Category Archives: Steep Slopes

FERC Should Stop ACP Now

In an open letter to Kimberly Bose, secretary of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and reprinted in the Nelson County Times on August 15, 2019, Helen Kimble and Doug Wellman (President and Vice-President of Friends of Nelson) discuss the potential for hazardous landslides in the steeply mountainous areas on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline route in Nelson County. Some of their letter is reproduced below, but go to the Nelson County Times for the full version.

“A recent public presentation on the potential for hazardous landslides in the mountainous areas of Nelson County VA highlighted longstanding concerns about the dangers of routing the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) through the county’s steep terrain. In this letter, we call your attention to the potential for catastrophic slope failures if ACP overcomes its numerous legal challenges and begins construction. We ask you to consider the following information and its implications for your handling of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

“At a public meeting on June 30, geologist Dr. Anne Witt, geohazards specialist with the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy (DMME), presented her analysis of the landslides triggered in Nelson County by Hurricane Camille in 1969. In that horrific storm event, 125 people are known to have lost their lives as landslides triggered by severe rainfall swept down valleys in the middle of the night carrying whole families to their deaths.

“The information Dr. Witt presented stems from her ongoing research assessing the landslide potential of steep slopes in Nelson and western Albemarle counties. Her work will contribute to a new Virginia Hazard Mitigation Plan being prepared with support from FEMA and the Virginia Department of Emergency Management. Using LIDAR (Light Detecting and Ranging) technology to map the bare earth beneath vegetative cover, she unveiled a multitude of historical slides on Nelson’s steep slopes. Noting that previous slides are strong indicators of potential future slides, she concluded that Nelson County’s steep slopes have greater landslide potential than had previously been recognized.

“Dr. Witt’s presentation sharpened the concerns raised by a 2017 study of soil and geologic concerns commissioned by Friends of Nelson and Friends of Wintergreen. The final report by Blackburn Consulting Services, LLC — “Report Analysis and Field Verification of Soil and Geologic concerns with the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) in Nelson County, VA” — was submitted as part of FERC’s EIS review for issuance of the ACP permit. We strongly believe the Blackburn report was not given sufficient consideration in the Commission’s decision.

“Blackburn scientists reviewed the material Dominion submitted to FERC and conducted field analyses of actual conditions in a sample of sites where the pipeline would traverse steep slopes in Nelson County. In their report, Blackburn concluded that: ‘…many of the statements made in the materials submitted to FERC represented gross generalities … [and] … underestimate the true risks that this project imposes on Nelson County and its residents.'”

Key findings of the Blackburn study include [sections on]:

  •  Landform and soil characteristics
  • Mapping soil conditions
  • Vegetation
  • Soil stabilization and erosion control
  • Expansion of the corridor

“The permit the commission issued ACP constitutes a recipe for disaster. Dominion’s ‘best in class’ erosion and sedimentation control measures have failed repeatedly in the work they have already done in West Virginia. Similar stabilization measures employed by the Mountain Valley Pipeline builders have led to over 300 violations, legal action by the Virginia Attorney General, and events like sections of pipe carried great distances by floodwaters. MVP is demonstrating what will likely happen if and when ACP begins construction on Virginia’s steep slopes.” [see article below on MVP landslides]

The letter continues, saying

  • “Dominion assures concerned citizens that the ACP will be safe. However, according to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, 11,993 pipeline failures have been reported in the U.S. over the past two decades.”
  • “At present, two federal permits for the ACP have been vacated. Another three federal permits, as well as two state permits, are in the courts or being challenged.”
  • “Renewable energy generation and storage are emerging as fully competitive with coal and natural gas on a levelized cost basis”
  • “The International Panel on Climate Change’s recent report on climate change — which was soon supported by a report from an interagency panel of U.S. government scientists — made it alarmingly clear that we must quickly shift away from fossil fuels.”
  • “Former FERC commissioner Norman Bay warned overbuilding pipelines would likely result in these unnecessary projects becoming ‘stranded assets’ that profit their builders and stockholders at the cost of captive customers and future generations.”

Overwhelming evidence supports the letter’s concluding sentence: “We call on FERC commissioners to bring a halt to this unnecessary and dangerous project.

Active Landslide Threatens Homes

Photo courtesy of Allegheny-Blue Ridge Alliance: Pipeline Air Force

An active landslide originating on the Mountain Valley Pipeline right of way on a steep slope has made a house NOT in the construction area uninhabitable.

On July 29, 2019, MVP filed a variance request for slip remediation with FERC, and just 10 days later admitted to FERC that over three months it had been unable to stop the earth movement, requesting “emergency authorization” to stabilize the landslide, because lives were in danger. The letter said, “The progression of the slide caused additional area outside the limits of disturbance to destabilize, uprooted numerous large trees, has the potential to impact an aquatic resource, and has progressed to the point where a residence directly downslope is unsafe to be occupied.”

On August 13, FERC granted MVP’s emergency request, saying, “A recent field inspection by one of our compliance monitors confirms that portions of the slip are still moving and could compromise the residence. The slide must be stabilized before it causes damage or injury to the residence and aquatic resources located down slope of the slide.”

