BOONES MILL, Va. — The developer of the Mountain Valley pipeline now has a clear path to finishing the project. But it also has, literally, tons of aging pipe that has been sitting out in the elements for as long as six years.
That’s a potential safety problem, according to experts, manufacturers, safety advocates and opponents of the pipeline. Sunlight and rain degrade the epoxy coating on the pipes that prevents corrosion. Damage to the coating increases the risk of ruptures and explosions.
“There’s pipe sitting out there rotting,” said Roberta Bondurant of Bent Mountain, near Roanoke, one of the most outspoken opponents of the project known as MVP. She called the current situation “a promise of random explosion … somewhere along the 300 miles of this ticking pipe bomb.”
Officials with Equitrans Midstream Corp., which is developing the 303-mile line, say not to worry. During the years of construction delays, their crews have been monitoring the pipe segments in the field and in pipe yards, and each one will be inspected and tested before being added. Pipe that fails, they say, will be replaced.
“First and foremost, the safe construction and operation of the MVP project remains our top priority,” Natalie Cox, a spokesperson for the pipeline and Equitrans, said in an email. “The pipes will continue to be checked to identify any issues that need to be addressed prior to the pipe being placed into the ditch and backfilled.”
Questions about the pipe come on top of landslide dangers inherent in building a long project across mountainous terrain. The pipe is to carry gas under 1,400 pounds of pressure up steep mountainsides and terrain prone to erosion. Equitrans has been cited by regulators for construction violations and sued by the state over hundreds of erosion-related problems.
The safety of the pipe could be the new battleground for Mountain Valley now that President Joe Biden and Congress have cleared away the legal and regulatory stalemate that had jeopardized the project as part of a deal to raise the debt limit. Opponents say the pipe should be replaced or recoated in a secure facility before it gets put in the ground. That could add considerable expense and delays for a project already over budget and years behind schedule.
A coalition of environmental groups last week urged federal regulators, in a letter, to “impose the highest possible safety and environmental standards” available. Most of the groups have been critical of the pipeline or fought its approval. On Friday, the pipeline received its final permit, setting it up to be operational by the end of the year (see related story).
Along the 20 or so miles of the route where pipe hasn’t been buried, the 40-foot segments of teal-colored pipe — 3 ½ feet in diameter — are scattered along its path. Other pipe is stacked up in storage yards. It was set there as long ago as six years, before construction ground to a halt from the multitude of successful legal challenges brought by environmental groups.
On a sunny weekday in March, Bondurant slowed her car to a stop on a paved country road and pointed at several pipe segments laying along a narrow path clear cut for the pipeline years ago.
“That pipe has been there since 2019,” she said. A few minutes later, she stopped at the home of Anne Bernard in Boones Mill. Bernard pulled out photos of an installed segment of pipe in standing water behind her home. It would rise and fall, she said, depending on the water level.
Could that up and down motion have damaged the weld that joins the segment to the rest of the pipeline? She was worried enough that she called a land agent for the pipeline.
“He said, ‘They’re gonna inspect those welds,’” she recalled. “Yeah. Right.”
'Has probably degraded'
The pipeline runs from heart of the Marcellus Shale drilling zone in northern West Virginia to the Transcontinental pipeline in central Virginia. It was first approved by federal energy regulators in October 2017. Amid the delays, the estimated cost has grown from roughly $3 billion to around $6.6 billion. With passage of the debt limit deal, developers say they can finish by the end of this year.
The pipeline developers bought much of the pipe even before they had a permit from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, according to court documents.
The teal coating on the pipe is called Scotchkote FBE 6233, made by 3M. It is designed to prevent corrosion across decades as the pipes carry their hazardous cargo. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) says that from 1998 to 2017, about 18 percent of pipeline accidents were caused by corrosion.
The coating is not, however, designed to sit out in the sun and rain for long periods of time. It’s supposed to be buried.
After it’s been out in the sun for a while, the outermost layer of the coating crumbles into chalky dust. When it rains, the chalk washes off and the degradation begins anew, according to a technical brief from 3M. Lengthy exposure can also make the coating more brittle and subject to cracking.
Exactly when it would be considered is unclear. A past bulletin from the National Association of Pipe Coating Applicators says: “Above ground storage of coated pipe in excess of six months without additional Ultraviolet protections is not recommended.”
