When life long Valley Head resident Melissa Wilfong first heard that the 600-mile Atlantic Coast natural gas pipeline was going to be constructed just a few miles from her community, she wasn’t happy.
“My first thought was, ‘oh no, they're going to just tear up everything and be a nuisance,’” she said.
Her opinion quickly changed after she had an opportunity to meet some of the hundreds of workers who soon flocked to Valley Head.
The unincorporated town, located in the shadow of the Allegheny Mountains in Randolph County, has a population of a few hundred.
Wilfong and her family opened the local community center’s doors to the workers. For months, every Tuesday, hundreds of pipeliners, many from out of state and living in campers nearby, began showing up for a home-cooked meal.
“It gets pretty crowded in here when there's more than two or three people, but we made it work,” said Wilfong, gesturing to the modest community center kitchen.
With the help of volunteers, the community center served a full dinner and dessert for $10 a plate, although the pipeliners often left more. Menu items included pork chops, steaks, and ham, beans and cornbread. Each dinner brought in $600-$700, money Wilfong said helped the largely grant and donation funded center.
In the process, Wilfong got to know the men and women working on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline well. She said the workers welded a barbeque for the center and helped fix a broken air conditioner. They were the first to take up a collection when a community member’s home burned down. They bought presents, Christmas dinner and groceries for two families during the holidays.
“You know, we made friends,” she said. “These people would have done anything for us here, and they're gone.”
Construction of the ACP stopped in December, after a federal court ruled that the U.S. Forest Service made a mistake when it gave the Atlantic Coast Pipeline a permit to cross under the Appalachian Trail. Within a few weeks, most of the workers left and the dinners in Valley Head stopped too.
Valley Head is not alone. Along the ACP’s route, there are dozens of communities like it that were taken by surprise when construction suddenly ground to a halt. According to pipeline developer Dominion Energy, which has a majority stake in the project, an estimated $478.7 million in total economic impact was put at risk when the pipeline shut down.
That figure includes taxes and other spending on equipment and lodging. Across West Virginia, the company said the project intends to employ more than 2,000 workers, of which 600 positions are allocated to local residents.
The jobs and tax revenues associated with the construction of multi-billion dollar natural gas pipelines are significant during their months-long construction. In Appalachia, there have been multiple pipeline projects, including the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and a 303-mile Mountain Valley Pipeline.
But environmental groups and a growing number of citizen activists argue that the environmental risks associated with these projects outweigh the temporary economic benefits. Installing large natural gas pipelines encourages the extraction and use of natural gas, a fossil fuel, at a time when the window for taking action to curb carbon emissions and prevent the worst climate change predictions is narrowing, the groups argue. They also say pipeline construction negatively affects communities and the state’s natural resources.
“There’s not at all long-term economic benefits for the communities,” said Kelly Martin, director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Dirty Fuels program. The Sierra Club has been involved in multiple pipeline lawsuits.
“There is long-term pollution associated with the construction of the pipelines and with the fracking for the gas that feeds them,” she said. “The risk here is that communities are left with the cleanup and with the pollution, but without the economic benefit.”
State environmental regulators have issued citations for both the ACP and MVP since construction began for things like failing to protect streams and rivers from runoff.
In December, Virginia regulators sued Mountain Valley Pipeline developers, alleging the project had racked up more than 300 environmental violations. Earlier this year, MVP agreed to an almost $266,000 fine to cover multiple environmental violations dating back to April 2018 in West Virginia's Braxton, Wetzel and Monroe counties. The ACP has been cited four times by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection for violations since it broke ground in May 2018.
Greg Buppart, a lawyer with the Southern Environmental Law Center, another group that has filed lawsuits against the ACP, said pipeline projects also pose direct risk to those living near them.
“In Appalachia, an impact that I think is often overlooked is it’s very difficult to build these projects on steep mountain slopes,” he said. “There’s a risk of explosion.”
There have been at least six pipeline explosions since early 2018 in Appalachia, including last summer’s explosion of TransCanada Corp.’s five-month-old Leach Xpress natural gas pipeline near Moundsville.
Building a large natural gas pipeline takes about one to three years. While not a permanent job, it can be lucrative while the work lasts.
On a recent spring day, about 40 union apprentices are sitting in a classroom at the West Virginia Construction Craft Laborers’ Training Center in Mineral Wells. Multiple trainings are held at the 170-acre facility, including a month-long pipeline safety training class and a training on how to hoist heavy materials into the air using cranes.
