On the frontlines of a fight to protect water and forests from pipeline risks, a volunteer-driven group documents potential environmental violations.
A dirt and gravel corridor as wide as a highway splits the green-hued forest, winding over steep slopes before disappearing into a sea of ridges on the horizon. Down the center, a pale green tube propped up on waist-high stacks of wooden pallets looks like a water slide as it caroms along mountainous contours here in Appalachian Virginia west of Roanoke.
It’s Friday evening and the crews building the Mountain Valley Pipeline here have gone home for the evening. Work is just starting, though, for a team of citizen scientists determined to hold the pipeline’s developers accountable for any environmental damage they inflict in the area.
Standing in a yard less than 200 feet from the edge of the right of way, Russell Chisholm launches a drone into the air. As he guides the unmanned aircraft over the construction zone, Jason Shelton and nearby landowner Lynda Majors keep an eye on it and watch for other aircraft that might enter the airspace.
Meet the Mountain Valley Watch, the volunteer-driven group serving as extra sets of eyes for state regulators as the 303-mile, natural gas pipeline is installed from the Marcellus and Utica shale fields of northern West Virginia to a compressor station in southern Virginia. The project crosses multiple waterways and lots of steep terrain like this along the way.
Before construction began earlier this year, opponents argued to the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and state environmental agencies that the pipeline could not be built without permanently damaging the waterways and groundwater along the route. In awarding permits that allowed the pipeline to move forward, regulators decided otherwise.
Now, the pipeline’s opponents are putting their money, time, and energy behind their arguments, taking it upon themselves to scrutinize pipeline construction and its effects on nearby waterways.
Eyes on the ground
Chisholm looks at a small tablet screen, collecting aerial video while slowly guiding the drone down the pipeline route. He’s looking for sediment control measures — silt fences, diagonal water bars, and green fabric “socks” stuffed with mulch, all intended to control water flow and prevent runoff down the steep slopes. Chisholm and Shelton were in a sprint last week to collect aerial footage ahead of rainstorms forecast for the weekend. They’ll return soon to get a look at the same places after what was expected to be relatively heavy rain.
Mountain Valley Watch has trained a cadre of landowners along the route, along with about a dozen more volunteers, to document whether pipeline crews are properly installing stormwater mitigation measures, as well as whether those measures work during rainstorms. These citizen-scientists receive training from coordinators and then document their findings with a smartphone survey app that collects descriptions, a GPS tag, and photos. Their reports are collected by Shelton through a website he operates for New River Geographics. Reports are often corroborated by Shelton and Chisholm, and apparent violations are sent to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), the agency responsible for oversight.
In mid-July, Mountain Valley Watch released a map showing more than 150 alleged water quality violations by pipeline construction crews. The release came days after the DEQ filed a formal Notice of Violation against the pipeline company for violating erosion and sediment regulations, stormwater management regulations, and its Clean Water Act certification in six counties.
It’s unclear how much volunteer monitoring programs contributed to the notices, but some of the flagged violations were in areas that had also been the subject of citizen reports.
Ann Regn, a DEQ spokeswoman, said the agency has met with the volunteer monitors, who “understand the process” and file more detailed reports than what it usually receives. When it receives a report, it is entered into a database that is reviewed daily to prioritize areas inspectors should visit, she said.
“While DEQ staff must visually inspect each site where a violation has been observed to document the situation, citizen reports have helped direct inspectors to areas that are problems,” Regn wrote in an email.
The agency maintains a web page that lists areas that have been inspected. Regn said she could not say whether citizens had reported the eight alleged violations included in DEQ’s notice because the proceedings are “confidential.”
All told, the DEQ has logged 84 reports on the Mountain Valley Pipeline since March, she said. The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection also has cited the Mountain Valley Pipeline for water quality violations five times since April.
A spokesperson for the pipeline developer did not respond to a request for comment this week.
Empowered by drones and phones
The monitoring of construction by citizen-scientists has grown over the last several years as drone and smartphone technology has improved. Wildlife conservation group Trout Unlimited previously instituted monitoring programs on coldwater habitat in Pennsylvania but began watching pipeline construction in 2009 as the shale gas boom took off.
“Our chapters in the north central part of the state, an area of Pennsylvania with really great wild and native trout resources and also an area seeing a lot of shale gas extraction and associated development, expressed concerns about what that meant for the trout streams and were looking for a way to keep an eye on things,” said Jake Lemon, eastern angler science coordinator for Trout Unlimited.
