Below the Surface

June 7, 2018 8:23 pm Published by


In this audio story, Anna Saab takes us to cave country in Randolph County, WV, where the Atlantic Coast Pipeline will pass through.

Click here for transcript.

The sun’s rays stretched across the grassy strip of land that borders the river outside the Elk Springs Resort and Lodge in Randolph County, West Virginia. Trout swam in ponds next to the resort. Guests in their fly fishing gear ambled between the lodge and fishing spots nearby.

Patrick Skeen is the general manager of the resort, which is a year-round fishery. Skeen has concerns about the effects of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP), which is slated to go in just down the road from the resort.

Trees have been cut for the right-of-way, but excavating and laying the pipe has yet to begin. Skeen is worried that run-off from the disturbed land could affect the resort’s fishery.

“If they do something to warm that water up, this won’t support trout during the summer months,” Skeen said.

Concerns over potential water pollution are amplified in this corner of Randolph County because it’s home to karst terrain.

A Fluid Environment

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline, LLC is constructing a natural gas pipeline through a total of 600 miles in West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina. Construction will occur through a variety of landforms, one of which is karst.

In total, the ACP is routed to go through 32.5 miles of karst topography. This includes just over five miles in Randolph and Pocahontas Counties, WV, and approximately 27 miles in Highland, Bath and Augusta Counties, VA.

Karst is a geological landform marked by caves, sinkholes, underground conduits and porous rock. In karst systems, water easily moves from one area to another, above-ground and below the surface. The connectedness of the waterways makes for a heightened risk of pollution, especially when the land is disturbed. 

Inside the Pipeline reporters, Guy Ginsberg and Anna Saab, explored a Randolph County cave with West Virginia University student, avid caver and cave photographer, Ryan Maurer. 

According to the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, contaminates that drain into groundwater systems, “present a significant health concern, because many wells tap water-filled cavities that are directly connected to the surface”.

Taking Extra Precautions in Karst Country

According to the ACP’s Karst Terrain Assessment Construction, Monitoring, and Mitigation plan, the most common type of karst feature along the pipeline’s path are sinkholes. Sinkholes are cavities in the ground formed from water erosion and the collapse of loose soil. Once conduits become large enough, the ground gives way into the subsurface . The pipeline is also going near caves, another feature of karst topography.

Within the company’s mitigation plan there are specific scenarios outlined that require construction to stop in an area until an inspector can decide on further action.

“Every person on this job has the ability to shut the job down at any time. So if we get into a situation where we are unsure, for example in karst areas, everyone on the job has the ability to stop,” said Bob Orndorff, state policy director for Dominion Energy, one of the parent companies of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

Additionally, Orndorff said pipeline builders will “hammer rock as opposed to blast rock” in karst areas. The ACP has two karst specialists for the pipeline project, and the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection also has a team of geologists overseeing construction.

West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection Communications Director Jake Glance corresponded with our project through email and wrote that there is not a set frequency or schedule for inspections. He wouldn’t specify how many karst geologists they have inspecting the project.

Our inspectors are on a pipeline site somewhere in West Virginia every day. Whether that pipeline is ACP, MVP, MXP, or one of the Rover laterals, we have inspectors on site somewhere,” Glance wrote in an email.

Protecting Water Resources

Water quality monitoring is also being conducted to ensure waters remain clean. 

Dorothy Vesper, associate professor of geology at West Virginia University, is conducting water quality monitoring and karst research in counties affected by the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) construction in West Virginia.

The MVP is another natural gas pipeline being built in West Virginia and Virginia by the Mountain Valley Pipeline LLC, which is a project of EQT Midstream Partners, LP; NextEra US Gas Assets, LLC; Con Edison Transmission, Inc.; WGL Midstream; and RGC Midstream, LLC.

Vesper’s research focuses on the risks of contamination associated with pipeline construction through karst terrain. Sedimentation and water turbidity are primary concerns of contamination.

Turbidity is a measure of tiny particles in the water that make it appear foggy. Water with a high turbidity measurement can indicate sedimentation.  

“Anytime you clear a lot of land, you’re always going to generate some turbidity because you’ve got this sort of wooded area where you might have an ecosystem with trees and all kinds of smaller shrubbery underneath that stabilize the land,” explained Dr. Vesper.

The ACP will take precautionary measures like turbidity fencing around sinkholes. Additional sediment and erosion control measures include maintaining a 300-foot buffer zone around karst features. No equipment will be stored or serviced within 300 feet of a karst feature in order to prevent spillage into the subsurface.

“We will spend extra amount of attention and caution in those core karst areas,” said Bob Orndorff of Dominion. “We understand that there is a lot of citizen concern about those areas and we will do what we have to to make sure that we don’t don’t damage any of the springs and any of the karst areas that we are in.”

The Fate of Endangered Species Puts Hold on Pipeline Construction

Karst isn’t the only environmentally sensitive aspect of the roughly $6 billion pipeline project. The United States Fish and Wildlife Services concluded in a Biological Opinion that “certain activities associated with the ACP are likely to have an adverse effect” on eight endangered or threatened species. Still, FERC gave approval of the pipeline in July 2017, but environmental groups objected citing the wildlife concerns.

A Fourth Circuit Court of Federal Appeals in May 2018 ruled a stoppage of construction on at least some sections of the pipeline until further review of the pipeline’s impact to endangered species. 


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