by Jon Sokolow
Mountain Valley Pipeline is working at breakneck speed to finish its destructive path through the mountains of West Virginia and Virginia.
Never mind that the courts have thrown out multiple federal permits that normally are required before pipeline projects are allowed to proceed.
Never mind that Mountain Valley is billions of dollars over budget, years behind schedule and unable to ever go in service because a federal court ruling blocks it from crossing the Appalachian Trail.
Never mind that the company is under criminal investigation by the United States Attorney’s office in Roanoke for violations of the Clean Water Act and other federal laws.
Never mind that the Commonwealth of Virginia has sued Mountain Valley for more than 300 violations of Virginia state water laws and regulations.
And never mind that the company is working on steep dangerous slopes, flipping equipment over and sending debris snowballing down a mountain, almost killing bystanders in its path.
We knew Mountain Valley Pipeline would always put profit ahead of people.
We knew it the day they hired the contractor to build this corporate boondoggle, a Wisconsin based company called Precision Pipeline that was investigated for environmental violations on previous pipelines it had built.
We knew that Precision Pipeline’s track record was so bad that it was sued by Dominion Energy – yes, that Dominion Energy – for causing 50 landslides on a 55 mile pipeline it built for Dominion.
Precision Pipeline clearly does not care about the environment or the rights of people whose land they are desecrating.
And, as it turns out, they don’t even care about their own workers.
In fact, Precision Pipeline has left a trail of mayhem in its path. Mayhem to its own workers.
In 2007, 67 year old Pat McCaffrey was working on a steep hill building the Millennium Pipeline in New York. He was crushed to death when a side boom he was operating “rolled down a steep hill, then ejected and crushed him.”
McCaffrey “was almost two miles deep into woods when the accident occurred… Police and rescue crews took two hours to reach the victim in all-terrain vehicles. He was pronounced dead at the scene.” A Millennium Pipeline spokesman told the New York Times, “this is a terrible tragedy.”
In 2010, 61 year old Charles Kuhn from Ohio was working on the Ruby Pipeline project in Nevada. According to press reports, “Kuhn was working on a section of pipe that was next to the trench when it started to roll. Kuhn was knocked into the trench, and the pipe fell in on top of him. He died by the time people could reach him.”
Kuhn’s death was one of a “string of accidents” on the Ruby Pipeline project:
“On Tuesday, an Ohio man approaching retirement age lost his life when one of the massive pipe sections slipped and he was crushed in a trench. A week earlier, a worker attempting to stop a piece of machinery from rolling down an embankment suffered a broken leg. In October, nine people were injured — two critically — when a pipe-bearing truck barreled into a construction site north of Deeth.”
As the local paper pointed out, the pipeline company was “racing against the clock” to finish the Ruby Pipeline. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined the company $28,000 for Kuhn’s death.
Kuhn was an employee of Precision Pipeline.
“At approximately 11:30 a.m. on February 18, 2011, Employee #1 (Side boom operator), working for Precision Pipeline, LLC., was driving his piece of equipment over a small hill and the Side boom started to drift to the left side (north) of the ROW (Right of Way). Employee # 1 turned the Side boom directly into the steep embankment after realizing that the boom was increasing in speed. The Side boom traveled approximately 200 yards before coming to a stop and rolled over onto the counter weight side of the equipment. Employee #1 was trapped between the boom and the tracks on the Side boom.”
The unnamed Precision employee was crushed. According to OSHA, he “suffered unspecified injuries.”
In 2012 Robert Leon McDanell of Louisiana was killed on a pipeline project in West Virginia. McDanell “attempted to place a large section of pipe into a prepared trench” but “the pipe being on the wrong side of the trench…McDanell and another employee had to use excavators to pick up and transport the pipe.”
McDanell and the other worker tried to rotate the “unsecured, 128-foot-long load with slings attached” and the “7,000-pound pipe crashed through the window of his heavy loader,” The pipe “came back through the cab window, impaling McDannell.”
McDanell was an employee of Precision Pipeline.
