Augusta Too Vulnerable, Valuable For Pipeline

By Nancy Sorrells, News Leader

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline, championed by Dominion and Virginia’s governor, has been grabbing headlines lately. As one of the most significant proposed land-use issues in Augusta County’s history, it needs to be studied carefully from all angles.

Knee jerk simplistic reactions, whether anti-pipeline nimbyism or pro-pipeline comments such as “you like your electricity, don’t you?” have no place here. This is much bigger and more complicated.

The question here is: Are the resources of Augusta too valuable and vulnerable – to our citizens, our state, and our nation – to risk? If the answer is yes, then the next question is “If not here, where?”

Undoubtedly our region’s greatest natural resource is abundant good, clean water. Some places have unique natural resource wealth such as minerals or fisheries. We have water. No water flows into Augusta County. all flows out to Washington, Richmond, and the magnificent Chesapeake Bay. We are the headwaters of the James, Shenandoah and some of the Potomac River.

Water is a powerful resource. Few places in the world are blessed with what we have. Our agricultural production is second in the state because of water. Our area industries thrive because of that water, and our citizens turn on their tap without the worry that faces many communities across the nation.

Diagram illustrating karst topography.
Diagram illustrating karst topography.

Karst topography is the dominate landscape in Augusta. It is intertwined with our water. Underneath our soil, or sometimes jutting above it, is water-soluble limestone. Through eons, water dissolves its way through that rock creating caves, fissures, and sinkholes. Water flows through these underground mazes, and surfaces as springs, rivers, and, when we give it help, wells. Some of the water wandering around underneath our feet is hundreds and even thousands of years old. It is an incredible, fragile and changing resource.

Many parts of our nation are underlain by karst; however, all karst is not equal. State officials single out Augusta County as having one of the most challenging types of karst – called “long” karst – because of its tendency to suddenly subside (creating sinkholes) and to have especially large formations.

And, although we might not have previously known the word “karst,” we know what living in karst is like. We know that a neighbor’s leaking septic tank a mile away might contaminate your well or that a sinkhole could alter the flow from your spring, or blasting for roadwork might permanently muddy your well water.

Without good, clean water we can’t farm, raise families or invest in industry. We must be ever vigilant as individuals and as governments. That is why, in Augusta County, millions have been invested in protecting and cleaning our water. It is why farmers have voluntarily partnered with the government to institute best management practices, fence livestock out of streams, and create riparian buffers. They are protecting Augusta County’s future.

To insert a 42-inch, high pressure natural gas line through this karst is a risky [proposition]. Construction could permanently alter and damage myriad private and public water resources along the route. The potential contamination, sedimentation, and altering of recharge areas could be devastating. An October 31, 2014, study prepared for the Augusta County Service Authority summarized concerns:

Most of the water supplies in the county are obtained from sensitive karst aquifers that warrant the highest level of groundwater protection efforts to ensure a safe, reliable, and sustainable source of water for future generations. It is our professional opinion that all critical water resource areas serving the County, such as areas near ACSA Production Wells and Springs, designated groundwater recharge areas, wellhead protection areas, and future groundwater development zones, should be avoided when siting proposed gas transmission lines.

Dominion’s proposed route slices through sensitive karst supplying both Augusta and Staunton’s public and private home and farm water supplies drawing from wells and springs. Although the state’s known sinkholes are documented on Virginia’s government websites and thus could have easily been considered when considering a route, there are at least 32 existing sinkholes on the proposed route, jeopardizing the safety of our communities and the pipeline itself if it is built. New sinkholes routinely open up naturally in the county; construction causes them as well.

Although Dominion may claim that its pipeline engineers are able to safely deal with new sinkholes and dangling pipelines; analysis of this hazard by the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy and the Virginia Department of Emergency Management in its Commonwealth of Virginia Hazard Mitigation Plan (2013) specifically warns against pipelines in Augusta County’s karst: “… Pipeline infrastructure, underlain by karst terrain, can be damaged by a collapse in the supporting soil.”

VDMME adds that “A poor understanding of Karst terrain has led to land-use practices that pose significant economic and environmental impacts to households and communities. Sinkhole collapse, either slow or dramatic, regularly causes considerable damage to buildings, highways, rails, bridges, pipelines, storm drains, and sewers. In addition, sinkholes provide a pathway for surface water to directly enter groundwater aquifers, so the potential for pollution is high. . .”

Although Dominion’s pocketbook may survive horrendously expensive engineering and clean up, what about the increase in the risk hazard of explosion and toxic leaks that may not be fixable in karst?

Dominion could co-locate almost 100 percent of the pipeline on existing, developed rights-of-way, including its own high-voltage power lines, as well as interstate highways, railroads, and other gas lines. Currently almost none of the proposed route is co-located.

Undoubtedly, this is a complicated issue. What is clear, however, is that Augusta County is the wrong place. Only the future will tell if there is an appropriate place for this pipeline, but the impacts on people’s property rights, safety, vital natural resources, land values, and quality of life have to be considered ahead of Dominion’s bottom line.

Nancy Sorrells of Greenville is co-chair of the steering committee of the Augusta County Alliance, an activist group against the proposed route of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Her email address is lotswife@comcast.net.

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