The technical brief from 3M points to a study that recommended pipe should not be left in the elements for more than a year. But it also notes that pipe at a project in the Middle East showed “only minimal effects” after three years in a stockpile.
A 3M spokesperson referred questions back to the pipeline developers. The pipe coating applicators association did not respond to requests for comment on how long the coated pipe can safely remain uncovered outdoors.
A PHMSA spokesperson responded by noting the agency’s safety regulations and recent work to make companies aware of “geohazards” such as landslides. Last year, the agency issued a national bulletin to pipeline companies highlighting those risks.
As pipe purchased for the now-canceled Keystone XL oil pipeline project aged amid legal battles, the project developer sent its experts to examine the coating. They found that after nine years, unprotected epoxy coatings “completely failed to retain their original properties and attributes."
The anti-corrosion coating on the pipe “has probably degraded” if it’s been sitting out in the sun since the early days of construction, said Rick Kuprewicz, a chemical engineer who worked for years in the industry and now consults on pipeline safety.
But he said there are ways to make up for that. What’s most important for preventing corrosion, he said, is what’s called “cathodic protection,” a system that uses electrical current to ward off corrosion. The regulatory code, Kuprewicz said, has no standards for cathodic protection systems.
“It does say you have to have cathodic protection,” he said in an interview. “Nothing says it has to work.”
And, he adds, pipeline companies consider the details of their protection systems to be a secret that must be closely guarded.
But cathodic protection isn’t an acceptable fix for ineffective coating, said Bill Caram, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, a Bellingham, Wash., advocacy group.
“Neither one is 100% effective,” he said in an email. “Protective coating offers the first line of defense. Too many failures continue to be attributed to corrosion to assume cathodic protection will be enough.”
Caram also said that in sparsely populated areas there are fewer requirements than in urban areas for pipeline companies to plan and account for earth movement hazards such as landslides.
Opponents of the Mountain Valley pipeline aren’t the only ones to have raised concerns about the safety of leaving pipe out in the sun too long. A top Equitrans executive testified in 2018 that the company needed to get the pipe in the ground to protect the coating.
“As it sits in the sun, it ages or oxidizes and actually becomes thinner,” Robert Cooper, the senior vice president for engineering and construction on the project, testified during an eminent domain hearing in a Roanoke federal courtroom. “Prior to it becoming too thin to use, you have to protect it from the sun.”
Cox didn't comment on Cooper's 2018 testimony.
In 2018, Equitrans was seeking to access private land before it had a federal permit under an eminent domain process known as "quick take." Local residents say markings on the pipes indicate the coating was applied to the pipelines in 2017 or before.
Inspectors, Cox said, will check every segment of pipe with a device called a “holiday detector” that uses electric current to flag any “holidays” — gaps, damage or thin spots in the protective coating.
“Every piece of pipe that is in the ground has passed inspection and testing,” she said. PHMSA, she added, performs audits to ensure adherence to regulations and the project's specifications.
Problems with coating have led to significant pipeline ruptures in recent years, although the pipelines and coatings were buried decades earlier.
After a fatal gas explosion on a 60-year-old pipeline in Kentucky in 2019, National Transportation Safety Board investigators said the pipeline's anti-corrosion coating was degraded. The cathodic protection system was "ineffective," according to the NTSB, and the failures led to cracking near the defect on the outer surface of the pipe.
The cause of a 2021 explosion on a Kinder Morgan Inc. pipeline that killed two people was also linked to coating that came loose from the pipe, and the company’s failure to keep accurate records about the coating.
In 2020, PHMSA cited Equitrans, alleging that crews failed to build a section of MVP to specifications and that they placed pipe in ditches in a way that could damage it. Equitrans disputed the allegations.
About two-thirds of the pipeline runs through terrain that is susceptible to landslides, according to the MVP environmental impact statement done for FERC. In addition, the Blue Ridge Parkway has been closed for several years outside Roanoke near the pipeline’s path as the National Park Service works to fix damage from a landslide that took out 150 feet of road.
The new law that cleared legal obstacles for MVP ordered federal agencies to issue permits quickly. People who live in the area say they've seen signs of increased activity, such as trucks loaded with equipment to fence off construction areas.
Equitrans says the project can be completed by the end of the year, which will be the beginning of the real test of the pipe's integrity.