In 2016, Leonardo DeJesus, a truck driver from South Carolina, was delivering 16 foot long rolls of straw matting for a pipeline project in West Virginia. According to the complaint DeJesus later filed in federal court in West Virginia:
“While attempting to off-load the heavy matting, defendant Precision’s forklift operator carelessly, recklessly and negligently knocked a 25 roll pallet off of the top of the trailer. The pallet, weighing approximately 2,500 pounds, fell from an elevated position and violently smashed into plaintiff.”
[DeJesus] “was crushed and pinned underneath the massive weight of the pallet causing serious injuries, including but not limited to, traumatic brain injury with resulting depression, compression fracture at T12/L1, broken right thumb, permanent wrist injury, right shoulder/rotator cuff injury, hematoma, fractured teeth, abdominal injury, hernia, cervical disc herniation, nerve damage, and knee and ankle pain. Plaintiff was life-flighted from the scene.”
In 2018, Roy Benny Sanders, Jr. from Texas was working on a pipeline project in West Virginia. Sanders was driving a utility vehicle known as a “side by side” on a hill on the worksite “when the ground gave way and Sanders Jr. fell off of the side of hill.” Sanders “was ejected from his vehicle and died as a result.”
The pipeline project on which Sanders was killed was operated by Precision Pipeline.
In 2018, two workers were operating a piece of equipment used to clean the inside of pipes on the Mariner East 2 pipeline project near Pittsburgh. The workers, one man and one woman, were injured while operating the equipment, known as a pig. The woman was treated and released. The man suffered a broken arm and other injuries.
Both workers were employees of Precision Pipeline.
As one newspaper noted, “the pipeline has a troubled history:”
“The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection suspended construction on the Mariner East for 30 days last year because of repeated permit violations, including dozens of drilling mud spills, and fined its developer $12.6 million.”
In 2018, 27 year old Nicholas Janesich was working on the Dakota Access Pipeline project in North Dakota. Janesich was operating a machine called a Ripper, “a piece of farming equipment…used to restore the ground above where the pipeline has been laid so that grass can take root and grow there.”
As a newspaper report noted:
“The machine tears through the earth using scythe like metal shanks attached to a horizontal frame via large coiled springs. The springs allow the shanks to rebound, so they don’t get stuck on rocks or rough soil. As pipeline jobs go, this is considered one of the least risky. Known as reclamation and restoration, it is the final phase of construction, in which the earth above the pipeline is tilled and reseeded.”
Unfortunately for Janesich, his work was anything but safe on that day:
“At some point along the way, the Ripper struck a large rock, locking a spring-loaded shank in the air, OSHA reports. Janesich got out, and set to work trying to fix it. He appears to have tried using a jack stand as a makeshift pry bar, jamming the long steel rod into the spring above his head. The spring did recompress, according to Indianhead’s incident report, sending the shank back down into position, but with such extreme speed and force that the pry bar was launched directly into the top of Janesich’s head.”
Janesich died less than 24 hours later.
OSHA held Precision Pipeline responsible for Janesich’s death:
“OSHA found that Indianhead had borrowed the Ripper from Precision, and that the machine had been altered, yet…Precision had failed to alert anyone on the job site to the change. Upon reviewing the case, the Landoll manufacturer reported to OSHA that the alteration (which involved the removal of two shanks) was the likely cause of the locked spring.”
With this record, you would think that the Commonwealth of Virginia would do something to protect Precision Pipeline workers from their company’s own greed and carelessness.
You would think that Governor Ralph Northam, a doctor, would show some concern for the slow moving train wreck that is the Mountain Valley Pipeline.
You would think that Attorney General Mark Herring would utilize state statutes that provide for a stop work order when the environment – and people’s lives – are threatened.
In fact, it appears that state authorities are simply waiting until someone gets killed or seriously injured, at which time they will cue the “thoughts and prayers” politicians usually invoke when they fail to take effective action.
Which is why people are taking matters into their own hands.
As tree sits in southwest Virginia approach one year of continuous resistance to Mountain Valley Pipeline, affected landowners and concerned citizens from across Virginia and West Virginia are preparing to converge this weekend on Yellow Finch Lane in Elliston, Virginia, the sight of the tree sits. Swarm the Mountain: A Weekend of Action for Yellow Finch is an opportunity for all of us who care about the environment, climate change and worker safety to stand up and be heard.
When the people lead, the leaders will follow.