Mountainous karst landscape should be a ‘no build’ zone for pipeline, geologist says business roanoke.com electricity in homes

“The analysis of this report unequivocally demonstrates that the Mountain Valley Pipeline cannot be safely built through the areas of Monroe, Giles, Montgomery and Roanoke counties that are characterized by karst terrain and steep slopes,” Kastning writes in a report released Thursday.

Separately, prominent karst geologist Arthur Palmer reviewed Kastning’s study this week and supported his findings. Palmer, a professor emeritus at the State University of New York at Oneonta, has been described as one of the fathers of modern karst science.

“I give my support to every point that Dr. Kastning makes in his presentation,” Palmer said in an email Wednesday. “A pipeline — especially one of such large diameter — would be very risky in such a rugged karst terrain, especially one that is prone to seismic disturbances.”

The Mountain Valley Pipeline would transport natural gas at high pressure from Wetzel County, West Virginia, to another natural gas transmission pipeline in Pittsylvania County. Its current route would encounter karst topography in mountainous areas in West Virginia and Virginia and pass through what is known as the Giles County seismic zone and, separately, the Mount Tabor sinkhole plain in Montgomery County.

“Each time I am asked to do a geologic investigation and/or report, I always tell the prospective client that I will do an impartial scientific investigation and that it may turn out that what I find is not what they want to see or hear,” he said.

His report acknowledges that pipelines operate in karst landscapes but suggests that the mountainous terrain that the large-diameter Mountain Valley Pipeline would encounter in Appalachian karst presents unique challenges and hazards that would defy efforts by engineers to mitigate threats.

Cathy Landry, a spokeswoman for the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America, said the association did not have time Thursday to review Kastning’s study. She said INGAA was scrambling to submit comments on deadline to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which is updating safety regulations for natural gas transmission pipelines like the Mountain Valley project.

Kastning suggests also that construction and operation of the pipeline in steep terrain could cause severe erosion that could deposit sediment and pollutants in surface streams and groundwater, with the potential to affect aquatic life, private wells and public drinking supplies.

His report notes that a 12-inch diameter pipeline built by Columbia Gas of Virginia to supply natural gas to the Celanese plant in Giles County has had issues with erosion on the steep slopes of Peters Mountain. And a diesel spill that occurred during construction was tied to the contamination and temporary shutdown of a public drinking water system in Monroe County.

Karst landscapes can be especially vulnerable to pollution from surface waters flowing underground through sinkholes without the natural filtration that occurs in other landscapes. Contamination can have far-reaching impacts, Kastning observes.

“Hence, constructing a pipeline across this area would risk contamination of sizable karst aquifers,” Kastning reports. “If there is one single environmental issue that stands out in the karst of the Appalachians, it would have to be the sensitivity of the karstic aquifers to groundwater contamination.”

“Compounding of hazards along the preferred route alone suggests that avoidance of the region altogether is in the best interest of MVP and FERC [Federal Energy Regulatory Commission], and certainly to the overwhelming majority of residents of Giles and adjacent counties,” Kastning reports.

The commission recently announced plans to release in September a draft environmental impact statement for the Mountain Valley project. A final impact statement likely would be released March 10, FERC said, triggering a 90-day period for a commission decision.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe and others have expressed support for the Mountain Valley project, which they say could boost economic development along its route, support natural gas as an alternative to coal for generating electricity and support the nation’s energy independence.

Opponents say the pipeline would cause lasting environmental damage, create safety hazards and sink property values. If FERC approves the project, Mountain Valley will have access to eminent domain to acquire easements across private property.