Residents of affected counties worry the construction will wreak havoc on the environment and their properties. Some feel the compensations for land easements are unfair, but lack the power to challenge the company.
Beginning in 2015, Mountain Valley Pipeline, LLC approached landowners in southwest Virginia and West Virginia to negotiate easement agreements that would allow the natural gas pipeline to run through their land. In an echo of the offers previous Appalachian landowners received from early coal entrepreneurs for the minerals beneath their feet, some are saying these agreements were not fully transparent.
When speculators and early corporations first came to the hollers of Central Appalachia’s coal country in the late 1800s, they wanted to buy landowners’ mineral rights—not the rights to their farmland, but to the coal underneath.
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Knowing that these landowners were subsistence farmers who had little money and were not fluent in legal language or the going price of coal, the land agents offered to buy mineral rights for as little as fifty cents an acre. Or, as West Virginian community organizer Maury Johnson put it, for “a little bit of nothing and a Christmas turkey.”
While farmers were assured that the agents were only buying the coal beneath their feet, they were often unaware that the broadform deeds they signed typically allowed coal companies to use any method necessary to extract the rock. In Kentucky, up until a 1988 constitutional amendment, state courts maintained that the deeds signed in the late 1800s and early 1900s allowed for modern, large-scale strip mining without coal operators being responsible for damage to the surface.
For residents of rural West Virginia and southwest Virginia, the land agents have returned, seeking the right to lay pipe for the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) through backyards and farmland. MVP LLC, the pipeline’s owner, commonly touts that the pipeline is now 94% complete, though this figure may be misleading to the naked eye. The percentage refers to the amount of pipe laid rather than the full completion of the project including safe restoration of the land on top of the pipe, which the latest publicly available figure puts at 55.8%.
When representatives from MVP first approached landowners in 2014, they were seeking “right-of-way” easement agreements that would allow the pipeline to go through private property without requiring purchase of the land itself. Maury Johnson of Monroe County, West Virginia was one such landowner.
Johnson, a former eighth grade history teacher and disabled farmer whose land has been in his family for almost 200 years, was first approached by MVP in late 2014. An analyst sent by the company asked to survey his farm, and Johnson agreed—with the stipulation that he accompany the surveyors. At the time, he “wasn’t sure” how he felt about the pipeline, though he says most of his neighbors were against it. He became suspicious that corners were being cut after the second visit from surveyors.
“They’re going to lie to you and wait to see if you call their bluff,” Johnson said during an interview outside of the Supreme Court, where he was attending a rally for the Poor People’s Campaign, an anti-poverty group. “A lot of people didn’t call their bluff because they didn’t know better,” Johnson said. “And there were some pretty awful easement agreements that people signed that basically gave their farm [away].”
Johnson claimed that when he followed the surveyors around, he watched them omit the existence of springs or dangerous karst formations on his property in their reports, and said the surveyors would only note the geographic obstacles when he drew attention to them.
Monroe County is classified as a karst region, and there are multiple karst caves within five miles of the pipeline route, though only about three percent of the MVP pipe laid in Monroe is the thicker “Class 2” pipe. which the company requires in karst areas.
Johnson was concerned by this in part because MVP provided survey data to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) for reports such as its Final Environmental Impact Statement. FERC is an independent agency under the Department of Energy that is responsible for reviewing interstate natural gas pipeline proposals. The United States House Oversight Committee found that FERC has approved 99% of pipelines proposed in the past 20 years. “They could have said the Mississippi River didn’t exist,” Johnson said of the survey data collected by MVP and submitted to FERC. “Unless somebody called them on it, it doesn’t exist. They control the data.”
Johnson and Arietta DuPre, a former mental healthcare worker who also lives in Monroe County, both claim that their neighbors were offered easements that undervalue their land.
“A lot of people, they’ve never dealt with this. They don’t know what they’re doing. I didn’t know what I was doing. They [MVP representatives] say, ‘We’ll give you X amount of dollars, this is the best you’re going to get,’” Johnson said.
DuPre said she has heard similar stories of undervaluation, saying some of her neighbors took the deals, and “some of them fought to get what it was actually worth” in court.
In an email statement, MVP spokeswoman Natalie Cox wrote, “Every offer is above-market value, tailored to the specific circumstances of each parcel and landowner, and designed to represent fair compensation for access.” Johnson maintains that the initial offer he received for his right-of-way was a “low-ball” number that did not consider the impact of construction on his entire property.
