete construction by the end of the year.

In an Aug. 18 letter to PHMSA, about a dozen organizations opposed to the pipeline asked the administration to work with other federal agencies and order that work be stopped until safety conditions are implemented.

PHMSA has proposed an independent, third-party review of a process to inspect the steel pipes and, where needed, reapply a fusion-bonded epoxy coating before they are buried.

Even though its safety order has not been implemented, PHMSA said Friday that it has been inspecting the pipeline since work began to ensure that Mountain Valley is in compliance with all safety regulations.

Mountain Valley says it already has a program to examine the pipes and reinforce them when necessary along the pipeline’s 303-mile route from northern West Virginia, though Southwest Virginia, to connect with an existing pipeline near the North Carolina line.

More than 270 miles of pipe have already been buried, the company says, and the coating met specifications at the time.

The notice of a proposed safety order was not an effort by PHMSA to stop construction, according to Cox. Rather, “it was intended to instill public confidence in the responsible construction and safe operation of the pipeline, and we agree with PHMSA that transparently outlining the steps being taken by the MVP project team to safely complete construction of the pipeline is of utmost importance to the public,” her email stated.

Construction of the $6.6 billion project began in the winter of 2018, but work has been stopped and restarted repeatedly as Mountain Valley’s government permits were struck down by a federal appeals court.

Legal challenges have focused on the project’s large environmental footprint. State regulators in the two Virginias have cited Mountain Valley with nearly 500 violations of regulations meant to control muddy runoff from work sites, and critics say burning natural gas that will be transported by the pipeline will worsen what is already a climate change crisis.

In western Pennsylvania, Equitrans operates the Rager Mountain Storage Facility, where natural gas waiting to be shipped is kept in wells that have been drilled dry by hydraulic fracking of the Marcellus Shale formation. The Rager facility has 10 storage wells with a capacity of about 9 billion cubic feet of gas.

After the well joint on one of the wells failed, it took Equitrans nearly two weeks to plug the leak. In addition to the natural gas that was vented into the atmosphere, a smaller amount was contained within the earth at depths of 1,800 to 3,000 feet, the company said in Thursday’s news release.

Extensive testing found that none of the gas migrated to nearby residential areas, the company said.

“Equitrans has worked diligently with all regulatory agencies and various independent experts to identify the cause of the incident and to strengthen its existing storage well integrity program,” said Cox, who is a spokeswoman for both Equitrans and Mountain Valley.

Meanwhile, construction of the pipeline – including sections in the Bent Mountain community of Roanoke County, Franklin County and the Jefferson National Forest in Giles and Montgomery counties – is ramping back up.

After getting log-jammed by legal challenges, the project was fast-tracked by a federal law, passed in early June, that mandated approval of all its permits while removing the federal Fourth Circuit’s jurisdiction to hear any legal challenges.

Eight stream and wetland crossings have been completed in recent weeks, according to Matt Stafford, manager of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality’s office of water compliance.

About 600 such crossings in West Virginia and Virginia remain, in addition to major projects that involve boring under Interstate 81 and the Appalachian Trail in the national forest.

In a presentation earlier this week to the State Water Control Board, Stafford said there have been no documented violations of erosion and sediment control regulations since work restarted.

Laurence Hammack (540) 981-3239

[email protected]

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Sections of the pipe are being examined to make sure a protective coating has not been damaged by years of exposure to the elements.

A coating designed to protect sections of the Mountain Valley Pipeline from corrosion may have been broken down by sunlight during long delays…

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