Photos of Insanity: Active Landslide Threatens Lives Along Route of Mountain Valley Pipeline

Jonathan Sokolow
5 min readAug 15, 2019


Photo courtesy of Allegheny-Blue Ridge Alliance: Pipeline Air Force

Don’t look away. Look closely.

This is a crime scene photo. And the criminal is hiding in plain view.

Last week, we learned that Mountain Valley Pipeline destroyed a steep mountain slope in West Virginia, causing a landslide that has made at least one home uninhabitable. The situation has been going on since at least April. And it is getting worse.

The revelation came in a variance request MVP filed with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on July 29. Ten days later, the situation had gotten much worse. On August 8, MVP sent a letter to FERC in which it admitted that for three months it had tried and failed to stop the land from moving. MVP requested “emergency authorization” to stabilize the landslide, because lives were in danger:

“The progression of the slide caused additional area outside the limits of disturbance to destabilize, uprooted numerous large trees, has the potential to impact an aquatic resource, and has progressed to the point where a residence directly downslope is unsafe to be occupied.”

Look at this photo; and this photo, which shows the landslide situated at a bend in the route of the proposed pipeline.

Who lives in that house?

Landslides happen, but this landslide is not a natural phenomenon. It is a wholly unnecessary man-made disaster. It was caused by MVP destroying that hillside to build a 303-mile pipeline project that is billions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule.

Earlier this week, on August 13, FERC granted MVP’s emergency request. In doing so, FERC confirmed that this landslide is still active:

“A recent field inspection by one of our compliance monitors confirms that portions of the slip are still moving and could compromise the residence. The slide must be stabilized before it causes damage or injury to the residence and aquatic resources located down slope of the slide.”

The steep slope shown in these photos happens to be in Wetzel County, West Virginia. But it is no different from many slopes along the route in Virginia that are as steep or steeper, like Poor Mountain or Bent Mountain. It is no different from the hillside on Yellow Finch Lane in Elliston, Virginia. That is the site of a tree sitting protest that has been going on for more than 340 days. The Yellow Finch occupation is an effort to prevent such disasters — and disasters much worse.

What could be worse?

In June 2018, TransCanada’s Leach Xpress Pipeline exploded in West Virginia at a place called Nixon Ridge. When that pipeline went into operation in January 2018, a TransCanada executive bragged that “this is truly a best in class pipeline.”

Five months later, it blew up. Here is a photo of that explosion.

Federal investigators concluded that a landslide caused the Nixon Ridge explosion:

“The preliminary investigation suggests that the failure was the result of land subsidence causing stress on a girth weld.”

Nixon Ridge was not the only trouble area on the Leach Xpress. In fact, the National Transportation Safety Board concluded the problem was more widespread:

“After evaluating the foregoing preliminary findings of fact and considering the location of the Failure Site on Nixon Ridge, the identification of six additional areas of concern based on the existence of large spoil piles, steep slopes, or indications of slips, the fact that subsidence or slippage could lead to additional failures of the pipeline in areas with similar geological conditions.”

It’s very simple. One year from now — or five years from now — this landslide could become this explosion.

Common sense would seem to dictate that emergency inspections be conducted on each steep slope in Virginia and West Virginia to make sure no similar emergencies are developing. Prudence would indicate that all work on the pipeline be stopped until those inspections are complete.

Yet in the days since this active “emergency” (MVP’s word) became public, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, whose job is to inspect and regulate this project, has said or done nothing.

Governor Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring have been silent.

In fact, most elected officials in Virginia seem to be ignoring this brewing disaster.

In other words, regulators refuse to regulate, and leaders refuse to lead.

We now have photos of this crime scene, but no thanks to government officials. We have photos thanks to ordinary citizens and an incredible effort known as the “Pipeline Air Force,” a project of the Allegheny-Blue Ridge Alliance.

Will Virginia DEQ and Attorney General Mark Herring wait until another landslide before it orders additional inspections? Or worse, will they allow this pipeline to be completed and then offer the usual “thoughts and prayers” when an explosion occurs?

All the evidence suggests that they are content to do nothing, which is exactly why citizens are taking matters into their own hands.

Last week, the Sierra Club filed a new lawsuit on behalf of a coalition of environmental organizations, alleging that the Fish and Wildlife Service violated federal law in granting MVP permission to destroy endangered species habitats. The lawsuit has the potential to stop the MVP before it does further damage. In July, the Fourth Circuit vacated permits for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline based on similar defects as those alleged in the new Mountain Valley Pipeline case.

A few months before the “best in class” Leach XPress exploded, Jerry Ashcroft, Senior Vice President of EQT, the major company behind the MVP was quoted as saying that “the project’s biggest obstacle will be the mountains themselves.” Ashcroft said the pipeline would be an “engineering marvel.”

As we noted last week, MVP stands accused of having violated Virginia laws and regulations more than 300 times. It has been fined for repeated violations in West Virginia and is subject to a partial stop work order in Virginia after Virginia DEQ Director David Paylor said he was “appalled” by violations of sediment and erosion control measures. And it is under criminal investigation by the United States Attorney’s Office in Roanoke.

MVP is a lawless company. In fact, it seems bound by only one law.

The Law of Gravity.

Virginia has the power to stop work now on the Mountain Valley Pipeline, to stop this misnamed “engineering marvel” before gravity does its work, before someone gets hurt.

As we said before, this is an emergency.

Just ask MVP.



Jonathan Sokolow

Attorney, writer and activist living in Northern Virginia