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Pipelines, Birds and Coal Ash: A Look at Environmental Coverage Inside Appalachia

Brittany Patterson/ WVPB
Paul Ziemkiewicz, director of West Virginia University’s Water Research Institute, on a bridge overlooking Big Sandy Creek.";

Coal has dominated Appalachia’s energy economy for more than a century. But natural gas is emerging as a new economic force, bringing with it jobs, infrastructure needs and new environmental concerns.

In this episode of Inside Appalachia, we’ll hear why some are worried about the risk of water contamination from major gas pipelines being built through parts of West Virginia, projects which also promise jobs in the region.

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) and the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) are two major interstate projects to move  gas from the Utica and Marcellus shale formations to market, to another line that runs up and down the eastern seaboard, and to export terminals on the East Coast. Pipelines are considered the safest way to transport natural gas, crude oil, gasoline and other volatile substances that would otherwise have to be taken by rail or truck, which pose a far greater safety risk.

The projects will create jobs through 2019. According to WorkForce West Virginia, as of July 2018, 2,745 people have been hired in West Virginia in the past year within the sectors of oil and gas pipeline, related structures construction, and support activities for oil and gas operations.

But some landowners are concerned that the pipelines could damage the environment and upend their way of life. Environmental and citizen groups have brought half a dozen lawsuits collectively against both projects. Most challenge the legality of water quality permits issued on both the state and federal level. In late June, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals halted some construction of the Mountain Valley pipeline in West Virginia, finding that the pipeline developer’s own documents showed the company could not complete construction quickly enough to comply with a federal water quality permit.

Earlier this year, some protestors in Virginia and West Virginia took more extreme measures by sitting in trees to prevent construction crews from tearing down trees to build the Mountain Valley pipeline.  

We’ll talk with Virginia journalist, Mason Adams, who’s covered the tensions among protesters, law enforcement officials and the pipeline company this spring, as pipeline protesters began scaling trees to block the Mountain Valley pipeline.


Fern MacDougal sits in a new aerial blockade errected in Jefferson National Forest near Narrows, VA.

And we hear a story that takes a closer look at possible impacts from the ACP. Some people are concerned about portions of the pipeline that will cross through more than five miles of a type of rock formation called karst in Pocahontas and Randolph counties in West Virginia and approximately 27 miles in Virginia. West Virginia University student reporter Anna Saab takes us below the surface to hear why some residents and environmental groups are worried about this portion of the pipeline’s route.

Changes in the Law— and a Success Story

Sometimes, the effects of pollution are difficult for scientists to immediately recognize, but early warning signs often show up in animal or plant species. Some environmental advocates say they’re already seeing some troubling data after regulation changes by the Trump administration.  

Late last year, the administration announced "incidental take," or the unintended killing of birds, would no longer be subject to prosecution under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. As Brittany Patterson reports, that seemingly small change has big implications for thousands of birds that migrate over the Ohio Valley.

In this episode we’ll learn how contamination from coal ash sites is affecting people in some parts of Appalachia. Coal ash is the waste that is left after coal is burned, and it contains trace amounts of some toxic chemicals like lead and arsenic. As the Trump administration changes the regulation of coal ash, the Ohio Valley ReSource and partner station WFPL have analyzed new data from the region’s waste sites and found widespread evidence these waste sites are leaking contaminants into surrounding groundwater.

We’ll also hear the story of a community in West Virginia that worked with the government to clean up tributaries to the Cheat River and restore it.

Inside Appalachia is produced by Roxy Todd. Our executive producer is Jesse Wright. Our audio mixer is Patrick Stephens. Molly Born is our web editor. You can find us online on Twitter @InAppalachia. You can also send us an email to InsideAppalachia@wvpublic.org.


Jessica can be heard on Inside Appalachia and West Virginia Morning the station’s daily radio news program. You can reach her at jlilly@wvpublic.org
Roxy Todd joined West Virginia Public Broadcasting in 2014 and works as the producer for Inside Appalachia. She's the recipient of a National Edward R. Murrow Award for "Excellence in Video," for a story about the demands small farmers face in West Virginia. She also won a National PMJA Award For "Best Feature" for her story about the history of John Denver's song "Country Roads." You can reach her at rtodd@wvpublic.org.