The aerial photos depict scorched earth and the ruins of two houses destroyed one morning by the fireball that followed the corroded pipeline’s rupture.
An investigation by a federal agency reported that the “burn zone” was about 1,125 feet in diameter after the failure of a section of the buried 30-inch diameter Transcontinental pipeline near Appomattox in September 2008.
Franklin County residents Anne and Steve Bernard have seen the photos and have found them haunting.
The Bernards face the prospect of someday living and working within a few hundred feet of the Mountain Valley Pipeline — a 42-inch-diameter buried pipeline that would move natural gas at high pressure from West Virginia to Pittsylvania County.
Federal agencies and industry groups emphasize that significant incidents with natural gas transmission pipelines are rare given the pipelines’ relative ubiquity.
According to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, in 2014 there were more than 301,000 miles of natural gas transmission pipelines in the United States. Administration statistics show that there had been 1,308 significant incidents with natural gas transmission pipelines from 1996 to 2015 and a total of 46 fatalities associated with those events.
Eight of those deaths occurred in September 2010 after the rupture in San Bruno, California, of a 30-inch diameter natural gas transmission pipeline. The resulting fire also destroyed 38 homes. The cause was attributed to a poorly welded section of pipe.
Sara Gosman, an assistant professor at the University of Arkansas School of Law, serves also as vice president of the board for Pipeline Safety Trust, a nonprofit pipeline watchdog organization.
Gosman said that even though the probability of serious ruptures of natural gas transmission pipelines is low, when they do occur they tend to have high consequences.
Which is one reason the Bernards’ neighbors off Grassy Hill Road, Derek and Marion Hanes, describe a gnawing unease, a feeling described by many others facing the prospect of living close to the proposed pipeline’s 301-mile route.
“We haven’t let it consume our lives, but it is a great source of stress,” Derek Hanes said.
Which leads him to wonder why some people not directly affected by the pipeline seem unable to grasp the project’s potential effect on neighbors and friends. Some people readily dismiss pipeline opponents as “not-in-my-backyard” types without bothering to understand the full story, he said.
“They really don’t feel the pain,” he said. “They really don’t want to talk to me about it. What I keep thinking about, more than anything else, is the lack of compassion for people who are going through this.”
Yet he acknowledged that he might have taken little interest in the pipeline project if it had not affected him directly.
As an interstate pipeline, the Mountain Valley project needs a green light from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission before construction can begin.
On Oct. 23, Mountain Valley submitted an application to FERC, a filing of about 11,000 pages, seeking the certificate it needs to move forward. FERC staff is working on a draft environmental impact statement for the project.
Mike Carter, a merchant in Rocky Mount and a pipeline opponent whose elderly parents live not far from the Bernards, emailed the Bernards an image from the October filing that detailed the pipeline route and related work in the vicinity of their home and studio.
Anne Bernard recalled her reaction.
“It was abject horror,” she said.
From survey stakes, the Bernards had anticipated that the pipeline would travel nearby. But the image Carter sent provided other details too, including a plan by Mountain Valley to use the Bernards’ driveway, which features a modest but expensive bridge the couple paid to have built, as a permanent access road to the pipeline.
“I felt violated,” Steve Bernard said.
In a nearby section of Franklin County, Mavis Boone, 91, and her son, Blair, have successfully resisted to date efforts by contractors working for Mountain Valley to survey their family farm for a pipeline route. Yet Blair Boone knows that the project could still burrow through bottomland the family owns and rents to farmers along the Blackwater River.
Which means that he feels compassion for the Bernards and what they face.
“Anne and Steve will be devastated if the pipeline takes its currently mapped course,” Boone said. “It will hurt us, but it will destroy them. I don’t think MVP could damage their property and quality of life any more if they tried.”
Natalie Cox, a spokeswoman for Mountain Valley Pipeline LLC, said the joint venture does what it can to avoid routing the pipeline near residences.
Cox said there are times when “we are limited to how and where adjustments can be made.”
