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A Pipeline's Higher Profile Raises Worry

Dominion owns this pig receiver, which handles pipeline inspection gauges, in Virginia Run. Transco plans to build two others that would be larger.
Dominion owns this pig receiver, which handles pipeline inspection gauges, in Virginia Run. Transco plans to build two others that would be larger. (By C. Woodrow Irvin -- The Washington Post)
By C. Woodrow Irvin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 1, 2007

For nearly 20 years, homeowners in the Virginia Run subdivision, just west of Centreville, have lived peacefully, aware that natural gas pipelines lie buried in the utility easements that intersect in the neighborhood. Residents say the clear-cut swaths of land have made convenient places for family recreation, jogging and dog walking.

But a few years ago, the two utility companies that own the pipelines began installing aboveground valves on the easements. And last year, Dominion installed a type of large aboveground pipe called a pig receiver on the easement the company controls.

Within the past six months, residents came to understand that Transcontinental Gas Pipe Line Corp. (Transco) was planning to install two similar, even larger, structures, with a barbed-wire-topped fence to enclose them.

The peace in the planned community of 1,405 houses faded.

The pipes would lie just a few feet from the property lines of some Virginia Run residents who, backed by their community association, have vocally opposed the location.

"It's going to have a major impact on property values, not just my own, but the community as a whole," said Philip A. Cookson, whose property on Woodmere Place would be closest. "As a potential buyer, if I was going to be looking at this house, and likewise, even in the direct vicinity, I would certainly go and look elsewhere."

The Dominion pig receiver is immediately behind Cookson's house, and the two new structures would be built adjacent to the current receiver. They are designed to launch and receive devices known as pigs -- pipeline inspection gauges -- that travel through pipes. The planned structures would include a pig launcher and a receiver consisting of a 48-inch-diameter pipe, a 36-inch-diameter pipe and an assortment of valves, all inside a fenced area 175 feet long. The installation would be part of a pipeline expansion to connect Transco's pipeline with Dominion's.

Cookson and his neighbors contend that Transco initially hid its intention to add aboveground facilities and has done little to find a way to ameliorate concerns about the impact to property values and safety. The homeowners also said they have insufficient information to help them prepare a response before the Feb. 16 deadline to comment on an environmental assessment.

"We were first aware of [the project] over a year and a half ago," said Virginia Run Community Association President Thomas R. Martin. "We thought it was underground." The initial notification from Transco did not specify that there was to be an aboveground component to the project, Martin said.

But when representatives of the association began a series of meetings with Transco officials in June, they realized the company intended to install the aboveground pipes. "They clearly did not tell the full story to the homeowners," Martin said.

Christopher L. Stockton, a spokesman for Transco, said that it is not the company's practice to send detailed plans to individual homeowners unless there is a "direct impact" on their property. In this case, the facility would be built on Virginia Run common property, so Transco provided more detailed plans to the community association's board of directors. "We would hope that information was being filtered down to the individual homeowners," Stockton said.

Transco, Stockton said, recently offered to alter the plan by reducing the size of the enclosure, changing the type of fencing and offering some landscaping because it is sensitive to concerns of neighbors. Cookson acknowledged the offer to reduce the fenced area but said, "They may see it as a compromise of some sort, but we don't."

Cookson said he and his neighbors would prefer that Transco bury the pipes or move them away from their homes and out of direct view. The company has rejected these suggestions as impractical.

Virginia Run residents also said that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which must approve the project, has not provided them enough information to challenge Transco or to persuade the company to cooperate with the community.

Commission spokeswoman Tamara Young-Allen said that the relevant information is available online: "Our rules of procedure say you can appeal an action by the commission." If the commission approves Transco's plan and if Cookson or others who have filed to intervene are dissatisfied, they may appeal, Young-Allen said.

Virginia Run residents also voiced concerns about potential leaks from the pipes and cited reports from Washington Gas Light -- dismissed by the energy commission -- that the particular form of gas traveling through the pipelines was more likely to leak because it caused rubber seals to shrink.

The community association is also pursuing other avenues. Last month, Martin wrote a letter to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff expressing concern that the facilities would be a potential target for sabotage or terrorism.

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