News | June 7, 2024

Pipelines pose a threat to Southern communities

Protest signage in Nelson County, Virginia showing the blast zone of a methane gas pipeline. (Amy Jackson)

More than thirty years later, Richard Honeycutt can remember the earth rumbling beneath his feet.  

“The ground was just shaking when I got out of my truck,” he said.  

On March 16, 1992, a pipeline carrying “natural gas”—which is mostly made up of methane—exploded in Dickson County, Tennessee, destroying homes and burning hundreds of acres of farmland.  

Honeycutt was a firefighter who responded to the scene moments after the blast.  

“There were flames 50, 60, 70 feet in the air. We saw houses on fire that were near the explosion area, but we couldn’t get close enough to help,” Honeycutt said.

I felt helpless, because we couldn’t do anything. All we could do is stand there and wait for the gas to be turned off.

Richard Honeycutt, Tennessee firefighter

When he and other first responders were finally able to get close to the pipeline, they saw the tremendous amount of damage.  

Longtime first responder and firefighter Richard Honeycutt in Middle Tennessee. (Eric Hilt/SELC)

“There were houses already burned all the way on the ground. The road itself had the tar burned out of it, it was white where the flames had hit it,” Honeycutt remembered. “The hole that the explosion made was probably about four feet deep and I’m going to guess maybe 75-foot across. That’s how large it was.” 

“It’s the worst thing I ever saw in 35 years,” he said, referencing his three-decade career as a firefighter in Middle Tennessee.  

Those memories are why Richard—and many of his neighbors—were immediately concerned when they heard about a new proposed pipeline project cutting through their community.

Communities push back on pipeline plans 

In 2022, the Tennessee Valley Authority announced plans for the Cumberland Pipeline. The 32-mile pipeline would carry methane to TVA’s proposed Cumberland Gas Plant and would cut through Dickson County, near areas that were scorched by the pipeline explosion thirty years ago.  

“This pipeline is going to be less than a mile from my house,” Richard said. “Some of my best friends live on properties that the pipeline is going to cross.” 

SELC is currently challenging the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s approval of the Cumberland Pipeline, challenging the pipeline company’s state water permit, and is suing TVA over the planned Cumberland gas plant on behalf of Appalachian Voices and the Sierra Club.   

The Cumberland Pipeline is a part of TVA’s giant proposed gas expansion, which includes eight new gas plants and more than 160 miles of new or expanded pipelines throughout East and Middle Tennessee. Communities across the state are pushing back on these pipeline plans. In Cheatham County, where TVA is planning to build a new methane gas plant and pipeline, local leaders have passed resolutions calling on the federal utility to scrap the proposal.  

But TVA isn’t the only utility planning to build risky pipeline infrastructure.  

A “spiderweb” of Southern pipelines 

Resistance to the Mountain Valley Pipeline has been ongoing for years. (@Phuong Tran)

Right now, utilities in the South are proposing to add 33,000 megawatts of new gas-fired power plants. Many of these new plants will need new or expanded pipeline capacity to fuel them.  

“It’s almost like a spiderweb, with these pipelines branching out even farther and covering more ground and endangering more people,” Honeycutt said.  

Williams Company recently announced that it will seek approval to expand the Transcontinental Pipeline, the largest gas pipeline in the South, and the controversial Mountain Valley Pipeline plans to increase its delivery capacity by 50 percent. 

“Frankly, it’s pretty straightforward: more gas-fired power plants in the South means more gas pipelines and more communities in harm’s way,” said Senior Attorney Greg Buppert, who leads SELC’s regional gas team. “Methane explodes, and a gas pipeline always carries the risk of catastrophe. This is just one of a dozen compelling reasons that the gas expansion plans from TVA, Duke Energy, and other southern utilities are a historic mistake.”  

Hazardous pipeline pollution puts people at risk 

But not all pipeline dangers come with a massive fireball.  

Pipelines leak dangerous pollutants like benzene, which can cause anemia and immune system diseases, and climate-warming methane. Compressor stations, which push the gas through the pipeline, can release cancer-causing pollutants.  

The toxic dangers don’t end when the pipelines reach the gas plant. When methane is burned at power plants it not only pumps out huge amounts of climate-warming carbon dioxide, but it also releases dangerous volatile organic compounds like formaldehyde that can cause cancer and respiratory problems in nearby communities.  

Methane is just another dirty fossil fuel that pollutes communities and heats up the planet

Greg Buppert, SELC Senior Attorney

“Dozens of new gas plants in the South mean more dangerous air pollution, especially for communities of color and low wealth communities already suffering from serious pollution problems that go back decades. Methane is just another dirty fossil fuel that pollutes communities and heats up the planet,” Buppert said.  

A recent study showed that gas infrastructure leaks much more pollution than previously thought, and that’s when everything works right. The problems are even more obvious when things go wrong. This month, the trouble-plagued Mountain Valley Pipeline ruptured during a test in Bent Mountain, Virginia, highlighting long-standing concerns about the risks of leaks and explosions from the long opposed pipeline.   

“The Mountain Valley Pipeline snakes through hundreds of miles of steep and landslide-prone mountains in West Virginia and Virginia, creating an ever-present risk of explosions for folks living nearby. It’s arrogant to think the pipeline company can control all the variables, and real communities are on the line,” SELC Senior Attorney Spencer Gall said.  

The risk associated with the Mountain Valley Pipeline is one of the many reasons local communities and groups like Preserve Bent Mountain have opposed the dangerous and costly project for years.  

A safer path forward 

Instead of spending billions of dollars on dangerous fossil-fuel infrastructure, Southern utilities should invest in clean energy solutions. Clean energy sources—like solar power, wind power, and battery storage—are proven to provide reliable power without high-risk pipelines.  

Renewables are not only safer than methane gas, but they are also more cost-effective. Now, with the historic clean energy incentives passed by recent federal legislation, these technologies are more affordable than ever.