Inside one classroom, the walls are covered in butcher paper with colorful drawings illustrating things like traffic control and how to safely hoist heavy pipeline into the air. During one lesson, students weigh the merits of using different materials to attach pipe to a crane.
Many members of the Laborers’ International Union of North America have found jobs on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and other large natural gas pipelines. Corey Dornon, training supervisor at the center, said Laborers working on pipeline projects, including the ACP, have at least 160 hours of training before they ever step foot on a job. He said Laborers’ stress environmental stewardship and safety when working on pipeline jobs.
“It's real unfair to these folks who have trained and prepared themselves for the job, for something to shut down that they're relying on with no expectation of, ‘hey, when can I get back to it?’” he said. “When they shut these jobs down, they don't know if they're shutting this job down for a month, two months, six months or a year, or indefinitely. So, these folks, not only is their livelihood in jeopardy for a little while, as far as this job, but they're almost in limbo.”
Dornon said Laborers’ are used to being laid off, but sudden shutdowns are harder to weather. Yet the high wages on these jobs make them extremely desirable, he said. Dornon worked for four months on a 42-inch natural gas pipeline in Eastern Ohio.
“It was almost like hitting the lottery, when you got that phone call to go work on that job, because the money was really good,” he said, adding that a pipeline job could mean saving enough money to pay off a car, or, in Dornon’s case, add on to his home without taking out a loan. “Jobs like these really give people a chance.”
The shutdown has also been tough for some county governments and businesses.
At an April event, Lewis County Economic Development Authority Executive Director Cindy Whetsell said $3.7 million in county taxes was expected next year.
“The delay in the construction of this pipeline is hurting our residents, our communities and our businesses,” she said. Lewis County is one of five in West Virginia that will house the ACP. It’s slated to have almost 20 miles of pipeline and a natural gas compressor station.
J.F. Allen Company, a construction firm that supplies gravel and builds roads and staging lots the pipeline uses, invested more than $1 million in four new trucks last year. Company President Greg Hadjis said they haven’t laid off anyone, but cut hours.
“So we've had some trucks obviously we idled,” he said. “We were anticipating hiring…and scaled back a little bit, because we didn't want to bring somebody on and immediately immediately turn them away.”
Parsing Long-term Impacts
During the 2019 West Virginia Legislative session, Dominion Energy’s top lobbyist urged the Legislature to sign a resolution in favor of the project, HR 11, and condemned "rogue environmental groups" opposed to it.
"I think it's important for West Virginia to go on record that the end result of their tactics hurt the state economy of West Virginia," Dominion Energy’s West Virginia State Policy Director Bob Orndorff said in an address to the Joint Committee on Natural Gas Development. "That's important, for the pipeline industry to have that type of support from the West Virginia Legislature."
However, understanding the lasting economic impact of pipeline construction on the state is a murky exercise. Currently, pipeline construction is boosting state tax revenues from the natural gas industry, according to Sean O’Leary, a senior policy analyst at the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy.
“We know these projects are going to start winding down in the next year, and when they do, that revenue is going to vanish,” he said.
A report co-published in February by the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy and the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis found economists have not seen sweeping economic benefits from the natural gas industry at large, despite its six-fold growth during the past decade.
For example, despite gains in median household income and educational attainment in natural gas rich areas, poverty rates in the top natural gas producing counties or even the state as a whole have not improved.
O’Leary said the same phenomenon could be true of these pipeline projects, especially as many of the construction jobs are held by workers who live out of state and who will likely leave once the pipelines are in the ground.
“Once the pipeline is constructed, once construction is over, it's a pipe and there's not a whole lot left behind,” he said.
According to Dominion, the ACP will require just a few dozen permanent full-time employees once construction is over.
Still, the company is confident some workers will be back on the job by the end of this year. Last year, the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals threw out two key permits issued to the ACP under the Endangered Species Act. In a statement, a spokesperson for the company said it expects a new set of permits by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to be issued by the end of the year.
While partial construction may resume if the USFWS permit issue is resolved, the court case that stopped construction in December — regarding the U.S. Forest Service’s decision to allow the Atlantic Coast Pipeline to cross under the Appalachian Trail — has not been resolved. Last month, Dominion asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case.