Karst geology poses severe challenges for Mountain Valley Pipeline

earthA new study entitled Geologic Hazards in the Karst Regions of Virginia and West Virginia, Investigations and Analysis Concerning the Proposed Mountain Valley Gas Pipeline by Dr. Ernst H. Kastning, Ph.D., P.G., a retired former Professor of Geology at Radford University, demonstrates severe problems posed by building a pipeline in Karst terrain in the Appalachian Mountains. Karst terrain is topography characterized by sinkholes and caves related to an underground drainage system.

Dr. Kastning is a hydro-engineering geologist and a leading authority on karst in the Appalachian Region. This expertise makes him uniquely qualified to assess the engineering issues associated with the construction of large structures, like the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP), in karst, particularly in the Appalachian region.

The study suggests that the combination of severe slopes, poor soils and disturbances and loading during construction of the pipeline will create severe erosion and sedimentation in the area. Kastning’s analysis also shows that there will be damage to surface water and aquifers that are vital to local residents and to the ecosystems surrounding the area. Construction in areas of severe slopes, slip soils, and possible ground shaking from earthquakes raises the possibility of pipeline failure and ensuing catastrophic events.

A March 9, 2016 letter from the Forest Service to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) regarding the geological hazards of constructing the proposed MVP through U.S. forests critiqued the MVP’s Resource Reports on this subject, questioning their findings and advising those building the  MVP to hire qualified “engineering geologists.” The Forest Service letter cited published academic research, including the work of Dr. Kastning.

A coalition of community groups and organizations from eight counties affected by the proposed pipeline, including Greenbrier, Monroe and Summers in West Virginia and Giles, Craig, Montgomery, Roanoke and Franklin in Virginia, commissioned the independent research. The groups hope the report will ensure that the FERC will have more comprehensive analysis of potential construction hazards as the MVP goes through the permitting process.

Key findings of the Karst Geologic Hazards report include:

  • Karst poses severe constraints on engineering, construction, and maintenance of large-scale structures built upon it or across it. Moreover, the karst in this mountainous region is much different than that in other areas. Siting a pipeline through the Appalachian karst poses significantly greater hazards than in karst areas where the terrain has lower topographic relief.
  • Potential hazards such as land instability, weak soils, and potential seismicity are also highly significant in this region. When two or more of these elements act together, the resulting environmental threat from the pipeline is compounded and exacerbated.
  • The karst and associated hazards constitute a serious incompatibility with the proposed pipeline. The effect of these threats on the emplacement and maintenance of the line, as well as the potential hazards of the line on the natural environment, renders this region as a ‘no-build’ zone for the project.

Giles county citizens were alarmed by the prospect of the proposed MVP traversing their county, which is 80% karst, has the largest concentration of shrink-swell soils that contribute to slope slide, includes some of the highest, longest and steepest slopes along the route, and is the center of an active seismic zone.

Residents are also concerned about threats posed by the combination of pipeline construction in these conditions and moderate seismic activity or severe storms on potential slope slides, that could impair the structural integrity of a large, high pressure gas pipeline, leading to a possible catastrophic explosion.

“The challenges of building the MVP through karst terrain is comparable to building an interstate highway across mountains with extremely steep slopes in an earthquake zone,” Kirk Bowers, PE, Pipelines Program Coordinator with the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club, said. “Any engineer in their right mind would not assume the liability of designing or building a pipeline under these conditions.”

The full text of the report can be found at: http://wp.vasierraclub.org/KastningReport.pdf

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