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Frustration Rising in Virginia Run

Public meeting set for March 2 to address Transco/Williams pipeline expansion.

A growing sense of injustice is rising as the debate continues over whether an above-ground natural gas pipeline facility will be approved for construction in the heart of Virginia Run.

RESIDENTS ARE exasperated, feeling that their questions and concerns regarding safety and security have been left unanswered by Transco/Williams, the pipeline company. Yet Transco/Williams maintains that it has addressed all concerns and have worked in good faith with Virginia Run since the early stages of this project.

Whatever the case may be, one thing is certain — if Transco/Williams agrees to place its facility in one of four other locations, residents will gladly throw away their protest signs and go home. But time is running out.

For this reason there will be a public meeting this Friday, March 2 at 7 p.m. in the Virginia Run community center. Several hundred residents are expected to attend, and anyone is welcome. The meeting is being held by the Federal Energy Regulatory Committee (FERC) at the request of U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-10th), since FERC must approve all aspects of the project, including its location. Residents will have the opportunity to give five-minute oral testimonies, and FERC has assured Virginia Run that any comments received at Friday’s meeting will be part of the decision process. Representatives from Transco/Williams will also attend.

Amy Millman, a resident of Virginia Run for the past 13 years, plans on attending the meeting. “This is not a NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) project,” she says. “We are concerned about resident safety. When the average person goes outside and looks at the proposed location, which is in the middle of a high-density neighborhood under high voltage power lines — it’s just not logical.”

Many residents share similar concerns. In addition to location, the proposed increase in the size of the pipeline from 30 to 42 inches makes residents nervous. Some residents question whether an emergency evacuation plan even exists and whether local emergency personnel have the equipment needed to handle such an event. After an accident in Chantilly in 2005 where a pipeline was struck by a contractor resulting in the evacuation of 850 school children, residents believe they have the right to be worried.

THE PRESIDENT of the Virginia Run Homeowner’s Association, Tom Martin, says, “If they choose to use a 42-inch pipeline, they should put it in the safest location — away from a heavily populated area accessible only by a long, serpentine dead-end road.”

However, Christopher Stockton, a Transco/Williams representative, says added facilities do not lessen the safety of the existing facilities in the area. “These facilities allow us to keep our pipelines operating safely,” he says. As for the incident in 2005, Stockton said that while the incident was unfortunate, no one was hurt. “In our more than 50 years of operations, the Transco pipeline has never caused a public injury.” He also mentions that changing from a 30- to 42-inch pipe “is a very normal design practice and does not pose any safety hazard.”

To verify Transco/Williams’ claims, Virginia Run hired Jeff Holloway, an experienced gas pipeline engineer who specializes in pipeline expansion projects. As an independent third party, he inspected the proposed location and disagreed with Transco/Williams claims regarding safety and location.

Holloway concluded that Transco/Williams should avoid building its facility in the heart of Virginia Run. Instead, they should build it closer to Route 29, which would provide a direct access point both for Transco/Williams and emergency personnel. “In my opinion, these safety considerations necessitate the placement of the facilities in a less-densely populated location,” said Holloway.

As for what the general public should know about the situation, Martin says that people should see this is a case of what he calls “regulatory capture.” In other words, Martin believes that this is a case of an agency more concerned with the commercial desires of the oil and gas industry than security and safety of a community.

“We are simply asking for a reasonable accommodation,” says Martin. Virginia Run is not opposed to Transco/Williams expanding its ability to transport more gas. Nor are residents asking to move the facility to another community.

“THEY DO have alternative sites,” says Millman. “The alternative is still in an easement but there are no houses near by.”

Stockton of Transco/Williams says that alternatives have been considered and the current site was chosen for environmental and economic reasons. Stockton would like the public to realize that the proposal is still being reviewed by FERC and that residents do have the right to communicate their concerns. “If the Commission believes that the location we have identified is not the best location for these facilities,” says Stockton, “then that will be communicated to us as a condition of approval.”

As for Friday’s meeting, Stockton believes it is a homeowners’ right to speak out. “This way their comments can be fairly evaluated before the Commission issues a final certificate.”

But Martin, the president of the Virginia Run HOA, is not surprised by Stockton’s comments. “Since Transco is confident that FERC will not require them to make any material modification, regardless of safety and security risks, Transco has no need to do so,” Marin says.

When asked to sum up the situation, one resident said, “It’s like David and Goliath.”