Jonathan Sokolow, in two articles in Medium (Definition of Insanity: Mountain Valley Pipeline Asks for “Emergency Authorization” to Prevent a Life Threatening Landslide on August 9 and Photos of Insanity: Active Landslide Threatens Lives Along Route of Mountain Valley Pipeline on August 15), points out that while this particular landslide is on a steep slope in West Virginia, there are hundreds of similarly steep slopes along the route of the MVP and of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, all with potential for similar landslides threatening lives and residences.

In his August 15 article, Sokolow writes, “Common sense would seem to dictate that emergency inspections be conducted on each steep slope in Virginia and West Virginia to make sure no similar emergencies are developing. Prudence would indicate that all work on the pipeline be stopped until those inspections are complete. Yet in the days since this active ’emergency’ (MVP’s word) became public, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, whose job is to inspect and regulate this project, has said or done nothing. Governor Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring have been silent. In fact, most elected officials in Virginia seems to be ignoring this brewing disaster. In other words, regulators refuse to regulate, and leaders refuse to lead. We now have photos of this crime scene, but no thanks to government officials. We have photos thanks to ordinary citizens and an incredible effort known as the ‘Pipeline Air Force,’ a project of the Allegheny-Blue Ridge Alliance. …. Virginia has the power to stop work now on the Mountain Valley Pipeline, to stop this misnamed “engineering marvel” before gravity does its work, before someone gets hurt. As we said before, this is an emergency. Just ask MVP.”

Motion to Intervene Filed with FERC

1999 USGS image of debris flows associated with Roberts Mt. and vicinity; ACP route marked in blue.

At the Friends of Nelson public meeting on June 30, 2019, Anne Witt, a Geohazards Geologist from the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy, presented her preliminary work on a VDEM-FEMA Pre-Disaster Mitigation Grant Project. This project is to develop a risk assessment of landslides in western Albemarle and Nelson counties based on previous landslide events that occurred largely during Hurricane Camille, and utilizes remote sensing of landslides in the study area using LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) scanning technology.

Friends of Nelson Board Member Jim Bolton has used some of Witt’s findings, including maps and LIDAR images, in his August 2, 2019, letter to FERC, filed as a Motion to Intervene. He says, “Clearly, these new data render the claim made in the FEIS, that ‘Atlantic incorporated a route alternative (the East of Lovingston Major Route Alternative) to avoid the debris flows and other features identified by the USGS,’ substantially less accurate (and potentially more misleading) than previously thought, and in fact, function to reinforce the already convincing evidence summarized above that the conclusions of the EIS are flawed, and that rather than avoiding them, the current route cuts directly through some of the areas of highest density of debris slides and flows.”

Bolton states in his conclusion that “the risk to public safety is significantly exacerbated when pipeline projects are constructed through areas of steep slopes, especially those that have historically experienced major soil slippage, and it is increasingly apparent that the analysis of the evidence in the EIS regarding the threat for increased debris flow activity along the ACP’s route through Nelson County, and other areas of similar terrain, is both incomplete and seriously flawed. Furthermore, the appearance of new data showing that the pre-existing disturbance of soils covering the steep terrain of Nelson County may actually be even more prevalent than thought previously, must amount to additional grounds for reconsideration of the ACP’s permit of public necessity and convenience. The Commission is therefore called upon not only to take any time that may be required to thoroughly revisit this situation, but also to review, on an ongoing basis, any emerging data that are relevant, and to take them, and their implications for public safety, into account in any subsequent decisions that may become appropriate and/or necessary in the future, and especially in any consideration of alternate routing that may be made necessary by subsequent court decisions.”

Read the full Motion to Intervene here.

A Landslide Study of the ACP in Nelson


At the Friends of Nelson public meeting on June 30, 2019, Anne Witt, a Geohazards Geologist from the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy, presented her work on a VDEM-FEMA Pre-Disaster Mitigation Grant Project. This project is to develop a risk assessment of landslides in western Albemarle and Nelson counties based on previous landslide events that occurred largely during Hurricane Camille. According to Ms. Witt, previous landslide locations are prone to having future ones.

The Grant Project consists of 4 parts or stages:

  1. Remote sensing of landslides in the study area using LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) scanning technology
  2. Geologic field mapping of landslide prone areas
  3. Landslide Susceptibility Mapping
  4. Presentation of data products and results to the planning community and the public

The project is presently in its first stage, so mapping is preliminary. However, LIDAR has revealed a larger number and a more accurate depiction of these previous landslides in Nelson County than seen before.

Friends of Nelson has overlaid the draft mapping of these landslides on the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline route. Doing so reveals how many of these slides are on or proximate to the route. Given the number and concentration of these debris flows, we feel that landowners and county officials should be aware of these past events in assessing future risk and mitigating it. Risk awareness is important given the immense amount of ground disturbance that would happen during pipeline construction and the significant potential for pipeline ruptures and explosions resulting from possible slide events afterwards.

In the figure above, approximately 60 debris flows (green triangles) and 10 debris slides (blue triangles) are on or near the ACP proposed route (in gold).

