Curtis Tate Published

‘That’s All They Care About, Putting This Pipe In The Ground’

Two women sit at a table in a classroom in a converted schoolhouse. One is looking at her phone, the other is looking straight ahead. One has long light hair, the other has dark hair in a ponytail.
Kathy Chandler (left) and Robin Austin have been watching the Mountain Valley Pipeline for a decade.
Curtis Tate/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

It isn’t easy to get a clear view of where the Mountain Valley Pipeline burst during a water pressure test in early May.

So Robin Austin, who lives nearby, guides a reporter through the woods where the Blue Ridge Parkway connects to U.S. highway 221.

At the edge of the fence, a giant trench comes into view. It is filled with workers and heavy construction equipment. They’re replacing the damaged section of pipe that burst on May 1.

“This is a site where we’ve had water problems in the past,” she said. “Just the topography of the land and the way this watershed is. It runs off. It’s a wetland right against 221. And it enters the culverts and goes to the streams.”

The day the pipe broke, Austin called her neighbor, Kathy Chandler, and told her brown water was pouring across her property. Chandler reported it to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.

That’s how the public first knew that the pipeline test had failed. The federal agencies that regulate pipelines said little about the incident. But on June 11, they approved the pipeline to begin carrying large volumes of gas, at high pressure, from West Virginia to Virginia.

“Once the gas is in the line, we don’t have any control now,” Austin said, “but at least we have action we can take.” 

Chandler, Austin and other Bent Mountain residents have been fighting the project for a decade. 

Last month at the Bent Mountain Center, a converted school building, they said they still worry the pipeline could affect their safety, their water quality and their property values.

“I don’t want to be known as the girl with the muddy creek,” Chandler said. “That is an issue for us up here. Horrible, repeat events to our water, our surface waters. But the real life-threatening event for our neighborhood is that a pipe split open under pressure.”

Equitrans Midstream, the builder of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, has repeatedly insisted that the failed pressure test poses no safety risks. On May 10, Todd Normane, an Equitrans senior vice president and general counsel for the pipeline, wrote to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission that the incident demonstrated that the testing worked. He criticized pipeline opponents for asking the commission to delay or deny its approval to begin service.

An older man and woman sit at a table in a former school converted into a community center.
John Coles Terry III and his wife, Red Terry, in Bent Mountain, Virginia, on Friday, May 10, 2024.

Photo by Curtis Tate/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Uphill Battle

Bent Mountain sits on a plateau just inside Roanoke County. It is about 17 miles, and 30 minutes down a twisting road to Roanoke, the most populated city in southwest Virginia.

Coles Terry, who lives in Bent Mountain with his wife, Theresa, or “Red,” said he’s not convinced local emergency response agencies have the materials or a plan for a fire should the pipeline fail again. Bent Mountain residents are miles away from a municipal water connection. Most rely on wells and springs.

“If it does catch fire,” Coles Terry said, “the county has got $50,000 worth of foam, somewhere.”  

“They won’t tell us where,” Red Terry said.

“They won’t tell us where,” Coles Terry said. “They won’t tell us how they plan to get it up here. They won’t tell us how they plan to get it where the fire is raging.”

Coles Terry, his brother Frank and sister Liz were part of a court-ordered settlement of more than $500,000 for the pipeline easement on their property. A U.S. district judge cut the award in half, but the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last month ruled the Terrys should receive the higher amount

An older man with salt and pepper hair looks off camera smiling. He wears formal clothing.
U.S Sen. Joe Manchin

Manchin’s Move

The Terrys were among hundreds of residents the pipeline builder sued to gain access to their land via eminent domain. Many tried to challenge the decision by FERC to grant the pipeline the authority to use eminent domain, but were ultimately not successful.

Pipeline opponents had been successful in challenging the project’s permits, bringing construction to a halt for prolonged periods.

That all changed a year ago, when Congress enacted the Fiscal Responsibility Act, a spending deal that required the completion of the pipeline.

One of the pipeline’s chief supporters, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat turned Independent, attached the provision to the bill.

“This is a great day for American energy security and an even greater day for the state of West Virginia,” Manchin said at the end of July last year after construction resumed on the pipeline.

According to Chandler, Austin and Terry, it resumed at a pace they had not seen before.

“If this is a matter of national security, then it should be the safest pipeline in the country,” Chandler said. “It should absolutely be the tip-top safest. And with this recent event, that cannot be assured.”

A woman with binoculars looks out on a construction site with heavy machinery and exposed dirt, with green hills in the background.
Kathy Chandler, a resident of Bent Mountain, Virginia, looks at the site of a failed pressure test on the Mountain Valley Pipeline near her property.

Photo by Curtis Tate/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

‘We’re just the landowners’

Austin and Chandler showed some other places in the area where the pipeline crosses farms and wetlands and also where it begins to ascend steep slopes.

Chandler says the topography and geology of Bent Mountain makes it a risky place to build a pipeline.

“Bent Mountain plateau, our neighborhood, has every geohazard known to pipeline construction,” Chandler said. We have the steepest slopes, we have rocky soil, we have highly erodible soils, we have water crossings, we have shallow water, we have a seismically active zone.

Coles Terry says the pipeline’s builder and its regulators haven’t listened to residents’ concerns. 

“We’re just the landowners,” he said. “Everything we said would happen has happened. Everything we told them was bad and wrong has come true. We’ve had people way smarter than me come in and tell them the same thing. But the pipeline, the MVP, the companies, they have one job, one job, that’s to put the pipe in the ground. That’s all they care about, putting this pipe in the ground.”

They wrote letters, they made phone calls, they attended public meetings. They visited lawmakers in Richmond and Washington. In Red Terry’s case, she camped out in a tree in 2018 until a judge threatened to fine her $1,000 a day.

The residents have taken time away from their families to campaign against the pipeline and have lost loved ones along the way. They say it has also affected their health.

“My blood pressure will never be normal again,” Coles Terry said.

In some places, the break in the landscape is so subtle, you wouldn’t even know a major piece of fossil fuel infrastructure was just below the surface. The Mountain Valley Pipeline might not be visible, but it is on the minds of the people of Bent Mountain.