Environmental groups opposed to the construction of a natural gas pipeline across Virginia and West Virginia have raised a new concern, charging that the project will require the excavation of 38 miles of ridgetops through the Allegheny and Blue Ridge Mountains, leading to severe erosion, runoff pollution and habitat loss.

Drawing on information gleaned from the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline, the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, a Takoma Park, MD-based environmental group, contends that 38 miles of mountain ridges would need to be dynamited and excavated along the project’s 600-mile path through West Virginia and Virginia. Mountaintops would be reduced 10–60 feet in elevation, CCAN alleges, and several impacted slopes “are at a gradient of 80 percent or more,” some of the steepest in the Appalachian range.

Based on calculations done by a “third-party engineering firm,” the climate group also contends that the ridgetop excavations will generate 247,000 dump-truck loads of rock, soil and vegetation that would have to be put somewhere or removed from the construction zone. CCAN said its report drew on data from the U.S. Geological Survey and the draft environmental review, which was prepared by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission staff using information from Dominion and its contractors, along with other federal and state agencies.

“It is unthinkable,” said Mike Tidwell, the climate network’s executive director, “but Dominion Resources intends to remove the tops of 38 miles of mountain ridgetops to build the Atlantic Coast Pipeline across West Virginia and Virginia.”

Dominion and three other energy companies are seeking federal approval to build a pipeline from West Virginia to Norfolk and eastern North Carolina, with a capacity to transport 1.5 billion cubic feet of gas daily. The project would require a 125-foot-wide cleared construction right of way and a 75-foot-wide cleared permanent right of way throughout its length, according to the FERC review.

Dominion said the pipeline construction and the gas it’s to carry will boost the region’s economy, supporting thousands of jobs and yielding millions of dollars in tax revenues for the counties through which it passes. The company also said the additional gas will lower consumers’ energy bills and even improve air quality by replacing coal, which creates more pollution in electricity generation. Many Virginia politicians, including the governor, support the pipeline, as do numerous local chambers of commerce, businesses and labor unions.

But opponents contend the pipeline’s construction through the Allegheny Mountains and across the Shenandoah Valley will cause unacceptable environmental impacts, as well as degrade streams, groundwater, forests and habitat for rare species. They also argue that the pipeline will facilitate more gas production through hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” which also has come under fire for its impacts on water and air.

Since publishing its draft environmental impact statement, FERC has received more than 35,000 comments. The commission will issue a final environmental report after reviewing that feedback.

A Dominion spokesman disputed the climate network’s assertion that the pipeline developers plan to engage in “mountaintop removal.”

Aaron Ruby, Dominion’s media relations manager, said the construction “only needs enough of a grade for a 10-foot-deep trench” to house the pipeline. The soil and rock excavated would be piled on either side, he said, and “a whole host” of safeguards would be used to prevent erosion and runoff.

Ruby said that the environmental group “erroneously assumed” that the entire 125-foot-wide right of way being acquired for the pipeline would have to be cleared and excavated.  He added that “we will not be grading 125-foot areas on top of ridgelines."

Dominion has vowed to restore mountain slopes to their original contour after excavating to lay the pipeline. But FERC’s draft environmental review cautions that this “would not restore a slope to original condition, though it may appear so and create a false sense of security.” The work planned on steep slopes “would result in permanent, irreversible alterations of geologic conditions,” the FERC report says, adding that widening and flattening narrow ridgetops could lead to landslides. 

According to a study by Daniel Shaffer, a spatial analyst with the Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition, a group opposing the project, Dominion’s contractors would dig 30-foot-wide, 8-foot-deep trenches along the mountaintops, with deeper ruts at ridgeline crossings. The excavation would displace large amounts of broken rock and earth. Dominion has not said what it would do with this “overburden,” particularly with what can’t be placed back in the trench.

Anne Havemann, the climate network’s lawyer, acknowledged that Dominion’s spokespeople have said the group is making an inaccurate assumption that the pipeline would need a 125-foot-wide right of way. But she said that information came directly from the government’s draft environmental review.

The draft FERC report states that for the portion of the pipeline running through the mountains, “the construction right-of-way in nonagricultural uplands would measure 125 feet in width, with a 40-foot-wide spoil side and an 85-foot-wide working side.” Based on that, Havemann said, “if FERC grants approval to Dominion, it will be granting approval for a 125-foot-wide right of way.” She added, “If Dominion disputes those conclusions, then the burden is on them to prove otherwise.”

David Sligh, conservation director with the advocacy group Wild Virginia, another pipeline opponent, said that despite Dominion’s vow to “substantially restore” mountaintops and steep slopes after the pipeline is laid, it will be hard to re-create the landscape as it was before it was cleared. Sligh, a former senior engineer with Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality, said the excavation also will alter water runoff and infiltration, and noted that soils in some areas along the project route are highly erodible.

Pam Dodd, a hydrogeologist affiliated with the coalition opposing the pipeline, likewise challenged Dominion assurances that the disturbed slopes would be restored. She said that “it’s fairly obvious it wouldn’t be practical” given the “irregular topography” and removal of trees that help prevent runoff.

Dodd contends that the water quality impacts on mountain streams would be “permanent,” with pollution exceeding limits set by state and federal regulators. The excavation also could impact groundwater infiltration and flows, which in turn affects surface waters, she said.

She said that runoff from the pipeline project’s trenching activities would result in “acid mine drainage” that “would lower the pH in streams and destroy aquatic life.”

Dodd noted that the mineral pyrite, or iron sulfide, is plentifully exposed in tailings left from coal mining in the area. When iron sulfide is exposed to water, it reacts to form sulfuric acid, she said.

Water quality would also be impacted by the clearing of forests to build the pipeline, Dodd said. The headwaters of mountain streams rely on the trees topping ridgelines to absorb and distribute rainfall. “Definitely, large areas would have to be removed and smoothed — there will be degradation,” Dodd said.

Meanwhile, the state's conflicting public statements about how it intends to review pipeline impacts on streams have prompted environmental groups to file a lawsuit.

On April 6, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality announced that it would conduct full, site-specific regulatory reviews of waterways affected by construction of both the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and another project, the Mountain Valley Pipeline, under the federal Clean Water Act and state law.

On May 24, DEQ officials said that inaccurate information was provided to the public, and that DEQ will instead certify the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to conduct the surveys under its less rigorous Nationwide 12 Permit program.

Pipeline opponents filed suit against DEQ June 5 in state circuit court. Wild Virginia's Sligh says that the lawsuit -- filed by the Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition and two other groups -- argues, among other things, that DEQ lacks the authority for a blanket certification, which has to come from the State Water Control Board, and that DEQ didn’t conduct a proper analysis of how letting the Corps review the pipelines’ stream impacts would comply with state water-quality standards.

DEQ spokesman William Hayden said, “Actions by the Corps and by DEQ essentially run parallel to each other. The Corps will focus on stream crossings and wetlands on the pipeline routes, while DEQ will concentrate on water quality in upland areas, such as karst geology, steep slopes, etc.”

But Sligh countered that “DEQ has an obligation to look at the kinds of water-quality impacts that could result even if a party meets all the Corps of Engineers’ requirements, and assess whether those kinds of impacts would violate the State’s water protection requirements.”