ROANOKE — A federal agency is asking Mountain Valley Pipeline officials about the safety of a protective coating on the 42-inch diameter steel pipe being buried through West Virginia and Southwest Virginia.

Delays in construction of the natural gas pipeline have led to some sections of pipe being stored above ground for more than a year, generating concerns the coating could degrade over time and contaminate nearby air, soil and water.

In a letter Wednesday to Mountain Valley’s corporate attorney, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission requested “toxicological,” environmental and health information” on a coating used to prevent corrosion of the pipe.

Tina Smusz, a retired physician from Montgomery County, has been sounding the alarm on what she calls “serious unanswered questions” about the coating, 3M Scotchkote Fusion Bonded Epoxy 6233.

“The health and lives of citizens in Virginia and West Virginia, and those yet to be born, depend on your conscientious oversight of energy projects,” Smusz wrote in a Jan. 23 letter to FERC.

In March, State Health Commissioner Norman Oliver and Department of Environmental Quality director David Paylor wrote a joint letter to the commission, citing concerns from the public in requesting information about any hazards posed by the coating.

That in turn led FERC, the lead agency overseeing construction of the 303-mile pipeline, to ask Mountain Valley for a report on “the toxicity of the FBE [fusion-bonded epoxy] from all potential exposure pathways.”

Concerns about the coating are twofold: Exposure to the elements could cause the substance to break down in a process called “chalking,” releasing harmful toxins into the air. And once the pipe is buried, some say, the material could leach into nearby ground water and be spread to streams or wells.

Smusz has cited the product’s safety data sheet, which says the coating contains carcinogens.

But according to its maker, 3M Manufacturing Co., the coating is safe if applied properly and allowed to fully cure. Under those circumstances, “it is expected to resist degradation and have negligible water solubility under normal environmental conditions,” the company said in an email.

“We are not aware of any evidence to suggest that chalking is harmful to human health,” the email stated.

Chalking occurs when the coating is exposed to the sun for extended periods, the company said. Polymer products released in the process are “in low quantities and have low water solubility and therefore not thought to enter the environment in amounts capable of producing an adverse human health effect,” it said.

Natalie Cox, a spokeswoman for Mountain Valley, said fusion-bonded epoxy coatings have been used since the 1960s for a variety of purposes, including to line the interior of pipes in public drinking water systems to guard against corrosion.

The coating has been studied extensively, she wrote in an email, “and MVP is unaware of any evidence supporting claims of risk to human health or the environment.”

Cox said it is normal for the coating to change over time from a shiny green to a chalk-like whitish-green color.

A representative of the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration has said that its inspections found that Mountain Valley “followed recommended storage procedures and found no evidence of degradation of the pipeline’s protective coating.”

But questions raised by FERC and pipeline opponents come as legal challenges continue to delay work on Mountain Valley and a similar project to the east, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

William Limpert, a retired environmental regulator from Bath County, has raised concerns similar to Smusz’s about Atlantic Coast’s use of the same kind of coating. Last week, FERC requested information from the developers of that pipeline, which include Richmond-based Dominion Energy.

Mountain Valley was given 20 days from Wednesday’s letter to respond.

Smusz said she hopes regulators will not just rely on what the companies say. “Why would FERC trust information provided by MVP and Dominion — companies which have billions of dollars to lose if it is proven that this coating leaches toxins into our environment?” she said.

Questions about the pipeline coating are just one of many challenges made by critics since plans for the projects were announced five years ago.

Opponents have asked regulatory agencies to stop work on Mountain Valley, which, according to a lawsuit by DEQ and the State Water Control Board, has violated regulations meant to curb erosion and sedimentation more than 300 times.

The $5 billion project also has lost two sets of key permits — one to cross more than 1,000 streams and wetlands and the other to pass through the Jefferson National Forest — after legal challenges filed by environmental groups.

Work began in February 2018, and Mountain Valley officials say they expect to regain the suspended permits in time to complete the pipeline by the middle of next year.

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