The figure below illustrates how LIDAR reveals the scope and path of previous slides that is not visible even with aerial photography in winter with no leaves on the trees.

See the short summary of Anne Witt’s talk here. Many thanks to Ms. Witt for sharing some of the slides from her fascinating presentation, and to Charlie Hickox for the summary and for the overlay showing the ACP route.

Feds Issue Bulletin Warning of Pipeline Dangers in Mountains


From ABRA Update #228 for May 2, 2019

On May 2, 2019, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) issued an advisory bulletin “to remind owners and operators of gas and hazardous liquid pipelines of the potential for damage to pipeline facilities caused by earth movement from both landslides and subsidence in variable, steep, and rugged terrain and for varied geological conditions.” The bulletin noted that “these conditions can pose a threat to the integrity of pipeline facilities if those threats are not identified and mitigated. PHMSA is aware of recent earth movement and other geological-related incidents/accidents and safety-related conditions throughout the county, particularly in the eastern portion of the United States.” The bulletin is available here.

The PHMSA bulletin is being issued at a time when significant slope failures have been reported for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) in the area of West Virginia where construction was taking place until late last year when it ceased. The photo above, taken recently by the Pipeline Air Force of ABRA’s Compliance Surveillance Initiative (CSI), shows the degree to which slopes in a hilly area have failed in an area that has been cleared along the ACP right-a-way. The fallen trees are the result of the slope failure.

ABRA is currently conducting a study on landslides and pipelines, which will be issued soon. Over a dozen such incidents have already been detected by the ABRA/CSI program along the route in lower elevations of West Virginia.

Pipeline industry representatives say they already have detailed, established methods to avoid damage to their lines from landslides and other movement. Of course they do. Explain again MVP last summer, landslides occurring now on ACP, recent explosions, etc.?

Report on Sept. 28 Arguments Before 4th Circuit Court

Thanks to Lew Freeman of Allegheny-Blue Ridge Alliance for this report on the arguments in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in September 28, 2018:

Yesterday, September 28, a three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond heard arguments on two important cases challenging permits granted to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP). The first case challenged the December 13 [2017] decision by the Virginia State Water Control Board to grant a water quality certificate for the ACP (pursuant to requirements of Section 401 of the federal Clean Water Act). The second case challenged the decisions of the U.S. Forest Service to amend the Forest Plans of the Monongahela National Forest and the George Washington National Forest and to accordingly issue a Special Use Permit for the ACP to cross the two forests. The plaintiffs in both cases were a group of ABRA member organizations and others that were jointly represented by Appalachian Mountain Advocates (Appalmad) and the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC). An article about the briefs filed in each case appeared in the September 21 [2018] ABRA Update (see https://www.abralliance.org/2018/09/21/court-to-hear-challenges-to-acp-forest-service-water-quality-permits/?highlight=court%20to%20hear%20challenges).

I attended Friday’s arguments. The lawyers representing our interests – Ben Luckett of Appalmad in the 401 case; D.J. Gerkin of SELC in the Forest Service case – were most effective. More about the oral arguments will appear in next week’s ABRA Update. For now, though, I want to highlight a particularly significant moment during the arguments presented in the Forest Service case. In the course of the argument presented by the U.S. Justice Department attorney representing the U.S. Forest Service, Chief Judge Roger Gregory, who was presiding over the panel, interrupted the attorney and noted that the U.S. Forest Service had been diligently asking Dominion Energy for more complete information on how the company would and could build the ACP through the steep forest lands in West Virginia and Virginia without causing environmental damage. The judge then observed that the Forest Service seemed to have suddenly changed its mind and proceeded to approve the requested Special Use Permit. Judge Gregory inquired of the attorney what the circumstances were that caused the Forest Service to change course. The attorney responded evasively, prompting the judge to interrupt him again and ask: “When?” The attorney tried to continue with his non-responsive response, and Judge Gregory again interrupted with: “When?” The judge’s “When?” question was asked twice more, but never received a response, prompting Judge Gregory to thunder: “Who’s running the train?” It was a riveting moment and one that also caught the attention of Michael Martz of the Richmond Times Dispatch [Martz’s article appears in both the Daily Progress and the Times Dispatch].

A recording of Friday’s oral arguments will be available on the Court’s website on Monday [October 1, 2018] at https://www.ca4.uscourts.gov/oral-argument/listen-to-oral-arguments.  The case numbers you will need to access the recordings are: 401 case – 18-1077; Forest Service case: 18-1144.


The Chesapeake Bay Foundation issued the following statement about the oral arguments challenging the ACP’s water quality certification:

“This year Virginians have seen firsthand the terrible damage that pipeline construction can do to communities and waterways. The Atlantic Coast Pipeline would cross Virginia waterways nearly 1,000 times from the mountains to the Chesapeake Bay, threatening them with erosion, mudslides, and polluted runoff. All of the evidence shows that the regulations in place cannot provide reasonable assurance that water quality will be protected from pipeline construction and operation. We are pleased that the federal appeals court is looking closely at this question.”