The organization worked with Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, to develop monitoring protocols for volunteers to assess streams in the state’s shale gas-producing regions.
When the Mountain Valley and Atlantic Coast pipelines were proposed in 2014, Trout Unlimited adapted its program for Virginia and West Virginia.
“In most cases, state agencies don’t have the capacity to comprehensively monitor these projects,” Lemon said. “By having trained citizen observers who know what to look for, we’re expanding the capacity to document these issues as they’re occurring.”
Rick Shingles co-founded Preserve Giles County, one of several local groups fighting pipelines under the larger Protect Our Water Heritage Rights (POWHR) organization. For the first three years of the fight, the group worked through the regulatory process. Now that construction has begun, the fight is taking place along the construction route, either through civil disobedience, as in the case of tree-sitters and activists who have chained themselves to construction equipment, or through monitoring for potential water violations.
During the regulatory process, opponents produced three hydrologists who questioned the pipeline company’s claims that the project could be built without adversely affecting the region’s water resources.
“It’s now an empirical test,” Shingles said. “It’s not their argument versus our argument anymore. If it rains, depending on the kind of rain, we’ll be all over the place. We know where the mitigation procedures weren’t put in place. We have imagery that’s time stamped and location stamped. Let’s see what happens.”
‘Upstream from everyone’
On the ground in Montgomery County, Chisholm, Majors, and Shelton, the program administrator, reflect on why their monitoring work is so important. They note that the pipeline crosses crucial watersheds that flow both into the New River and the Roanoke River, on either side of the eastern continental divide.
“It would be grossly irresponsible for us to live up here and want to protect this for ourselves only,” Chisholm says. “We are upstream from everyone.”
“It’s the Mississippi River,” says Shelton. “It’s the Chesapeake Bay. It’s the Albemarle Sound.”
“A lot of people think that if you flip a faucet on, there will always be clean water,” Majors says. “They have no clue that it actually comes from the forest and the land, and that you need to preserve that.”
Nearby, Bob and Donna Jones have a much more immediate concern. They had their house built in 1983. Over the years, their home has become a family center for their children and now grandchildren. Bob Jones, a retired engineering professor at Virginia Tech, remembers the moment he found out the Mountain Valley Pipeline had been rerouted over their 73-acre property.
“The 22nd of April, 2016,” Jones recalls. “It was in a publication on the FERC website by MVP.”
What was his reaction?
“I’ve said to other people, you don’t want to hear the words, because you can’t print them.”
The couple had been considering selling their house but needed to address a couple of things first. When they found out the pipeline would pass 200 feet from their house, their real estate agent told them they’d be lucky to get even half of their previously planned selling price. In the short term, they’re irritated by the constant intrusion of pipeline workers within view of their house, which previously had been private. They can see the pipeline’s scar out their picture window on Johnson’s Ridge, which sits just in front of Poor Mountain on the horizon, and they can spot the line itself from their front door.
Longer-term, they’re worried about impacts to Slusser’s Chapel Cave, home to the aquifer that is the source of their drinking water, and they’re frightened about the possibility of an explosion, as has happened on other pipelines in recent weeks.
“This was called Bull Ridge Farm, because on that ridge over there,” Jones says, pointing to the pipeline right-of-way, “a farmer was killed by a bull. And now it’s possible we’ll be killed here on this ridge, too.”
Majors’ home, visible a ways down the driveway, is outside the 1,800-foot blast zone but within a second zone in which, if there’s a pipeline explosion, her home won’t be destroyed but would suffer damage such as the melted siding.
Those implications are part of why she’s fighting the pipeline, and expects to continue doing so well into the future.
“It’s that important to us,” Majors says. “This is my land, my community, my everything here.”
“We’re fighting to reclamation,” Shelton says.
“Oh yeah, we’ll be knowing each other for a really long time,” Majors says.
“I still answer the phone when you call,” responds Chisholm, and they laugh.
The monitors laugh a lot, especially Shelton, who is giving to bursting out in the midst of sentences describing potentially dire implications of the pipeline construction. Sometimes in grim circumstances, there’s no other way to relieve the tension of difficult work.
And then they go back to work, heading down the road to another pipeline construction site they want to document before it’s too dark to see anymore.