The parallel between the days of coal and MVP’s right-of-way acquisition is not lost on Johnson. “In West Virginia it’s kind of a given fact that the gas companies and the coal companies can do anything they want to and all the politicians are in their pockets, and if you don’t agree with what they want to do you get harassed,” he said.
DuPre recounted an episode where she felt threatened by a pipeline employee who approached her in his vehicle while she was walking across her neighbor’s land. She said he told her she had to leave the property, and when she replied that she had permission from the landowners, she alleges that he patted a gun in the seat next to him. Cox wrote that MVP project employees have never been permitted to carry firearms on the job, calling the allegation “baseless and unsubstantiated.”
DuPre said she has attempted to bring her issues with MVP to the attention of her senator, Democrat Joseph Manchin III, but that the Senator’s office told her it would be wrong for him to intervene in matters between a citizen and MVP.
In October 2017, FERC conferred the power of eminent domain to MVP LLC, allowing them to condemn parts of landowners’ property if the landowners refused to sell right-of-way easements to the corporation. At this point, the choice for residents narrowed: either reach a settlement and allow the pipeline to pass through, wait for MVP to seek a condemnation of your property in court, or mount a lawsuit challenging FERC’s ability to give eminent domain powers to a corporation to begin with.
Johnson retained an eminent domain attorney who negotiated a higher price for his easement based on “real impacts to the property,” as he put it. This allowed him to avoid a protracted—and expensive—court battle with MVP. He was also able to stipulate, through his final contract, which crops or chemicals MVP must use to restore the land.
The aftermath of mineral rights sales has left a dark legacy in Appalachia, and landowners in the MVP’s right-of-way fear that the story will repeat itself. After strip, underground, and mountaintop removal mining occurred underneath and around properties during the coal boom, farmers experienced everything from falling boulders to coal waste seeping into their well water.
In 2021, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) funded the cleanup of $11.292 billion worth of former coal mines that were abandoned prior to 1977, when a law was enacted mandating the reclamation of coal mines after mining. This allocation will go towards fully cleaning up the Office of Surface Mining and Reclamation’s official $10 billion tally of abandoned mines nationwide.
However, a 2021 report from the Ohio River Valley Institute estimates that the cost of reclaiming mines is actually closer to $21 billion, meaning the IIJA may only cover about half of the true cost of cleaning up these pre-1977 mines.
As for the MVP, some residents have already seen their water turn brown with sediment, which they say seeps into their well aquifers as a result of nearby blasting for the pipeline. Cox stated that MVP offered to test landowners’ water before construction and that MVP may offer further tests after construction “where necessary.”
Johnson confirmed that MVP sent a letter to himself and his neighbors in Monroe County before construction offering to test water, but that he and many of his neighbors refused because “We don’t want the industry people [testing it] because nobody trusts them.” He added that his neighbors feared that MVP’s water testing would be a guise to “come after the water next.” He further said that landowners had asked FERC to conduct tests instead, but the agency maintained that MVP’s testing was sufficient.
The threat of landslides and explosions has also been top-of-mind for landowners. In 2018, a segment of the Leach XPress Pipeline exploded in Marshall County, West Virginia, leaving a crater behind. MVP’s route, like Leach XPress, goes up and down some of the steepest mountains in Appalachia. In response to a question about what MVP would do if ground subsidence occurred beneath the pipeline after it became operational, Cox wrote, “The circumstances of any specific issue would inform appropriate action to ensure the safety of the community, environment and property, including the pipeline itself.”
MVP has been unsuccessful in assuaging residents’ fears on this point. One Monroe County landowner, who requested to remain anonymous, said they attended a “scoping meeting” and pizza party hosted by MVP at the beginning of the pipeline process, where the company was presenting on the project and handing out “MVP” hats to residents. The landowner spoke to an MVP representative about explosion concerns, asking him how thick the material of the pipe would be. They recall him saying “‘out in the country where there’s less people, it’s thinner.’”
MVP’s Final Environmental Impact Statement as approved by FERC does mention that the pipe used is thicker in areas with higher population density, with “Class 1” pipe being the thinnest and “Class 3” being the thickest. Eighty nine percent of MVP’s total mileage—and 93% of the mileage specifically in West Virginia—will be composed of Class 1 pipe. In the case of the MVP, the “Potential Impact Radius” — the “blast zone” around a natural gas pipeline accident where a person would be killed or seriously injured — is 1,115 feet.
Paula, a 72-year-old videographer, said she and her husband would move if the pipeline became operational. “The thought of living under something that might blow up on you,” she said, trailing off. “I mean, I’m going to die sometime, but I don’t want to die that way.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story did not show the correct location of proposed compressor stations in the pipeline map.