A protective coating applied to the massive pipeline under construction in Virginia and West Virginia poses no known harms, developers of the Mountain Valley Pipeline have told federal regulators.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission asked for information on the coating July 10, following concerns from some critics that prolonged exposure to the elements could cause toxins to degrade from the pipe and contaminate the surrounding air, soil and water.
“To Mountain Valley’s knowledge, there is no evidence that the use of epoxy coatings present a risk to human health, aquatic life, or other environmental receptors through any foreseeable exposure pathway,” Jeffrey Klinefelter, vice president for construction and engineering, wrote in a letter to FERC.
It was unclear what steps the lead agency overseeing construction of the 303-mile natural gas pipeline will take next.
“I can’t speculate on what the Commission may or may not do in the future,” FERC spokeswoman Tamara Young-Allen said.
FERC requested the information about possible risks from the coatings, used to protect the Mountain Valley and Atlantic Coast pipelines from corrosion, after receiving an inquiry from the Virginia Department of Health, which cited concerns from the public.
The Health Department “has jurisdiction over toxicity and other health issues,” Young-Allen wrote in an email. “FERC does not have similar jurisdiction at the federal level.”
Tina Smusz, a retired physician and assistant professor of medicine from Montgomery County, has warned that toxins could be released in two ways: into the air after the coating breaks down from sitting too long in the sun, and into groundwater after the 42-inch diameter pipe is buried.
Delays in construction caused by legal challenges to the controversial project have resulted in the pipe being stored above ground for longer than the manufacturer’s recommendation, Smusz and others have said, increasing the possible hazards.
Agencies should be doing more to investigate the risks, the Natural Resources Defense Council said.
In a letter to FERC on Tuesday, accompanied by nearly 250 pages of documents and reports, Klinefelter wrote that the coatings have been in use since at least the 1960s and have been studied extensively. Their primary purpose is to protect steel pipes from environmental exposure in construction projects, ships and drinking water systems.
“The accepted use of epoxy coatings in drinking water infrastructure is particularly relevant to this information request,” the letter stated.
While it’s true that safety data sheets for the coatings state they contain potentially dangerous chemicals, that applies to the powdered form of the material before it is applied to the pipe and allowed to cure away from the project site, Klinefelter wrote.
Some substances in 3M Scotchkote Fusion -Bonded Epoxy 6233, the coating used for about 95% of the pipeline, are identified as carcinogens. But that, Klinefelter said, is “based on chronic inhalation of the particles over long periods of time,” typically through occupational exposures unlike what pipeline workers experience.
Last year, Mountain Valley sent samples recovered from pipes in a storage yard in West Virginia to an accredited laboratory for testing. No harmful substances were detected, the company said.
As for concerns that prolonged exposure to sunlight could cause the coating to break down in a process called “chalking,” the letter stated that Mountain Valley is guarding against that by rotating the pipes while they are in storage. And tests of the coating showed that its thickness remained above the manufacturer’s recommendation.
Smusz said Wednesday that more evaluation by a third party is needed. “We have to have an independent investigation of this,” she said.
If FERC knew when it approved the pipeline in 2017 that the coatings were harmless, she said, “they wouldn’t be requesting documentation from both pipeline companies at this late date.”