Sept. 29–NORFOLK — City leaders say there was a lot they didn’t know about a new high-pressure pipeline being built by Virginia Natural Gas — including its possible dangers — until concerns were raised by a Berkley shipyard.
Colonna’s Shipyard held a news conference Friday to question the safety of the Southside Connector Distribution Pipeline Project — a 9-mile stretch of 24-inch pipe that will link the region’s two existing supply lines and run beneath the shipyard.
Colonna’s says VNG has downplayed the scope of the pipeline and its risks to the shipyard as well as to residents along its path.
VNG says none of that is true and accuses the shipyard of “disparaging” the utility’s reputation by “making baseless and defamatory claims that the pipeline is not safe,” according to a VNG letter written to Colonna’s.
Until now, Norfolk has given VNG the go-ahead. After the Colonna’s news conference, however, Mayor Kenny Alexander said he wants more specifics about the nature of high-pressure lines, including the size of what he called their “blast zones.”
“None of that was discussed” in November when the council authorized VNG’s use of city rights of ways, Alexander said.
But city staffer Freda Burns, Norfolk’s right-of-way manager, said she’s been aware of the scope of the project since at least 2016, sees no safety concerns and says city leaders were given the same level of information they usually get with projects like this.
For the City Council, she said, “it is not normal to have those discussions” at such a level of detail.
VNG says the connector line will create a much-needed loop, enabling the company to more easily move gas across the region and eventually tap into a spur of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline that’s headed for Hampton Roads.
Most of the connector line has already been laid, largely along electric and city rights of way running through Norfolk and Chesapeake. In other spots, the utility purchased easements from property owners or won them through eminent domain cases in court.
Only one physical obstacle remains: the Elizabeth River.
VNG plans to begin drilling near Harbor Park, go beneath the river bed and surface on the other side in Berkley. The route requires a 30-foot-wide easement from Colonna’s. On Sept 18, a Norfolk judge granted VNG access to the property.
The shipyard’s 89-year-old owner, Bill Colonna, says he was willing to cooperate until he learned that, despite its name, the Southside Connector Distribution Pipeline will be operating at higher pressures than industry standards for a “distribution” line.
According to the Natural Gas Supply Association, distribution lines are typically pressurized at less than 200 pounds per square inch.
Transmission lines, designed to move higher volumes of gas, typically operate between 200 and 1,500 pounds per square inch.
VNG says the connector — built for 1,250 PSI — will operate between 500 and 1,000 PSI.
A line like that, Colonna said, does not belong anywhere near a shipyard where welding sparks fly and engines run hot.
“If you had a leak, a pinhole or anything, and the gas escaped, you’d have a problem,” he said. “It would be like an atomic bomb going off.”
The shipyard is also worried about spooking its biggest customer. Colonna’s president and CEO Tom Godfrey said two-thirds of the yard’s business comes from the Navy or other military branches. He’s fearful that the Navy might consider the pipeline a risk to its ships and avoid his yard.
Though rare, natural gas accidents do happen. A series of explosions along a suburban gas line near Boston earlier this month is still being investigated. One person was killed, 25 were injured, thousands were evacuated and dozens of homes were destroyed.
High-pressure transmission lines are more prone to major incidents, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. According to a 2015 report, the lines account for an average of two fatalities, nine injuries and $65 million in property damage annually.
VNG says it has engineered the Southside Connector above federal requirements, operates 200 miles of “this exact type of pipeline” across its system and has had dozens of state safety inspections on the project already.
Larry Skyles, president of Berkley’sBeacon Light Civic League, attended Colonna’s news conference. Late last year, Skyles said, VNG officials spoke to his group and told them the pipeline was “one of the safest things they’re going to do.”
At that point, the group thought construction would be the neighborhood’s biggest headache. Skyles said VNG never mentioned the fact that the line would be high-pressure.
“We feel, now, betrayed,” he said after hearing Colonna’s allegations.
Mayor Alexander said that if Colonna’s is correct, “I do not know and did not know all I should have.”
He said he’s frustrated that he wasn’t told more by city staff. “If you know these things are potential and real,” he said, “why didn’t you bring this to our attention?”
On Friday, Councilwoman Andrea McClellan said she has asked Alexander to consider bringing in an independent expert to study the potential issues.
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