Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

The Mountain Valley Pipeline, now under construction, would carry fracked methane gas from West Virginia into Virginia, where it will connect with an existing pipeline system.(Photo: WDBJ7/Virginia)

Pipeline in Hurricane Florence’s Potential Path Poses Added Danger

Southwest Virginians fear that Florence may exacerbate the threats from a different, manmade hazard.

Barbara Gottlieb

As Hurricane Florence churns menacingly toward the Mid-Atlantic coast, residents of South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia hold their breath, wondering where the massive storm surge, howling winds and torrents of rain will hit hardest.

Over 300 miles inland, southwest Virginia residents may also face dangerous flooding, and some worry that Florence may exacerbate the threats from a different, manmade hazard: the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP).

Hurricane Florence is projected to be an “extremely dangerous” storm, poised to inflict life-threatening impacts on low-lying coastal communities—and it may also dump vast quantities of rain over a limited area after making landfall, catastrophic rainfall and flooding as Hurricane Harvey did last year to Houston, Texas. Forecasters don’t know where such flooding will occur, but one possible target is the Appalachian Mountains, including mountainous southwest Virginia — the site of the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP).

Forecasters don’t know where such flooding will occur, but one possible target is the Appalachian Mountains, including mountainous southwest Virginia — the site of the Mountain Valley Pipeline.

The pipeline would carry fracked methane gas from West Virginia into Virginia, where it will connect with an existing pipeline system. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas that accelerates climate change, and extracting methane using fracking utilizes complex mixes of chemicals, many known to be toxic, contaminating millions of gallons of water as well as emitting dangerous air pollutants.

Residents along the route have protested the loss of private property and destruction of treasured places, but the pipeline company has secured the right of eminent domain and has so far proved unstoppable.  Along its 303-mile route, a swath 125 feet wide is now being clearcut; trenches are being opened; pipes 42 inches in diameter are being laid.  This heavy-construction scar will through farms and national forests, up and down steep mountain slopes, even across the Appalachian Trail.

Where the pipeline crosses steep mountains, erosion is a grave hazard. Locals fear that sediment will choke local streams and rivers, damaging the water sources of cities like Salem and Roanoke, VA as well as private wells and springs serving rural homes.  Clearing land and digging trenches has already muddied local streams, choked off intermittent streams, and caused a mudslide that closed a local road, despite erosion control measures taken by the pipeline company. Heavy rainfall poses a particular threat.

The geology of southwest Virginia magnifies the danger. Much of the land is karst, a porous limestone that has eroded over time, producing sinkholes, caverns and underground channels.  Should the ground sink, pipes could buckle into underground caves.  Heavy rainfall increases the threat.

Now, with Florence on its way, residents and developers alike worry about what may happen if the hurricane drops torrents of rain.  Construction on the MVP was temporarily halted on Tuesday, and the pipeline company said it was focusing on steps to maintain erosion and sediment controls. However, such controls have failed repeatedly in the face of normal rainfall events.

Anti-pipeline activist Tina Smusz, a retired Emergency Medicine physician who has lived in the region’s mountains for 33 years, is monitoring conditions. She notes, “If we have as much rain as they’re predicting, we’re expecting landslides.  We’ve already had one road closed by eight inches of mud washing down from a worksite.  And that was not an extraordinary rain.”

“We have bare soil and denuded slopes all along the pipeline corridor,” she added.  “Trees, brush and vegetation have been removed, tree roots have been pulled out.  So you’re looking at highly erodible soil expanses and the danger of massive erosion on our slopes.”

In addition, Smusz worries about the impact that erosion would have on buried pipes once gas is flowing through the line:  “Those pipes may be exposed as the soil over them is churned off when we have torrential rain.  That could lead to pipeline ruptures, with the pipe buckling on itself” as the supporting soil under the pipe is washed away.

If this were to happen, it could lead to an explosion and intense fire. That’s not just theoretical:  A natural gas pipeline exploded in a massive fireball in Beaver County, PA less than a week ago, on Sept. 10, a mere seven days after the pipeline went into operation.  The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that “while an investigation is underway, officials believe a landslide may have ruptured the line.”  The cause of the landslide was not reported.

With those potential risks weighing on their minds, Virginians are watching and waiting to see what harms Hurricane Florence will bring to their neighborhoods and their communities.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Barbara Gottlieb

Barbara Gottlieb

Barbara Gottlieb is the Environment & Health Program Director for Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR).

... We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

'Congress Must Act': Bernie Sanders Demands End of Filibuster to Codify Abortion Rights

"We must pass legislation that codifies Roe v. Wade as the law of the land in this country. And if there aren't 60 votes to do it, and there are not, we must reform the filibuster to pass it with 50 votes."

Jon Queally ·


Human Rights Defenders Warn Biden Border Policy 'Quickly Transforming Into Trump 2.0'

Like his predecessor, President Joe Biden now being accused of "using racist, xenophobic tropes about immigrants to weaponize Covid-19 against migrants and asylum-seekers."

Jon Queally ·


'Bombshell': Israeli Spyware Used to Hack iPhones of US State Department Officials

Calling the Israel-based spyware maker NSO Group an "in-plain-sight national security threat," one expert warned that "a multi-agency investigation is immediately needed."

Jessica Corbett ·


US Progressive Caucus Hails Honduran Election as Chance for 'New Chapter' in Relations

"We encourage the Biden administration to use this opportunity to make a clean break with previous presidential administrations, which worked to ensure that the 2009 coup d'état succeeded."

Brett Wilkins ·


'The Facts of This Case Are So Egregious': Parents of Michigan School Shooter Charged in Killings

"There were a lot of things that could have been so simple to prevent," the Oakland County prosecutor said of the mother and father now being sought by law enforcement.

Kenny Stancil ·

Support our work.

We are independent, non-profit, advertising-free and 100% reader supported.

Subscribe to our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values.
Direct to your inbox.

Subscribe to our Newsletter.


Common Dreams, Inc. Founded 1997. Registered 501(c3) Non-Profit | Privacy Policy
Common Dreams Logo