But she emphasized that Mountain Valley will work with landowners and communities “to discuss sensitivities and potential minor route adjustments” until a final route is approved by FERC.
At FERC’s direction, Mountain Valley included in its application justification for routes or work areas that would be close to homes. In one instance in West Virginia, Mountain Valley said it will buy a hunting cabin that would be directly in the pipeline’s path because avoiding it was impossible due to terrain constraints.
Mountain Valley also filed with FERC a chart that identified at least 26 occupied residences within 50 feet of the construction work area for the currently proposed route.
Mountain Valley has said the temporary construction right-of-way will be about 125 feet wide, dropping to 50 feet in most places for the permanent right-of-way.
‘Potential impact radius’
The Bernards, both visual artists, work in a studio built by Steve behind their home. The interior walls display samples of their life’s work, paintings and drawings ranging from realistic to abstract. Easels set up along one long wall serve students Anne teaches during weekly art classes. The Bernards grimly speculate that a pipeline rupture like the one in Appomattox would likely take their lives in a flash and incinerate their work.
Natural gas in transmission pipelines typically lacks the odorant added when the gas moves into distribution networks. A leak might not be detected before something provides an ignition source.
According to an investigation of the Appomattox rupture by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, a section of the Transcontinental pipeline failed around 7:44 a.m. on Sept. 14, 2008, and an undetermined amount of natural gas was released.
The fireball that resulted left a crater that was 37 feet wide and 15 feet deep. A company hired to investigate the rupture determined that the failure “occurred solely as a result of wall thinning caused by external corrosion of the pipe.” Five people were injured.
The pipeline route in the Bernards’ vicinity would travel close to Teel Creek. They and the Haneses say that the land along Teel Creek has a high water table. They believe the buried steel pipe essentially will be submerged in water during much of the year, a condition they fear could corrode the pipe or push it closer to the surface.
“If they dig down two feet, they’ll be in water,” Derek said.
Mountain Valley informed FERC that in places where “the groundwater level is at or near the ground surface” the pipeline might be concrete coated or “weighted with aggregate filled sacks to overcome buoyancy in the flooded trench.”
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, responding to the route’s proximity to Teel Creek, asked Mountain Valley to justify “this large impact to waters of the U.S.”
Todd Miller, Norfolk district regulatory project manager for the Corps, said his review of pipeline route maps suggested the comparatively large footprint of construction and the pipeline route planned along Teel Creek led the Corps to seek more information.
Mountain Valley’s response cited the presence of a farm house and art studio — the Bernards’ property — and “a barn being used for goat farming,” which belongs to the Haneses, as factors that limited moving the pipe farther from Teel Creek.
The Haneses built the barn themselves, using oak, cherry and pine they cut and milled on their property.
Like many other rural homeowners along the route of the Mountain Valley project, the Bernards and Haneses worry how the presence of a natural gas pipeline will affect the value of their property.
FERC’s environmental impact statement for the Constitution pipeline project, a 30-inch diameter natural gas transmission pipeline the commission approved in 2014, cited studies that indicated the presence of pipelines had no significant impact on residential property values.
But the Bernards and Haneses are not alone in believing that common sense would suggest that the presence of a 42-inch diameter pipeline transporting natural gas at high pressure could dampen the enthusiasm of a potential buyer.
Damon Hill, a spokesman for the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, has calculated that the “potential impact radius” of the 42-inch diameter Mountain Valley Pipeline at its maximum allowable operating pressure would be about 1,115 feet.
He said the radius is meant to describe “the radius of a circle within which the potential failure of a pipeline could have a significant impact on people or property.”
Anne Bernard realizes that pipeline ruptures like the ones that occurred at Appomattox and San Bruno are rare.
Yet sometimes she finds herself imagining an exhausted welder who becomes careless at the end of a long week. Mountain Valley has said pipeline construction will likely occur six days a week, 10 hours a day.
“It’s just horrifying to think about,” she said.